UK police abuse “anti-terror” law to interrogate activists returning from Palestine

Last month two researchers from Corporate Watch were detained at Luton airport on their way back from a research trip in Israeli-occupied Palestine. But rather than being read the usual right to remain silent, Therezia Cooper and Tom Anderson were told they could be prosecuted for giving “no comment” answers, and were denied access to lawyers.

This happened due to something called Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act, a draconian piece of legislation passed in 2000. Although the law is only supposed to combat terrorism, in recent years British police have been using it more and more openly as a tool to trawl for information on social justice activists of various kinds.

As part of their Corporate Watch work, Cooper and Anderson maintain the Corporate Occupation blog, an invaluable source of original and detailed research into companies around the world with links to the Israeli occupation. The team also published a book based on their research in 2011.

Both are involved in campaigns in southern coastal city Brighton, where the Smash EDO group has since 2004 been leading a campaign against an arms-component factory known to have links with Israel. This has included sabotage by “decommissioners” who broke into the factory and caused nearly £200,000 [approximately $301,000] of damage in 2009. In 2010 all seven were found not guilty, after the decommissioners argued that they had acted to prevent very real Israel war crimes in Gaza.

More recently, campaigners there began regular protests against a flagship SodaStream store over its presence in illegal West Bank settlements.

Therezia Cooper and Tom Anderson wrote about their detention and spoke to The Electronic Intifada in a call this week, in this edited interview.

Asa Winstanley: Talk about what happened to you both.

Therezia Cooper: I spent about five weeks in Palestine on my last visit and when I was flying back to Luton I got stopped by Bedfordshire Police under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This is a power that’s supposed to be only for investigating possible terrorism. But as soon as they stopped me they took me into a little room where they started to ask me questions about what I’ve been doing in Palestine and it becomes very obvious that the reason they stopped you is not because they think you’ve got anything to do with terrorism but because they want to gather information on activists doing Palestine-related work and other kind of activism.

[It’s] a snooping tool for the police to use at airports. Because you’re not allowed under this legislation not to answer questions or you’re threatened with arrest.

So they were asking a lot of questions about the work that Corporate Watch was doing in the occupied territories. As well, they asked a lot of questions about my involvement in other kinds of activism, which includes a lot of boycott, divestment and sanction activism and also anti-militarist and anti-capitalist activism in the UK.

Tom Anderson: I was stopped at Luton as well by Bedfordshire Police. It was the third time that I’ve been stopped. So in 2010 I was stopped coming back from another research trip that we did with Corporate Watch. And on that occasion I was stopped and [they] said that I was going to be asked some questions under the terrorism act because of my links to, amongst other things, Corporate Watch. And I was also stopped on my way into Egypt in 2011.

On this occasion, when I was coming back [to the UK] just a few weeks ago, I was stopped for, I would say, nearly an hour and asked questions about the research which I’ve been doing, the articles that I’ve been writing, what companies we were looking into and investigating. Did I have any information that we haven’t published yet or any information that I was looking for? And they asked me about my involvement with direct action and boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns, including the campaign against SodaStream, the campaign against Carmel-Agrexco, G4S and Ahava.

They didn’t ask anything at all actually about terrorism, apart from at the end of the interview, saying that, well we just wanted to know that you weren’t involved in terrorism or acts of violence, and that’s why we’re asking you these questions. Which seemed pretty unbelievable because of the questions that they’d just been asking me.

AW: Did these officers say they were Special Branch?

TC: We know it’s been Special Branch in the past –

TA: The first time I was stopped in 2010, the officers introduced themselves as Special Branch, although they were also carrying Sussex Police IDs [the police force local to Brighton], but they said “we’re Special Branch.” In 2011 it was another anti-terrorist unit which stopped me. But this time they only identified themselves as Bedfordshire Police [the police force local to Luton Airport].

TC: Yeah. And actually they wouldn’t give names, and said they don’t have to give names, but they gave numbers. So, yeah it’s not 100 percent [certain] that they were Special Branch.

