- Created: Friday, 10 August 2012 10:20
- Written by Nicki Jameson
In a prison within a high security prison in Worcestershire a small group of men wait for their fate to be decided. Talha Ahsan has been imprisoned without trial since 2006, Babar Ahmad since 2004, Adel Abdel Bary since 1999 and Khalid Al Fawwaz since 1998. They are all held in the special Detainee Unit in HMP Long Lartin, pending extradition to the US to face terrorism charges which they fervently deny. In July this year their lawyer applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)to appeal against a ruling that it would not be unlawful to extradite them, despite the extreme conditions of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation within the US prison they are likely to be sent to. Nicki Jameson reports.
Adel Abdel Bary and Khalid Al Fawwaz, who are nationals of Egypt and Saudi Arabia respectively, are wanted in the US in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad are British citizens, neither of whom has ever set foot in the US; their extradition is being sought in relation to allegations of association with websites which during the period 1997-2001 encouraged support for Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
In 2003 Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett signed a one-sided extradition treaty with the US, the terms of which were incorporated in the Extradition Act which came into force on 1 January 2004. It allows the US to demand the extradition from Britain of persons alleged to have committed offences against US law, whether they are supposed to have done so in the US, in Britain or elsewhere, and it removes the need to make out a prima facie case against the wanted person prior to their extradition being agreed.
In 2007 Babar Ahmad and Haroon Aswat (a British citizen wanted in the US in relation to terrorism allegations there) lodged cases in the ECtHR, challenging the British government’s failure to stop their extradition. Over the next two years four further similar applications were made by Talha Ahsan, Adel Abdel Bary, Khalid Al Fawwaz and Mustafa Kamal Mustafa (Abu Hamza). The cases were subsequently joined together and on 10 April 2012 the ECtHR delivered its judgment in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom.
The main thrust of the applications was that, if extradited and convicted, the men would be at real risk of ill-treatment, as a result of the highly restrictive conditions of detention in the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) prison in Florence, Colorado, which would be made even worse by the imposition of ‘special administrative measures’, including prolonged solitary confinement and arbitrary strip-searches. They argued that this, together with the length of their possible sentences, would be in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention, which prevents torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
The court ruled that the application by Haroon Aswat, who is currently detained in Broadmoor secure hospital, should be adjourned pending further submissions about his mental health and the effects of extradition on his care and treatment. All the other applications were rejected. The prisoners are now appealing to the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in a final legal attempt to avoid extradition.
Florence supermax: ‘a clean version of hell’
ADX Florence, Colorado, opened in 1995 as the US’s first purpose-built ‘supermax’ prison. We wrote then in FRFI 128 (December 1995/January 1996):
‘The Florence complex... contains 168 video surveillance cameras and 1,400 electronic gates. There are 416 cells in the Administrative Maximum (Supermax) prison, each measuring less than 9’ by 10’. They contain a bed, desk, stool and shelf of reinforced concrete, a toilet and a shower, reducing to the minimum the need to leave the cell and the possibility of contact with other prisoners...
‘The first prisoners were moved into the Supermax earlier this year , most of them flown in from Marion [control unit prison in Illinois] under heavy security. They report that whenever moved for any purpose they are handcuffed and surrounded by guards. One prisoner sums up the intention of Florence as “geared to do exactly what Marion has done for years, bring out the worst potential of those it forces into its dungeons. The expressed plan is to break our spirit.”’
The ECtHR heard submissions about the regime at Florence, both from the UK government, based on material supplied by the US, and from experts on behalf of the applicants. Even according to the government side, it is clear that in order for anyone sent to the supermax prison to ‘progress’ back to ordinary prison conditions they have to work their way through a complex set of different levels, and can be sent back to the start of this process for any perceived infraction. More details of this behaviour modification regime were given to the court by Professor Laura Rovner, Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Denver University, who gave evidence for the applicants. She quoted a former warden who had called Florence ‘a clean version of hell’ and described a prison regime based around ‘solitary confinement for long periods’ in which:
‘... prisoners were placed on “single recreation status”, meaning no one else was permitted to be in adjoining recreation cells at the same time. Recreation privileges could be terminated for minor infractions: one prisoner was denied outdoor exercise for sixty days for trying to feed crumbs to birds. When he challenged this sanction through the grievance process, it was increased to ninety days.
