Written by Fahad Ansari
Thursday, 27 October 2011
Last Friday, a young man stood in the streets of London collecting signatures on a petition which he had asked a relative to draw for him. He was collecting signatures to put Babar Ahmad on trial in the UK. Babar Ahmad is the longest detained without trial British citizen in the modern history of the UK. He has now been in prison without trial for over seven years. The astonishing aspect of this story is that this young boy was blind. Had he been able to see, he would have noticed that dozens of other people in Luton were also collecting signatures on pre-printed petitions for the same cause. He explained that he was so shocked that a man could be held for so long without trial that he felt obliged to stand up against what he described as an “injustice”.
The signatures being collected will be included in the official e-petition to put Babar Ahmad on trial in the UK rather than extradite him to the US. Ahmad has been incarcerated without trial in the UK for over seven years since his arrest in August 2003 on an extradition warrant issued by the US. Ahmad is accused of running a family of websites in the mid-90s which the US claim provided material support to rebel groups in Chechnya and Afghanistan. The offences are alleged to have taken place in the UK although one server was hosted in the US for a period of a few months.
Ahmad was previously arrested by British police during the course of which his home was raided. The material seized was found by the Crown Prosecution Service to be insufficient to charge him with any criminal offence in this country. Yet, that same material now forms the basis of the US indictment against him. Ahmad remains in prison to this day without trial, having already served the equivalent of a 14 year criminal sentence for offences alleged to have taken place in the 1990s. One of the many ironies in his case is that had he been charged, prosecuted and convicted when first arrested, he would probably have served a much lesser sentence and been home with his family by now.
Last week, the government’s official panel of experts published its report into concerns about the Extradition Treaty 2003. The panel, led by retired judge Sir Scott Baker, has found that the Treaty is fair and has not recommended that a new forum bar be introduced which would mean that a person could not be extradited if the bulk of the crime had been committed in the UK. Its findings contradict those of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which investigated the Treaty earlier this year. In June this year, it found that the forum bar had already been agreed by Parliament and that the Government should bring forward the relevant provisions of the legislation for Parliament to commence them. The JCHR also explicitly called for the Treaty to be renegotiated to prevent people like Mr Ahmad being extradited if the British authorities have already decided not to prosecute them for an offence based on the same evidence.
Ahmad’s family recently launched an e-petition on the Government website calling for him to be put on trial in the UK, rather than face extradition to the US. Apart from the basic principles of justice that British citizens accused of committing crimes in Britain should be tried in a British court, there are deep concerns about the prison conditions Ahmad would face in the US if extradited. The issue is currently before the European Court of Human Rights whose decision is expected soon. If extradited, the US government has stated that Ahmad would be held in solitary confinement pre-trial for up to three years in the notorious Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
The conditions in the Supermax prisons have been roundly condemned by lawyers, politicians and human rights activists around the world. Prisoners are subjected to extreme sensory deprivation and isolated from any meaningful human contact. They are confined to windowless cells for 23 hours a day with only a small slit in the solid, steel door through which meals are given to them. Between two and five times a week, they are taken from their cells and allowed shower or exercise alone in a small enclosed space. There are severe restrictions on books, magazines, radio, television, sunlight and even outside air. Telephone calls are restricted to one 15 minute call a month. In May 2006, the UN Committee against Torture suggested the conditions could constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. More recently, in September 2011, a study by the New York Bar Association described the conditions as constituting “torture under international law”. It was just last week that the UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Mendez called for an almost total ban on solitary confinement, describing it as “torture”.
If convicted in the US, Ahmad faces life imprisonment in this prison without the possibility of parole.
The findings of Sir Scott Baker and his review panel are not binding on the government and it is arguable that it should instead follow the recommendations of the parliamentary committee. To allow a British citizen accused of crimes alleged to have been committed in Britain to be extradited to the US upon the same evidence which this government has decided not to use to prosecute him, completely undermines our criminal justice system. So repugnant is this to the public conscience that there is growing outrage over this with the voices of discontent increasing every day. It is not just Muslim terror suspects who are being harmed by this Treaty. Corporate bankers such as the NatWest Three were previously extradited and a number of computer hackers such as Gary McKinnon, who suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, are awaiting extradition. All are British citizens. All are accused of committing crimes in Britain. All have been abandoned, if not betrayed, by their government.
Over 42,000 people have signed the petition to put Babar Ahmad on trial in the UK with the rate increasing at over 2000 per day. It is one of the top 6 e-petitions on the official government website. The goal is to reach over 100,000 signatures by 10 November 2011 so that the issue becomes eligible for parliamentary debate. This is the opportunity for the British public to defend the sovereignty of the criminal justice system of this country and ensure that British citizens like Ahmad and McKinnon are not simply handed over without evidence to a foreign jurisdiction where their basic human rights are likely to be violated. An open debate could force the government to comply with the findings of the parliamentary committee on human rights and introduce the forum bar into law, thereby allowing Ahmad, McKinnon and others to be tried in Britain.
Six years ago, there was outrage in this country when the government proposed detaining terror suspects for 90 days without charge. Babar Ahmad has been held for over 2630 days without charge. Even the blind can see that this is simply wrong.