Rizwaan Sabir's The Suspect: The enduring trauma of innocence

Rizwaan Sabir's The Suspect: The enduring trauma of innocence
9 min read
13 April, 2022
Book Club: An exposing account of the consequences of the War on Terror, Rizwaan Sabir's new book delves into the failings of policies and practices that have been used by Western counties, and the traumatic mental health effects of his experience
Through personal testimony, 'The Suspect' reveals in gripping detail the destructive cost of the 'War on Terror' for Muslims around the world [Pluto Press]

What I’m not going to do in this review of Rizwaan Sabir’s book The Suspect is go through the details of why he was arrested and released.

While it is not unimportant, as far as I’m concerned, it is the least important aspect of the difficulties he has been forced to endure.

Rizwaan, like thousands of Muslims in the UK, was arrested under terrorism legislation and released without charge. For the majority of British society, that is the end of the story – the police suspected someone and released that person, so the justice system worked in the way that it is supposed to.

Except, that really isn’t the story at all. The story is of how a system of violence haunted Rizwaan for decades after his arrest and interrogations. One that he found the courage to recount in a straightforward and eloquent recounting of his story.

Demonstrators wear the infamous orange prisoner's uniform as they demonstrate outside the Parliament asking for Guantanamo prison to be closed [Getty Images]
Demonstrators wear the infamous orange prisoner's uniform as they demonstrate outside the Parliament asking for Guantanamo prison to be closed [Getty Images]

What needs to be understood, is that in the litany of accounts of injustice within the global 'War on Terror', a sliding scale of injustice might indicate to us that Rizwaan’s experience does not equate to the torture of Muslim detainees by the CIA in Black Sites, or the way that Uyghur Muslims are being treated in concentration camps by the Chinese state.

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This book, perhaps more than any other, reminds us of how crucial it is that we avoid establishing a sliding scale. Rizwaan was not arrested alone, but alongside his colleague and friend Hicham Yezza who writes the foreword to the book. Hicham’s eloquent introduction to the book reminds us of how brave Rizwaan has been to put this story down:

"More than a decade after our wrongful arrests on that beautiful morning of May 2008, I still find it very difficult to think and talk about ‘the events’. There is both too much and too little to say. I have especially struggled to convey to others the extent to which such an event can have repercussions far beyond its immediate and obvious confines, to explain just how deep this sort of wound goes."

Being innocent for these men really meant very little once they were in the custody of the police. Rizwaan and Hicham were both patently aware that racialised policing in a system of laws that was constructed to find someone guilty, even if they were reading material as part of their doctoral studies, carried a different interpretation when they became suspects.

The association between Islam and terrorism had become so ubiquitous that despite knowing his own innocence, Rizwaan did not want to present himself as being associated with Islamic practices while he remained in police custody, even if it was the very thing he needed:

"When I was  in custody, I had wanted to do nothing more than pray salah. God is all I had in that moment of powerlessness and fear. But when the police offered me a prayer mat, I refused it. I did not want to do anything that would emphasise my Muslimness and perhaps risk the police interpreting my practice as something suspicious…”

Due to the way in which the law has been constructed, there are a number of ‘strict liability’ offences – which means that the burden of proof is reversed.

In normal criminal proceedings, you are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but Rizwaan was facing one of the laws where just by mere virtue of having a document in his possession, it meant that he would have to prove why otherwise risk being convicted of a terrorism offence.

As the Muslim is constructed as inherently dangerous within the system, rather than supporting their student, the University of Nottingham instead sought to evade any responsibility for Rizwaan by claiming that they could not verify the needed document as part of his research – an out and out lie.

Even Rizwaan’s lawyer wasn’t sure which way the investigation would proceed and began to provide advice on how he could fit into a prison environment if he was charged and not given bail.

Ultimately, Rizwaan was released without charge, but not without his entire world having been turned upside down by his arrest. After a successful legal challenge against the police for his unlawful arrest, Rizwaan won £20,000 in compensation from the police – a paltry sum of money considering the extent to which the arrest would remain with him, and not only have an impact on his psychology but his physiology as well.

This is where the real story begins, not with the arrest or the reasons for the arrest, but with trauma. As Hicham writes in his foreword:

“Trauma does not live on the surface of things, it branches deep to the very core of one’s being, and remains there for months, years, and decades; creeping up and triggering us when we least expect it.”

For years after his release from custody, the mere fact that he had once been arrested for a terrorism offence remained on Rizwaan’s profile. It resulted in him being routinely stopped in his car and being stopped under terrorism legislation at airports.

