October 06, 2008

TERRORISM OR BREACH OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM - Dare We Talk About the Nottingham Two?

Today’s UCU strike action against Nottingham Trent University seems to have deflected attention from the equally sobering actions last May of its Russell Group neighbour down the road (and whose actions were, after all, the subject of international censure and an AUT greylisting in 2004).

Dare we talk about the Nottingham Two, a subject which seems to have slipped off the UCU radar screen? In the process, we wish to draw attention to several hitherto overlooked facts.

National coverage of these high profile arrests to date have remained curiously tight-lipped about what would seem to be a critical detail, namely that Rizwaan Sabir, the University of Nottingham postgraduate student arrested in May 2008 for possession of the Al Queda training manual (along with his friend Hicham Yezza to whom he sent the document for printing), had previously been arrested on 29 November 2007 by Nottingham Police on the University’s campus for taking part in a peaceful campus political demonstration.

In early March 2008, following on from his November arrest, Sabir led a 'freedom of speech' demonstration on the University of Nottingham’s campus. His message: ‘The questioning on campus of issues that are emotional has become taboo . . . a University campus is a place where people like us should be exchanging ideas’.

Those close to the case acknowledge that at the time both Sabir and Yezza were arrested on 23 May 2008 the University’s senior management were fully aware of Sabir’s prior incidents of political activism and campus dissidence.

Does this not raise a disturbing question, namely, whether Sabir and Yezza were targeted and victimised for having dared on previous occasions to exercise their academic freedom and right to free speech against actions taken by the University?

The November 2007 arrest of Sabir was clearly instigated by the University’s senior management, just like the May 2008 arrests of Sabir and Yezza; unlike the former, though, the latter captured unsavoury international media attention owing to the threatened deportation of Yezza.

In the aftermath of the scandalous events of last May, the University has staunchly defended its actions which, they maintain, were carried out in strict compliance with the Terrorism Act and in duty of care to its staff and students.

But can such self-serving PR media bites be trusted, especially in the face of evidence of the University’s prior action against Sabir?

As BBC4 asked in its broadcast of 28 July 2008, Is the case of the ‘Nottingham Two’ a harbinger of things to come for British universities, or rather a ‘one-off’ incident? The truth of the matter has far-reaching implications not only for the UK but for the world-wide academic community.

It would seem high time for the national media to launch a full-scale investigation into the matter of these arrests.

Rizwaan Sabir has been an outspoken champion of freedom of speech at a University well-known for its intolerance of dissent and heavy-handed penalization of students who dare to speak out against the University’s policies (e.g. a group of students protesting an increase in library fees slapped with a fine of £300).

The implications of the potential abuse of the Terrorism Act to mask egregious violations of academic freedom and victimisation which seeks to target, silence, and ultimately eliminate academic undesirables--especially vulnerable foreigners on visas and work permits--would seem to threaten the most basic UK civil liberties.

It is sobering enough that a Russell Group university boasting two Nobel laureates should treat its students and staff like hardened criminals, snitching them out to police without the dignity of (or with full benefit of, as some have claimed) an in-house investigation; but to witness its recently retired, knighted Vice Chancellor on record in THE impugning the integrity and probity of three members of his own academic staff—merely for exercising their academic freedom to depart from the University’s self-exonerating script--defies the most basic principles of free speech any university worthy of the name ought to hold sacrosanct.

Where is the outrage?

In his remarks at the public demonstration on 28 May 08 in support of Hichem Yezza, Nottingham MP Alan Simpson had harsh words for the University’s senior management:

“How ashamed you should be of yourselves that you can not come to the defence of one of your staff! You make judgments that are the prerogative of a court, and you don’t even wait for a trial or the presentation of evidence to make those judgments.”

But the brave and outspoken MP seemingly remains a solitary voice in the wilderness.

Where in the world is the UCU?

To her credit, UCU President Sally Hunt penned two op-ed pieces in July and August, in defence of academic freedom and the Nottingham Two. Oddly, even the UCU’s periodic ‘campaign updates’ failed to flag up Ms Hunt’s articles for those who may have missed them during the summer recess.

On the other hand, a massive gust of fresh air is rumoured to have blown into the Trent Building last week, personified as the new Vice-Chancellor. One can only hope for better things to come; in the previous regime, the halls were alive with Chinese whispers of obstreperous, whistle-blowing academic staff disciplined and sacked, silenced by compromise agreements and never to be heard from again. Those who have survived to tell the tale will know these tactics to be relentless, ruthless, unethical, demonising, and generally malicious.

Why, one might well ask, whilst exhorting thousands of its members to mount buses to travel to Nottingham Trent University today, has the UCU failed to utter so much as a single syllable of concern, or offered even a brief update about the disturbing and very much unresolved matter of the Nottingham Two?

Why, for example, has UCU not considered a strike action against *both* Nottingham universities? Or perhaps, at the very least, seized the moment--given the proximity and fortuitous recent change of guard--to request an update on the Nottingham Two and the current state of academic freedom at the city’s ‘other’ university?

In short, why the tough UCU industrial action against NTU and the delicate ‘kid gloves’ approach with its historically more defiant Russell Group sister?

Whatever the case, only a full-scale, impartial investigation into the facts and history surrounding the Nottingham Two will ultimately reveal whether these high profile arrests stemmed from a clear and imminent danger or whether they were themselves an even more insidious kind of terrorism: the attempted intimidation, silencing, and elimination of free speech, campus dissidence, and academic freedom.

By Rosa Luxembourg


Anonymous said...

What dare we talk about?

If senior managers in universities refuse to take action when staff are bullied by other staff because of professional jealousy... what hope is there for cases such as this?

My faculty is - I believe - a hotbed of bullying...

...it is the saddest place in the world...

... young people come to my faculty full of hope...

...our reputation as a university is formidable...

.. doesn't our society care?

In solidarity

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...

Rosa, you should submit this posting as an opinion piece to the THES. I doubt they'll have the nerve to publish it, but what have you got to lose by trying?