TA: They gave us both a leaflet of information about Schedule 7 saying that we didn’t have the right to remain silent and could be prosecuted if we didn’t provide information.

AW: Did you feel this particular detention was any different from the previous times you’d been stopped, or was it part of the same pattern?

TA: Part of the same pattern, really, I’d say.

TC: Yeah.

TA: A disproportionate number of BME, Black Minority and Ethnic communities, according to the Institute of Race Relations, are stopped under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. But activists involved in direct action campaigns are also stopped.

We know that activists from the International Solidarity Movement have been stopped during the past few years. Also anti-capitalist activists, Indymedia journalists, anti-globalization activists –

TC: Environmental activists.

TA: – have been stopped in the past few years. So it’s not just happening to us, it’s happening to campaigns which the police see as a threat to private corporations, or as a threat to the status quo.

TC: I think one thing that was very telling from the interviews – to me it sounded like they almost accepted the fact that they are using this to gather intelligence and information for their files on activists. Because they were saying things like, “we’re just trying to find out what makes you tick” and “we don’t get to talk to you very often” and that kind of thing. To me that sounds like almost admitting that the reason we’re stopping you is because we want more information about you to add to our files.

TA: When they arrest people and interview them in police stations under criminal law the defendants have the right to remain silent, they don’t have the opportunity to use this pressure of prosecution to get their questions answered.

Other people have been stopped on the way back from Copenhagen, from the anarchist conference in Switzerland [last year], and on the way to and from the G8 protests in [the German city of] Rostock in 2007.

TC: They did try to ask about quite a wide range of different campaigns this time around as well. They asked a lot about the Smash EDO campaign for instance, they seemed particularly interested in, as well as all kinds of different BDS-related campaigns. And also just generally about politics, you know, whether you’re an anarchist.

AW: So do you think they targeted you more because you’re involved in groups that use direct actions tactics?

TA: Yes.

TC: Yeah, probably.

TA: I’m not sure if it would be true to say that it’s only activists involved in direct action who’ve been stopped. Definitely the people who’ve been stopped due to racial profiling, a large proportion of them won’t be involved in any type of action at all, or any type of political movements at all, they’re simply stopped because they fit a profile.

There’s [also] no evidence that the people going to the anarchist conference in Switzerland were involved in direct action campaigns. They were simply attending a political conference. And we know of one independent journalist who travels to Afghanistan and places like that who’s also been stopped under the act. And there’s no evidence that he’s involved in direct action campaigns at all.

They did say something to me which kind of implied that they might be interested in me becoming an informant.

TC: [Laughs]

AW: What was that?

TA: They were asking if people would trust me again if I went back to Palestine.

AW: You mentioned that in the report, but it hadn’t occurred to me to read it that way.

TA: They didn’t say it [outright], but the way they said it made me think that’s what they were getting at. Also another person [that I know of] was asked to be an informant as well. It’s the same thing that the Shin Bet [Israel’s domestic spy agency] do [to Palestinians] actually.

AW: [According to a local paper] Sussex Police are thought to have had at least one meeting with the Israeli embassy [over protests outside SodaStream]. Is there anything to make you think that the British police are doing this on behalf of Israel or is it more their own initiative and they are exchanging information with Israel?

TC: I think they are generally a lot more interested in how the BDS movement works than they used to be. They asked quite a lot of questions about how BDS actions happen. There is a possibility that they might have tried to connect how movements work a bit more, possibly through the intelligence services. And that it might be a way of just providing people with information.

AW: Are there any moves to legally challenge the way these powers are being used?

TA: There’s the Home Office consultation which I mentioned in the report, which is making various suggestions to make cosmetic changes to Schedule 7 and those include, training the officers who are giving the interrogations, and not taking samples – which is actually quite shocking that they are able to take blood and semen under Schedule 7 – which is really really strange – and to allow people the right to legal representation, when they’re being interrogated.

