Last March, in an article titled Time for an Inclusive politics, I wrote of my optimism surrounding the impending demise of the “war on terror”. President Obama himself had declared the “war” finished in 2010. Here, in Britain, we were looking forward to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as well as the Olympics. For once, ours seemed a hopeful nation. The spectacularly successful London 2012 proved “Yes We Can”: a more inclusive and hopeful, Britain seemed on the verge of emerging.
But I am worried. Very worried indeed. The recent extradition of two young British citizens, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, from Tooting in south London, marks a dark day for British justice and reminds some of us of those opaque days of the “war on terror” which brought us Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
On October 5, 2012, our country finally caved in to an uneven extradition treaty with the US. It extradited Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan (though the media reported on the more controversial figure of Abu Hamza) to face charges in Connecticut, related to a website they are alleged to have run over a decade earlier. They had already been incarcerated here for eight years and six years respectively, without any charge in a British court.
From its inception, the Extradition Act 2003 invited controversy. It allowed the US to extradite UK citizens for offences committed against US law, even though the alleged offence may have been committed in the UK, by someone living and working here in this country. There is no reciprocal right to extradition from the US to the UK; the levels of proof required are different (more stringent) in the US’ favour. Feelings are running high and some members of my community have even perceived the extradition of Babar and Talha as an extraordinary rendition.
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Immediately after the High Court verdict on October 5, Ahmad’s elderly father Ashfaq, who had fought with dignity for the last eight years to get his son tried on British soil, made the following remarks.
“After over 40 years of paying taxes in this country, I am appalled that the system has let me down in a manner more befitting of a third world country than one of the world’s oldest democracies… It seems that the Metropolitan police, the CPS and even the Court have all colluded to implement a pre-determined decision which was made in Washington.”
A report published by the House of Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) concluded that the “current statutory framework” of the Extradition Act 2003 “does not provide effective protection for human rights”. Alas, there was no political will to redress this apparent imbalance; in the case of Ahmad and Ahsan all attempts and pleas for these two young British men to be tried in the UK fell on deaf ears, despite a broad alliance of civil society leaders, Parliamentarians, legal voices, media commentators and the Muslim community’s backing.
The Muslim community in Britain had tried every democratic campaigning method available. They even petitioned Downing Street and got nearly 150,000 British citizens to sign an e-petition (itself a government-created initiative) for Babar Ahmad to be tried in the UK. Even a Parliamentary debate was initially denied, despite receiving more than 100,000 signatures (the cut-off that which was supposed to automatically generate a debate in the House of Commons). The men’s legal teams took their cases to the highest courts in Britain and Europe, only to be trumped, apparently by political considerations. What else could be the reasons to deny this reasonable demand?
Sadly, our tabloid press adopted a strategy of continuously describing Ahmad and Ahsan as “terrorism suspects” (despite the lack of charges). Even the BBC started using the same language, giving us a trial as much by media as the courts. With politicians and the media taking a hardline stand, justice has always been at risk. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service have had a lot to answer on this case, but who cares? These young British citizens were “guilty unless proven innocent”. The US aircraft to extradite the detainees arrived in the UK even before the High Courts had finished deliberating on the matter.
Many political commentators also noted the Home Office’s media strategy of linking the cases with the previously-convicted hate preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri (with similar media caricatures). Lumping them together helped convict them all in the court of public opinion.
The five men extradited last week are now in US custody. Abu Hamza al-Masri without hook during Manhattan court appearance; four other ‘jihadists’ plead not guilty, read The New York Times on October 6. Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan are being held in the most secure pre-trial detention facilities available in Connecticut, most likely with special administrative measures (Sams, according to one former warden described as “a clean version of hell“).
Inmates spend 22 to 23 hours per day in a completely sealed and soundproof cell and may be an hour or so in an outdoor cage for solitary exercise. There are strict rules for their lawyers, who cannot discuss their clients even with their family; the lawyers risk prosecution if they violate any of the terms of the Sams, and sanction for any violations will be much more severe than the proverbial “slap on the wrist”. The lawyer representing Babar Ahmad, Gareth Pierce, has described Sams as, “Crippling in every way, not just in terms of ability to prepare a trial”.
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A number of serious violations to Ahmad and Ahsan’s human rights, as defined by the UN Declaration on Human Rights, have been made throughout these extraditions. Article 10 of this declaration says, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him”.
It is evident to me that the men have been denied the basic right to liberty for many years. Their extradition to the US is a travesty of justice.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the largest and most authoritative Muslim body in the UK, wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama raising serious concerns with this judicial process. British businessman, Karl Watkins, also attempted a private prosecution of Ahmad and Ahsan in the UK. His attempt failed; the MCB’s letter was ignored.
Justice found wanting
Terrorism is indeed a crime that needs to be confronted. The allegations against Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan are serious and need proper judicial consideration. Yet neither of these men have had any chance to defend the allegations against them, which they both contest vehemently.
Their extradition does not bode well for trust in British justice. It has marginalised a broad section of British society, including many Muslims, who are totally opposed to this one-sided extradition. There will now be a great deal of bitterness and frustration among these disenfranchised ordinary people who are active in public life.
Within the Muslim community disturbing questions are already being raised – were these two men treated the way they were because they are Muslims? These questions will reverberate and may haunt the relationship between a section of our citizenry and our political class for some time.
There was a flicker of hope that was kindled by President Obama’s speech to the Arab and Muslim world in 2009. He states: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice.”
With his follow-up the next year that the “war on terror” was finished, that flicker was fanned into a flame. We had hoped that change would be permanent; that we could contain Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition to a darker period of our history. One wonders whether this is the case.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, community activist and parenting consultant. He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) and currently Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust.
Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari