Clicking just once on a link that that is deemed to contain terrorist material or displaying images online could lead to Muslims being prosecuted. That is according to lawyers who have been investigating some of the possible impacts of the new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill.

In September 2018, the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill passed through the House of Commons and on to the House of Lords.

Campaigners were keen to state that they are not against counter-terrorism laws but the new bill could well have impacts on Muslims in particular and may well be used to criminalise thoughts without intent.

The Bill has also been criticised by campaign group Liberty.

The following are extracts from a document 'The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill': Impact on Muslim Communities by expert Jahangir Mohammed.

Here we highlight our concerns about the possible impacts of these new proposals on the Muslim community. Human rights organisation have voiced similar criticisms from a wider perspective.

However, there has been little focus on the likely impact on Muslim communities. 

The Governments own inadequate Impact Assessment, does not even refer to the fact that a major piece of legislation, primarily aimed at the Muslim community, will have an impact on them, let alone discuss how.

Expressions of support for a proscribed organisation: extends the offence of inviting support for a proscribed (terrorist) organisation to cover expressions of support that are reckless as to whether they will encourage others to support the organisation.

Possible Impact:
Creating an offence which criminalises “expression of support” as opposed to “invitation to support” a terrorist group (this can also be “reckless”); will draw into criminal activity people who may be speaking, writing, discussing, political affairs in the Muslim world.

The law seems to be moving away from criminalising people for their acts to their thoughts and expressions.

An example might be the comments made by Imam Shakeel Begg in a speech on Jihad discussed in a defamation case against the BBC, where the judge claimed he had supported violence by stating “Jihad in the way of Allah was one of the greatest deeds”.

Under the new law this might well be construed as support for terrorism.

A video by lawyer Nasir Hafezi also details the impact.

Publication of images and seizure of articles: Clarifies that the existing offence of displaying in a public place an image which arouses reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation, covers the display of images online (including of a photograph taken in a private place). It will also confer a power on constables to seize an item of clothing (outer garments only) or other article which arouse reasonable suspicion that the person is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.

Possible Impact:
There is already an offence of displaying images, flags, emblems, wearing uniforms in a public place which arouses reasonable suspicion that a person is a member or supporter of a proscribed group.

This offence is now extended to display of images, emblems pictures, flags, uniforms online which arouse “reasonable suspicion” (including a photograph taken in a private place).

In a world where people use social media habitually, and for all kinds of purposes such as to mock, for interest, to report, post photos, and out of innocence, this could impact a broad range of behaviour such as; legitimate research, comedy, journalism, and innocent comment /display.

The intention to attach serious criminal sanctions (including imprisonment) to conduct that just arouses “reasonable suspicion” without requiring evidence of membership or concrete support could impact many people.

Even if they are just investigated, but not eventually prosecuted, it would cause stress and impact their lives.

Since many Muslims are active in informal non-mainstream media and not formal journalism or mainstream media, or in blogging and writing or informal reporting/activism from conflicts they are more likely to be assumed to be supporting, or, members of terrorist groups.
This clause also curtails freedom of expression and will have a chilling effect when added to clauses 1 and 3 and may well lead to self-censorship.

Obtaining or viewing material over the internet: Updates the offence of obtaining information likely to be useful to a terrorist to cover terrorist material that is just viewed or streamed over the internet, rather than downloaded to form a permanent record. The existing reasonable excuse defence will apply in circumstances where a person did not know that the document would contain terrorist material.

Possible Impact:
The clause now seeks to extend the current offence of downloading or distribution of “terrorist materials” to capture people who may not download but view “streamed online” materials. This would mean that a person who clicks online, rather than downloads, may be committing a terrorist offence.

Although the offence was meant to apply at “three clicks” online, in Parliament it was reduced to just one click, and even if it was not clicked directly, but if it was “looking over someone’s shoulder”.

In a social media world, where there is intense interest in what goes on in the world; there is a real potential to criminalise people for curiosity, legitimate research, general interest, journalism, and the innocent. Links sent by people on messengers maybe clicked, but not actually viewed.

