Prevent strategy challenged at High Court

The government’s controversial Prevent counter-terrorism policy is facing a legal challenge in the High Court this week.

Dr Salman Butt, the chief editor of the Islam 21C website, has launched the legal action, saying he was named as a “non-violent extremist” by the government. He says aspects of Prevent breach free speech rights.

The hearing will be take place on Tuesday 6th to Thursday 8th December at the Royal Courts of Justice, London. The court will sit from 10:30am -1pm, then resume from 2-4:30pm.

Permission was granted by Mr Justice Ouseley to challenge the Secretary of State for the Home Department on two main grounds:

I. That the Prevent Duty Guidance issued to higher education institutions is unlawful because it conflicts with the right to free speech which is enshrined in the Education Act for higher education institutions.

II. That the information collected about Dr Butt by the Extremism Analysis Unit of the Home Office, is in breach of the Data Protection Act and also the procedure for identifying people as extremists is flawed and in breach of the law and the rules of natural justice.

The Home Office has accused Dr Butt of expressing views that violate British values, something Mr Butt denies.

Last September, Mr Butt was named in a Downing Street press release about Prevent being used to stop extremists radicalising students on university campuses.

He was listed as one of six speakers who gave talks on campuses, and was said to have views that violated British values – such as democracy, free speech, equality and the rule of law.

Under the Prevent guidance, such individuals meet the definition of a “non-violent extremist.”

Mr Butt, 31, from Slough, denies holding views contrary to British values.

He told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme: “I’m a father of three, I’m a British Muslim, a writer, an activist. I am not an extremist, either violent or non-violent.

“Being labelled as some kind of extremist does have a stigmatising effect. I have not spoken at any universities since I was named in the [Downing Street] press release.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London where the case is being heard
The Royal Courts of Justice in London where the case is being heard

“My aim isn’t just to clear my name, it is to bring transparency to the hidden processes by which individuals are tarnished with the label of an extremist, to ensure it is brought into the scrutiny of the courts.”

Mr Butt’s lawyers will be challenging part of the Prevent strategy that aims to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists.

Specifically they are challenging the Prevent duty, and how it has to be implemented in universities and further education institutions.

Saimo Chahal QC (Hon), Partner of Bindmans LLP, acting for Dr Butt said: “Dr Butt’s case is a test case and the first of its kind to look in depth at the Prevent Duty Guidance in general and specifically for higher education institutions. It is has been impossible for the Government to arrive at a credible definition of ‘extremism’ which works in practise and targets the mischief that it is aiming at.

“The Government’s view that there is an escalator which starts with religious conservatism and ends with violent extremism is not proven. Innocent people like Dr Butt are being drawn into the net and targeted – this is neither fair, just, nor acceptable. There is widespread criticism of the Prevent guidance including by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. This case highlights all of these difficulties.”

Since September 2015, the Prevent duty, issued under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, places universities and colleges in the UK under a legal obligation to engage with the Prevent strategy, and to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

This means they are required to put in place specific polices to stop extremists radicalising students on campus, tackle gender segregation at events and support students at risk of radicalisation.

The three-day hearing is likely to be fought vigorously and go on to the Supreme Court, owing to its potential implications on government policy.

The Home Office has said the Prevent strategy plays a key role in the fight against terrorism, but it has faced criticism – including from a wide cross-section of British Muslims, who say it alienates them.

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