CAGE director Muhammad Rabbani has lost his legal case in his effort to protect the confidential data of a survivor of torture.
Rabbani, from London, leads the advocacy group CAGE in investigating torture and abuse cases. He was stopped at Heathrow in November 2016 as he returned from the Gulf where he had been investigating a torture case allegedly involving the US.
Rabbani was stopped under Schedule 7 of the terrorism act, which gives border police sweeping powers to stop and search people, including a “digital strip search”, without any evidence. Individuals are required to turn over passwords to their devices or risk being charged with “wilfully obstructing” the police. When Rabbani refused to turn over his phone PIN and MacBook password, he was arrested.
The law has been widely criticised as shamelessly intrusive and in violation of the right to privacy, seeing as anyone can have their content looked over without a warrant or any legitimate evidence; an arbitrary decision is sufficient.
The judge admitted that he believes Rabbani was sincerely protecting client confidentiality. However, the intrusive legislation required that he deliver a guilty verdict. Rabbani was given a 12 month conditional discharge and £600 fine.
Rabbani has always maintained his innocence and his defence of privacy, claiming he would have been endangering the confidentiality and case of his client if he complied.
Rabbani has been harassed and detained over 20 times in the past decade by border officials who have attempted to force him to turn over his digital information. He told the court he had an obligation to protect the confidential evidence on his iPhone and MacBook which was given to him from a CAGE client which documented serious allegations of torture by US agents.
“It was a case involving the US against an individual who was allegedly tortured over the course of 12 or 13 years in US custody,” he said. “There were around 30,000 (documents) which I was especially uncomfortable handling and I felt an enormous responsibility to try and discharge the trust that was given to me and the lawyers I met at that event.”
The hashtag #WeAreAllRabbani has sprung up in response.