Tomorrow, Wednesday, June 20, 2012, there is a meeting in the House of Commons to discuss the US-UK Extradition Treaty, a source of consternation since its establishment in 2003, as it allows British citizens to be extradited to the US for the flimsiest of reasons, where they will face a legal system that is, in many ways, out of control, in which cases that involve activities that can be described as providing material support for terrorism, for example, attract horrendously long sentences.
The meeting, in Committee Room 10, begins at 6 pm, and lasts until 8 pm, and features the following speakers:
Caroline Lucas MP
John Hemming MP
Sadiq Khan MP (Shadow Justice Secretary)
David Bermingham (Natwest Three)
Sir Iqbal Sacranie
Those facing extradition, whose cases will be discussed, are Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer. I discussed their cases back in April, after Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad had their appeal to the European Court of Human Rights turned down, and I recommend that article for anyone who wants to know more. Briefly, however, none of the men have ever visited the US, and summaries of their cases are as follows: Talha Ahsan is a poet and writer with Asperger’s syndrome who has been detained for six years without charge or trial; Babar Ahmad has been detained without charge or trial for eight years, longer than any other British citizen in modern British history (and both men are accused of alleged crimes involving web-based militant activity); Gary McKinnon, who also has Asperger’s Syndrome, is accused of hacking into US agency websites ten years ago and has been fighting extradition ever since; and Richard O’Dwyer is accused of breaching US copyright laws, despite the fact that what he is accused of does not constitute a crime in the UK.
As Liberty has explained in its “Extradition Watch” campaign:
This is an important meeting, about a hugely important topic that needs addressing — and resolving with justice and fairness — and below, to provide further important information, I’m cross-posting two articles about Talha Ahsan’s case that help to shed light on the barbarity of the current extradition arrangements. The first is an editorial by Hicham Yezza in Ceasefire magazine, and the second is from the Guardian by the author AL Kennedy. Talha and Babar Ahmad are also featured in “Extradition,” a new documentary film directed by Turab Shah, which features interviews with Gareth Peirce, Talha’s Brother Hamja Ahsan, the playwright Avaes Mohammad and the fathers of Babar and Talha, all framed by Talha’s prison poetry.
Screenings of the film are currently taking place across the UK (In Birmingham and Manchester on June 21, in London on June 22, in Edinburgh on June 25 and Glasgow on June 27, with more dates to be added), and as the Free Talha Ahsan website notes, “The fate of these men is now in an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights, who will make the decision on the validity of their extradition by July 10, 2012.”
There is also a protest outside Downing Street from 1 pm to 3 pm on Saturday June 23, entitled, “British Justice for British Citizens,” and calling for the Prime Minister to halt the extraditions, at which speakers so far confirmed are Ashfaq Ahmad, Julia O’Dwyer, Bruce Kent, John McDonnell MP, David Bermingham, Kate Hudson, Louise Christian, Unjum Mirza, Victoria Brittain, Farooq Murad and Avaez Mohammed. Click on the image to enlarge the poster.
In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K, the central character, is driven to paranoia and despair after finding himself charged with an unnamed offence about which no evidence is ever presented. Kafka wrote what he thought was a grotesquely exaggerated parable to show us what can go wrong — and how easily so — when societies lose their power to hold rulers accountable. Yet little did he know that, barely half a century on, his attempt at far-fetched dystopia would be rendered not just a banal plausibility but a hardened, crude reality for countless innocents across the world.
The idea that anyone could be detained on suspicion of a crime of whose nature they cannot be told, the evidence for which they cannot see, would have seemed preposterous to the 13th century drafters of the Magna Carta let alone to a notionally “civilised” modern society such as 21st century Britain. And yet, this is precisely the sort of moral quagmire we have sleepwalked into.