But obviously that doesn’t deal with the main issue about Schedule 7 which is that you can be prosecuted for not giving information, and that it’s being misused and that people are being stopped and asked questions which don’t relate to terrorism or the preparation for terrorism.

In terms of legal moves, I’ve contacted a solicitor today asking if there are any legal avenues to challenge it. That’s the only one I know of actually.

TC: I think it’s something that would be interesting to look into.

TA: And also the National Union of Journalists has sent out an email asking about whether journalists have been stopped under Schedule 7, so it will be interesting to see what they come back with.

AW: It may be worth putting Freedom of Information requests in too.

TA: There are a lot of figures about Schedule 7 interviews, and you know one interesting thing is that they say interviews of over one hour are a very small percentage of the interviews, so the fact they interviewed both me and Therezia for over an hour stands out.

TC: I think they said [only] 2.2 percent [of cases]. I was kept for like an hour and 50 minutes I think, which is apparently unusual.

AW: And Tom you were stopped for about one hour you wrote in the report.

TA: I was stopped for much longer in 2010. I was stopped for less time than Therezia this time around. I guess because they’d already stopped me for a long time, so they’d got some of the information already.

AW: How did it make you feel when you were detained and denied some of the most basic rights that you would normally expect?

TA: I always expect to encounter state repression in that way, and I expect the police to be interested in the kind of work that we’re doing. And I think those tactics are designed to intimidate. I don’t feel particularly intimidated by those tactics, but I can see that they’re designed to hamper the work of people who are campaigning against corporations and for social justice etc.

TC: Yeah sadly I think it’s something that we’ve come to expect of the British police increasingly, in relation to protest movements, especially sort of, global justice movements. But I think it’s very important, even if it is a little bit intimidating at the time, that this does not effect activists in any way, and that people campaign against it and try to expose the misuse of these kind of legislations. Don’t be intimidated in the work that they’re doing and just put more effort into exposing it.

TA: We wouldn’t be doing our job in working in various campaigns for social change if the state wasn’t interested in repressing us. Whenever people push for change, that’s going to happen. I was particularly struck by the fact that there were so many questions about Corporate Watch, about the research work we were doing and I think over the years, the stopping of direct action campaigners, who have nothing to do with terrorism at all, has become normal practice for the police, under Schedule 7.

But I wonder if we are going to see more of investigative journalists being stopped, particularly those journalists whose work challenges the interests of the state or of private profit.

The kind of campaigns that [the police] are interested in are those that are potentially successful in challenging private profit, corporations etc. I think that Smash EDO has been relatively successful in doing that. And I don’t think it’s the decommissioning that they are just worried about I think it’s the entire campaign and tactics used by Smash EDO. That’s one reason that I was being stopped.

I do think that another reason is because they’re interested in research organizations which are providing information for action, information for campaigners.

AW: So that’s why they asked a lot about Corporate Watch.

TA: Yeah because with me, at least 50 percent of the questions that I’ve been asked have been about Corporate Watch, actually.

AW: And they were interested in BDS?

TC: Yeah.

AW: Did they say the actual phrase “BDS”?

TC: They asked me to explain what the BDS movement was about and what it was trying to achieve, yeah. They asked me to educate them about it! Which I declined to do [laughs].

They are trying to connect things up. We’d say things are non-hierarchical, and it’s a worldwide movement. And they’d kind of go, but where do people get information from and how do actions happen? So I guess that’s where they’re connecting Corporate Watch and and the actions that happen.

TA: And I think they were definitely more aware of BDS this time around than they have been in the past, so I don’t know if the Reut Institute and stuff like that – if the “delegitimizers” kind of rhetoric has rubbed off.

TC: But all of this was public information anyway. Anything we told them was stuff that was already out publicly.

AW: Thanks for your time.

Therezia Cooper and Tom Anderson are pen names. The Schedule 7 stops were carried out under their real names.


Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and co-host of our podcast.

He is author of the bestselling book Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2023).