The wrongful arrest had placed him under increased surveillance and scrutiny by the fault of no one other than a racist system that could never trust that it was at fault, rather than the person under suspicion.

Perspectives

These moments had a cumulative effect, forcing Rizwaan’s mind and body back into the interrogation room on each occasion. When he was stopped at the Channel Tunnel in Folkstone under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the questions he was asked about his politics and religion were not confined to the moment he was in, but rather drew a straight line to the first interrogation in 2008.

This wasn’t just in his mind though, when Rizwaan finally managed to get hold of police documentation about his stops four years later, he found out that he was being specifically targeted due to his initial arrest.

An inside view of a former training centre of the Lithuanian State Security Department, the country's domestic intelligence agency, in Antavilis near Vilnius. - The two-storey complex in a forested suburb of Vilnius that human rights organisations say was a CIA "black site" used for torture during the 'War on Terror' [Getty Images]
An inside view of a former training centre of the Lithuanian State Security Department, the country's domestic intelligence agency, in Antavilis near Vilnius. Human rights organisations say that the two-storey complex in a forested suburb of Vilnius was a CIA "black site" used for torture during the 'War on Terror' [Getty Images]

These incidents of surveillance and exertion of power and control over Rizwaan’s life contributed to a downward spiral in his mental health, to the extent that extreme forms of paranoia began to manifest themselves.

Rizwaan became incapable of separating the reality of the stops from a sense that Mi5 and the police were after him in a more concerted way. He attempted to find refuge in his car, which became for him a sanctuary where he felt some degree of control. Rizwaan felt that as long as he was in his car, he would be able to outrun the machinations of the state:

“But I knew this approach of trying to outrun the security state was in vain, and my attempt to constantly stay mobile was not going to be sustainable in the long run. Under intense pressure, I started wondering whether I should just go and surrender to the police and MI5. I could them why they were spying on me and what they wanted. Maybe if I let them interrogate me, I wondered, they will call off all surveillance and just leave me alone. Anything, I told myself, would be better than this open-air prison I felt I was now living in, where my body was free but my mind felt like it had been placed into a vice that was being tightened by the police and MI5 with every passing minute. Strangely, the thought of being in a physical jail with its think metal doors and brick walls felt more appealing than this open-air prison that nobody was even willing to acknowledge existed.”

The problem for Rizwaan was that the services he needed within mental health departments of the NHS had now been co-opted into implementing the UK government’s Prevent strategy so that the Muslims who were struggling with their mental health were no longer simply seen as patients, but rather as potential future terrorists. Very much aware of this, Rizwaan’s fear of the system inhibited him from being able to receive the care that he so desperately needed.

While he was eventually able to overcome that period of decline in his mental health, it was by no means over. In 2018, on writing this very book, he had a severe relapse that left his family and friends worried about his ability to function normally again. I was a first-hand spectator of this particular relapse and I’ve never been so worried for anyone in my life as I was for him.

Ultimately, through a great deal of love, care and rest (and an unhealthy amount of Ertugrul), he was able to reach some degree of recovery. It needs to be said, however, that he still lives with the spectre of his 2008 arrest, every single day.

These moments do not simply leave, they remain with you and trigger you in ways that you did even know you could be triggered – and this is the enduring trauma of being found innocent of any wrongdoing.

Perspectives

There is resistance. Just the mere fact of this book’s existence is a testament to Rizwaan’s resistance to the violence he endured. The dogged freedom of information requests to understand how he was being criminalised by the police.

The refusal to succumb to the state and instead dedicate a life to understanding and educating others about state violence – all of this stands as a testament to Rizwaan’s courage as a survivor. That should never be ignored as we consider the harm he suffered.

Rizwaan was fortunate in some ways though. He had people around him who understood the violence of the system and also understood trauma. There are thousands of individuals out there that do not have recourse to such support networks, and the violence of having their homes raided, being stopped at airports and having their lives turned upside down is something they have to reckon with.

Liberals will tell you that in order to keep this country safe, there are certain prices that have to be paid in terms of our collective freedoms – except – the cost of losing those freedoms is largely paid by people of colour, and within a terrorism context, by Muslims.

What liberals have never done, is asked themselves what the enduring legacy of each moment of wrongful accusation and arrest might mean, because if Rizwaan’s case tells us anything at all, it’s that there are certain costs that are never worth paying.

Dr Asim Qureshi is the Research Director of the advocacy group CAGE and has authored a number of books detailing the impact of the global War on Terror.

Follow him on Twitter: @AsimCP