‘... despite the consensus in the medical profession that prisoners with mental illnesses should not be held in solitary confinement, ADX continued to house seriously mentally ill prisoners, including those with severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Several inmates were too sick to communicate properly with their representatives; a report had been received of one prisoner who was too ill to write, but was living a cell that he had covered in six inches of rubbish and faeces. Several prisoners had stated in witness statements prepared for litigation in the United States courts, that there were mentally ill prisoners at ADX Florence who, because of their conditions, screamed all night, making sleep difficult for others.
‘... telephone calls and social visits were highly restricted and subject to monitoring. Contact with other inmates was generally prohibited and, when they were not, communication between cells could only be carried out by yelling, which was prohibited.’
The judgment does not refer at all to evidence submitted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, whose evidence to the effect that prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture the court refused to even consider.
Nor was the court prepared to consider any submissions that British citizens and residents, accused of crimes alleged to have been committed while they were actually in Britain, should be tried in Britain.
Campaigning against extradition
Talha Ahsan was arrested in London on 19 July 2006 on an extradition warrant. Like Gary McKinnon, who allegedly hacked into the US military computer system and also faces extradition, he has Asperger’s syndrome. Unlike Gary McKinnon, who has been on bail since his indictment in 2002, Talha is detained in a high security prison. Talha’s brother Hamja, who has been touring the country, speaking at meetings and campaigning to highlight his struggle, spoke to FRFI about the glaring difference between the British state’s treatment of the two men, and the accompanying media response to their campaigns. For example, the viciously right-wing Daily Mail is spearheading the campaign in support of Gary McKinnon but describes Talha as just one of four other ‘Muslim fanatics’ or ‘unwanted guests’ facing extradition along with one of the Mail’s chief bogeymen Abu Hamza. None of this divisive racist propaganda has prevented the families of Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer, who faces extradition to the US for alleged copyright fraud, working closely with the relatives of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. At a recent demonstration at Downing Street their mothers Julia O’Dwyer and Janis Sharp shared a platform with Babar and Talha’s fathers.
Hamja Ahsan spoke to FRFI about the day in 2006 he came down to breakfast in his parents’ house and they told him that his brother had been taken away by the police. Talha had been due to go for an interview for a job as a librarian that day. The two brothers are just 18 months apart in age and, although different in many ways, were very close.
‘Talha writes back to everyone who writes to him, and he receives lots of letters both from outside prison and from other prisoners; he’s recently been corresponding with Ravi Gill, who was imprisoned for anti-fascist activities. He reads avidly – Gramsci, Malcolm X, Mandela, as well as novels, and he appreciates receiving FRFI. He is a published poet and continues to write poetry.
‘Years before it became fashionable to care about Guantanamo Bay, Talha was involved in the campaign for the prisoners there. One of the last things he gave me was an orange badge with the number 239 on it – the Guantanamo prison camp number for Shaker Aamer. And one of the last things we did together was go and hear former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg speak at the ICA. By that time our house had been raided by the police and everything taken. We talked to Moazzam, who was supportive. Now the roles are reversed – Talha is inside and Moazzam is part of his campaign.
‘Life imprisonment in some parts of ADX Florence could be even worse than being in Guantanamo. The Extradition Treaty with the US is a hangover from the most authoritarian part of Tony Blair’s rule and the resultant treatment of my brother and the others is an affront to any notion of human rights, habeas corpus or the possibility of a fair trial.’
For further information on the campaigns against extradition to the US go to: http://freetalha.org/
Send letters of solidarity to:
Syed Talha Ahsan A9438AG, Babar Ahmad A9385AG, Adel Abdel Bary A8073AG, Khalid Al Fawwaz A9274AG
Detainee Unit, HMP Long Lartin, South Littleton, Evesham, WR11 8TZ
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012