Four Years For ‘Planning’ Terror

January 10, 2008

I don’t usually blog about political/legal issues, but this story disturbed me:

Man jailed over terrorism charges (Times Online)

From the article:

“A dentist who tried to fly to Pakistan with military equipment and £9,000 cash in his luggage has been jailed for four and a half years for preparing to engage in terrorism.

Sohail Qureshi, 29, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to charges of preparing to commit terrorist activity and possessing items of use to terrorists, including a night vision scope and medical supplies.”

Sohail Qureshi


Qureshi had also been in contact with the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist‘, Samina Malik, who worked at Heathrow and was charged last month for ‘possessing terrorist material’. Qureshi’s is the first case to be charged under new laws which prohibit planning terrorism.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it more than a little alarming that a sentence can be this severe when — bottom line — Qureshi hadn’t actually done anything. Okay, he’s confessed that he wanted to kill people; he left messages on extremist Islamic websites; he’d been trained by Al Qaeda; and he even took some equipment and cash with him.

None of this is the mark of a model citizen, and Qureshi was — rightly — under increased surveillance. But, let’s be clear about this, the man has been sentenced to four and a half years effectively on the basis of what we think he’s going to do. Call me a liberal if you like, but this doesn’t sit too well with me.

Now, I’ve seen messages from people who say things like ‘actions don’t occur in isolation – if we hadn’t stopped him, he would’ve definitely killed people’. Maybe so, but we can’t be sure of that, can we? I think this is treading on dangerous ground, because the ‘evidence’ is effectively defined by prediction and interpretation of someone’s motives. Just look at the wording in the BBC News article: “He pleaded guilty to possessing articles for terrorist purposes and articles likely to be useful to a terrorist.” Likely to be useful?

While it’s true that actions aren’t isolated from thought, if we’re charging people based on what they’re planning to do where do we stop?

I’ll leave you with the judge’s statement from the BBC News article:

“[These are] grave charges… You were ready for terrorist operations overseas but there is no specific indication of what they are or where they might be.”

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