6 UK universities may face legal action after hosting controversial speaker

Six universities in the UK may face legal repercussions for recently hosting activist and writer Maozzam Begg as a guest lecturer, under the new ‘Prevent’ strategy of the ‘Counter Terrorism and Security Act’(CTSA), ratified by Parliament this past October.

Maozzam Begg is the director of the Cage organisation, a group dedicated to advocating against the War on Terror. He is a citizen of the UK but was held in the USA prison camps of Bagram in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, without trial or conviction, for three years before being released. He was later arrested in the UK but was released without trial due to lack of evidence.

The views expressed by himself and his organisation have been deemed “extremist” by UK government officials such as Home Secretary Theresa May, who said in a speech to the House of Commons in March: “I condemn anyone who attempts to excuse barbarism in the way that has been done by Cage”, and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who accused the organisation of unnecessarily “crying islamophobia” at national security services and being “apologists for terror”, in an interview on his radio show with former Cage director, Asim Qureshi.

However, according to Cage’s website, their goals are not related to supporting or spreading terrorist agendas. According to their mission statement, “Cage is an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror. The organisation highlights and campaigns against state policies, striving for a world free from oppression and injustice. Its work has focussed on working with survivors of abuse and mistreatment across the globe… documenting the abuse of due process and the erosion of the rule of law in the context of the War on Terror.”

Due to the new Prevent legislation, ratified in October, universities in the UK are under increased governmental pressure to report what might be interpreted as “extremist” views seen amongst students or student groups. Many student unions across UK universities have expressed anger at these new measures, hosting conferences and campaigns which highlight the injustices they feel are present in the Prevent legislation.

Cage has been a major contributor to these campaigns, sending Begg and other speakers to conferences such as one called ‘Students Not Suspects’, at the University of Birmingham, and another called ‘Preventing Prevent’, a series of three lectures hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Shelly Asquith, Vice President of Welfare for the National Union of Students (NUS), came out strongly against the Prevent measures when they were still under consideration by Parliament in August, 2015, saying in a press release: “Prevent has been around for a long time, but this new law now makes it mandatory. It recommends monitoring students who appear ‘withdrawn’ or seeking ‘political change’, which could be anyone going through a tough time – or with an opinion.

“With the focus on preventing what the government terms ‘Islamic extremism’, the prospect of racial profiling and state-sponsored Islamophobia is all the worse: Black and Muslim students are bearing the brunt of a reactionary, racist agenda while freedom of speech across the board is curtailed. I believe this is a recipe for ‘extremism’, not a solution.”

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is the main security service in charge of monitoring universities’ compliance with the new Prevent measures. They issued a publication upon the ratification of the CTSA, entitled “The Prevent Duty: Monitoring Framework for the Higher Education Sector”, which lays out the measures and powers delegated to them by Parliament.

The document dictated that “Where a [higher education] provider cannot provide evidence of compliance with the duty, we will work with them to address these concerns. If we have serious or persistent concerns, we may report these to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who may in turn make a referral to the Home Office’s Prevent Oversight Board. Where all other options have been exhausted, the Home Secretary has the power to issue directions – effectively the equivalent of a court order.”

With Prevent now having been formally ratified, Kings College London (KCL), SOAS, University of East London, University of Manchester, University of Birmingham and University of Bradford, all of which hosted Maozzam Begg as a speaker this past autumn, may now be under the threat of legal intervention from government security services due to the fact that they have allegedly ignored or turned a blind eye to these “extremist” lectures and conferences taking place.

While some universities have made statements expressing their negligence in the matter of Begg’s presence at the school, such as the University of Bradford, whose spokesperson told The Telegraph: “The University was not aware the Students’ Union were taking part in this particular event due to an administrative oversight which will not be repeated”, the other five universities under fire defended the legality of their student unions’ actions in hosting Begg and CAGE representatives.

A spokesperson for KCL said: “We have reviewed the footage (from the events) and while the comments made by some of the speakers were controversial, we strongly reject that they were extremist.” SOAS registrar, Laura Gibbs, expressed similar sentiments: “These events were legal and no concerns were raised with us by local police or Prevent officers.”

Image credit: Flickr: poeloq  

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