Terrorist materials are categorized into Tier 1, 2, and 3 and can include literature, articles and lectures by prominent Muslim personalities or video of conflict/battle scenes.

Without a definitive published list of “terrorist materials” and personalities whose lectures/works should not be viewed, many people (particularly children and he young) may not know what constitutes “terrorist material” and may be unaware they are committing an offence.

For example, someone may be viewing/listening to Anwar Awlaki, Syed Qutb, Abdullah Azam material not knowing they could constitute “terrorist materials”.

Entering or remaining in a designated area: providing for a new offence of entering or remaining in an area outside the United Kingdom that has been designated in regulations made by the Secretary of State would be an offence, in order to protect the public from a risk of terrorism.

Possible Impact:
This is a copy of an Australian law which allows the Government to declare an area in another part of the world, such as Iraq or Syria as a designated or declared area. This would prevent UK citizens/residents from entering a designated zone once declared.

If anyone enters or remains in the designated zone when declared (for example Idlib), one month after its announcement, without good reason, they can be prosecuted for terrorism with a possible 10-year prison sentence.

Since the individual would have to be prosecuted when back in the UK, it is likely that the process will involve issuing an arrest warrant for those individuals known to be in the zone or having entered it whilst living in an adjoining area. This offence is problematic for many reasons.

Muslim charities and volunteers will be deterred from working in a designated zone, put off by the additional risks to staff and volunteers. They will also be deterred and investigated for continuing to work with individuals living and working in such zones.

Activity directed at children or vulnerable adults: Provide for the offences of encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications to apply in cases where the conduct is directed at a child or vulnerable adult who may not understand what they are being encouraged to do.

Possible Impact:
In the current offence, the act of encouraging terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications must be understood to be for that purpose by those who it was aimed at.

This clause extends the offence to those vulnerable adults and children who would not or may not understand that they were being so encouraged.

Whilst in many cases this may well be clear cut, in others it may be less so. Without a definitive guide as to what constitutes “terrorist materials” it is possible that children or vulnerable adults could be passed materials which are deemed terrorist and prosecuted for it. 

Extra-territorial jurisdiction: Conferring extra-territorial jurisdiction on a number of further offences to ensure that individuals linked to the UK can be prosecuted for having encouraged or carried out acts of terror overseas.

Possible Impact:
British citizens that commit offences which are crimes in the UK, overseas, can already be prosecuted for them.

This new offence now extends the same principle to non-UK citizens and residents, even if the offence is not a crime in their own country and they are individuals that are linked to the UK.

There is no universal agreement as to who a terrorist group is, therefore this clause is problematic.

For example, would a non-UK resident who has been involved in an activity or event or engaged in/supportive of warfare which is considered legitimate in their native country be considered terrorist and prosecuted if they came to the UK.

This could apply to refugees who have no ill intent towards Britain, but by virtue of UK law could be deemed to have engaged in terrorism if they had engaged in rebel activities.

Increase in sentencing powers of the courts: increasing to 15 years’ imprisonment the maximum sentence for certain preparatory terrorism offences, namely: collecting terrorist information; eliciting, communicating or publishing information that is likely to be useful to a terrorist about a member of the armed forces, police or intelligence services; encouragement of terrorism; and dissemination of terrorist publications. Increasing to 10 years’ imprisonment the maximum sentence for failing to disclose information about acts of terrorism.

Possible Impact:
The increase in sentencing from 10 to 15 years maximum for some offences, even for those that are not actual plot related, but more publications and materials related, can be seen to be unduly harsh.

Far right offenders who may have significant ammunition and plot intent (and tend to be charged under criminal offence laws) may end up getting significantly less sentences than a Muslim downloading and distributing “terrorist material”.

It is already an offence under general criminal law not to disclose information about the commission of a crime if someone is aware of it.

Under the terrorism laws it is also an offence, where currently the maximum is five years for this offence, it is now being increased to ten. Are Muslims rather than family members of far-right terrorists more likely to get a more lenient sentence via general criminal law and Muslims the maximum under this offence?

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