x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Police postpone CCTV scheme targeting British Muslims

Network of street cameras in Britain's second-largest city was being paid for by UK police for anti-terrorism surveillance.

A policeman and a police community support officer hand out leaflets in Birmingham in 2008 after five men were arrested over a plot to kidnap and behead a British soldier.
A policeman and a police community support officer hand out leaflets in Birmingham in 2008 after five men were arrested over a plot to kidnap and behead a British soldier.

LONDON // The introduction of a network of more than 200 CCTV cameras giving blanket coverage of two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham is to be postponed after furious protests. Muslim, civil rights and community groups were enraged after it emerged earlier this month that the cameras were not primarily for crime prevention and detection, but were paid for by the police for anti-terrorism surveillance.

It led to accusations that, because of the concentration of Muslim families in the Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook districts of the city, the police had stigmatised the area as a terrorist ghetto. The Safer Birmingham Partnership, the joint city council/police organisation that installed the cameras, backed down yesterday after mounting protests and a parliamentary motion condemning the move, and announced that the 218 cameras would not be switched on in August as planned.

About 60 of the cameras are hidden in buildings or trees. Another 150 are on roadside poles and monitor every vehicle entering the two districts. When the cameras first started going up in April, the Safer Birmingham Partnership said it had received a £3 million (Dh16m) grant from the Home Office to improve community safety and reduce crime. However, The Guardian newspaper revealed earlier this month that the cameras were actually financed through the Association of Chief Police Officers' fund for terrorism. The stated objective of the fund is to finance projects that "deter or prevent terrorism or help to prosecute those responsible". Amid mounting anger in the two communities, civil rights lawyers threatened legal action, Roger Godsiff, the Labour MP for the area, tabled a motion condemning the move as a "grave infringement of civil liberties" and, after several public meetings, a petition was started calling on Chris Sims, the chief constable of the West Midlands, to resign.

Mr Godsiff said yesterday: "I put down an early day motion in the House of Commons expressing my concern about the way it had been handled and saying that there should be proper public consultation before the cameras are activated. "If that's what the police have now decided to do, I applaud them for doing so." The total of 150 number plate recognition cameras in the two areas is more than three times the total in the rest of Birmingham, which has a population of just over a million, about 15 per cent of them Muslims.

Announcing the postponement of the switching on of the network pending consultation with the two communities, the Safer Birmingham Partnership said in a statement: "We apologise for these mistakes, which regrettably may have undermined public confidence in the police and the council. "Although the counter terrorism unit was responsible for identifying and securing central government funds and has overseen the technical aspects of the installation, the camera sites were chosen on the basis of general crime data, not just counter-terrorism intelligence."

However, city councillors, including the deputy leader of the council, Paul Tilsley, and Ayoub Khan, the councillor in charge of community safety programmes, said they had not been involved in the decision to install the cameras and that it had purely been in the hands of police. Mr Khan yesterday welcomed the move to defer the deployment of the cameras and called on the police to physically cover them up to reassure residents that they were not being used, otherwise many residents "will not believe they are inactive".

He said that the failure to consult earlier had left a bitter taste. "All communities felt offended by the manner in which number plate recognition cameras were placed, not just the Muslim community," he told the Birmingham Mail. "I am not against [number plate recognition cameras] and CCTV technology. In many areas it is welcome because it creates a feeling of safety. Unfortunately, with this particular scheme it is obvious that the local communities were not consulted. I was never informed at any stage in relation to the intensity or the geographical coverage of such a system. Counter terrorism was mentioned at a meeting, but it was as a bolt-on extra not the main thrust."

Tanveer Choudhry, a local councillor, said: "The area has been stigmatised as a terrorist ghetto. The police should remove the cameras until they have fully consulted with local communities." Mr Choudhry said that some in the community were sceptical about the belated consultation and that, eventually, the cameras would go live regardless of local opinion. Birmingham is not regarded as one of the hotbeds of Muslim extremism in Britain, although five young men were convicted in 2008 of a plot to capture and behead a soldier to protest against the UK's involvement in Afghanistan.

Steve Jolly, the organiser of a grassroots campaign against the cameras, said: "Birmingham is one of the most successfully integrated cities in the country. Coming together to oppose the scheme has united the Muslim community and what you might call the white, middle-class community. We're speaking with one voice." dsapsted@thenational.ae