Muslim woman loses legal challenge over airport interrogation

Sylvie Beghal was prosecuted after objecting behing questioned under anti-terrorism laws at East Midlands Airport 2011

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The Independent Online

The Muslim wife of a convicted terrorist prosecuted after refusing to submit to a police airport interrogation has lost a High Court human rights fight.

Sylvie Beghal - whose husband Djamel Beghal is in prison in France - wanted a declaration that her rights had been violated when she was prosecuted after objecting to being questioned under anti-terrorism legislation following her arrival at East Midlands Airport in January 2011.

Three judges today ruled against her at a hearing in London - but they suggested that there might be “room for improvement” to anti-terror legislation which gives police the power to “stop, question and detain” people entering or leaving the UK.

Judges urged ministers to consider a “legislative amendment” barring the use of admissions made by people questioned by officers using those powers at any subsequent criminal trials.

Mrs Beghal's lawyers said later that she aimed to take her case to the Supreme Court - the highest in the UK.

They said the case was the first in which the High Court had considered whether stop and question powers granted under Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act were compatible with “fundamental” human rights.

Judges were told that Mrs Beghal, who is French, had returned after visiting her husband with her three children when she was stopped at around 8pm on January 4 2011.

She was not "suspected" of being a terrorist but police said they needed to speak to her regarding "possible involvement" in terrorism, judges heard.

Mrs Beghal argued that the process of stopping and questioning "without reasonable suspicion" breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Crown Prosecution Service disputed Mrs Beghal's claim and argued that her rights had not been breached.

Prosecutors said Mrs Beghal had pleaded guilty to wilfully failing to comply with a duty to answer questions when she appeared at Leicester Magistrates' Court and was given a 12-month conditional discharge.

Lawyers for Mrs Beghal said after today's hearing that thousands of people were stopped and questioned under Schedule 7 every year without needing to be suspected of an offence and had "no right to silence".

Solicitor Natalia Garcia, of law firm Abrahams Law, added: "This is the first case in which the question of whether Schedule 7 is compatible with fundamental rights has been considered.

"Mrs Beghal is disappointed that the court found no incompatibility and will be appealing to the Supreme Court."

She added: "It is clear from the fact that the court has recommended a change to the legislation to bar admission made under Schedule 7 from criminal trials that it considers the current legislation to be unsatisfactory."

Lord Justice Gross, who sat with Mrs Justice Swift and Mr Justice Foskett, said the case gave rise to the question of "where the balance is to be struck between the rights of the individual and the public interest in safeguarding the country from terrorism".

"The central ... issue on this appeal concerns the compatibility of the powers to 'stop, question and detain' contained in Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000," said Lord Justice Gross.

"This is a challenging area for the law, requiring vigilance as to individual liberties while retaining a firm grasp of the practical needs of national security."

But he said judges had concluded that Schedule 7 powers were not "unfettered".

"The underlying purpose of the Schedule 7 powers is to protect the public from terrorism, having regard to its international character," he said.

"However, the exercise of Schedule 7 powers is subject to cumulative statutory limitations."

He added: "The absence of a requirement of reasonable suspicion is both explicable and justifiable ... We are not persuaded that these are unfettered powers."

Lord Justice Gross said "inhibiting" the travel of terrorists served "a manifestly rational purpose" and he said "the ability to question widely" was necessary.

"Given that Mrs Beghal was returning to the United Kingdom following a visit to her husband, imprisoned in France for terrorism offences, the obvious inference is that she was not stopped and examined on a random basis," he said.

"While the questions asked of her were wide-ranging, they are eminently understandable once regard is had to the factual context. They were, moreover, rationally connected to the statutory purpose and in no way disproportionate."

He added: "As a general matter, the Schedule 7 powers are neither arbitrary nor disproportionate."