Last week, I took part in a discussion programme (“The World This Week“, presented by Phil Rees) that touched upon the subject of the detention without charge of UK citizens. In particular, the programme focused on the fact that many of the people affected, such as Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, are facing the serious prospect of being extradited to the United States, all for alleged crimes taking place in the UK.
It’s important to note that we are not talking here about someone being detained for a few hours, or even days, while urgent investigations are being carried out — which would have had at least some semblance of logic. In fact, most of these men have been held for years: five years in the case of Talha Ahsan, eight in the case of Babar Ahmad, and twelve for two others — all of whom, let us remember, have not been charged with any crime whatsoever.
The case of Talha Ahsan, a poet and first class SOAS graduate, who suffers from Asperger’s, is worth highlighting for being both representative of the others and indicative of the sheer senselessness of what passes for due process in this country.
Despite having spent half a decade in prison, Talha has, to this day, seen no charges being levelled against him, nor has he ever been questioned by either UK or US police. Furthermore, his lawyers are yet to be granted the chance to see any evidence against their client, and have thus been left with the task of fighting shadows and spectres.
As if the Kafkaesque parallels couldn’t get any more poignant, fate has decreed that the last book Talha read before his arrest was … Franz Kafka’s The Trial. As his brother, Hamja, later pointed out, Talha “never finished it and I had to return the overdue copy to the Library”. (Poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad read a section to mark the 5th year of Talha’s detention without trial, available online here — from 5:57m in).
Predictably, Talha’s predicament, and that of the others, has met with almost total indifference by their own government. For all his rhetorical flexing of patriotic muscles, David Cameron (like Blair and Brown before him) has shown himself to be a meek and docile servant to US interests.
Instead, the coalition’s much vaunted civil liberties agenda — supposedly providing a corrective swerve to New Labour’s decade-long assault on our freedoms — has so far given us the brilliant prospect of seeing every text, email and phone-call we ever make being recorded and monitored by the State. In effect, we are being slowly eased into a world where we are all potentially guilty until we can prove otherwise.
These are not issues restricted to Muslim Britons either. Two prominent cases are those of Richard O’Dwyer and Gary McKinnon, whose planned extradition rests solely on the premise they represent a serious, existential threat to the United States. This is the same United States whose government (as I mention in the programme) was revealed as recently as two weeks ago to have been training, on US soil, members of the MEK, an Iranian opposition organisation which figures on its own list of terrorist groups.
I recommend that readers watch the contributions by my co-guests, Hamja Ahsan (brother of Talha) and Makbool Javauid (human rights lawyer), who both provide an excellent summary of the cases and a bleak glimpse into the threats facing civil liberties in this country. As prominent lawyers, legal experts and civil liberties campaigners have pointed out, UK citizens, whatever their colour, creed or political persuasion, should be tried in their own country, based on evidence they can see and challenge. Anything less is simply not good enough.
Indeed, had this been a story from China or Russia, the obviousness of such a straightforward demand would have made any further commentary redundant. And yet, we allow for this to happen on our shores, and in our name. We pretend that defending these men is not our responsibility, that their persecution is not a seal of shame on our justice system, that their tragedy is someone else’s problem.
Indeed, that these men — who remain innocent until further notice — have been allowed to languish in prison for years without a public outcry is a sad indictment of how far we’ve slumped towards accepting an official line that tells us we’re facing an overwhelming, imminent “security threat” about to engulf us all, and that we must sell our freedoms — hard-earned over centuries of struggle against the powerful — on the cheap to keep this threat at bay. Alas, it seems most of us have bought into the idea that destroying these and other people’s lives is a price worth paying for a false sense of “peace” and “security”.
As such, we ought to keep in mind another, less mentioned, aspect of Kafka’s famous novel: the tragic essence of Joseph K’s predicament is not that he is facing a faceless, sadistic bureaucratic monster, against whom all resistance seems utterly futile, but that he is facing it alone.
Still, whereas we aren’t able to do much about the fictional Joseph K, there remains a lot we can do to help the real-life Joseph Ks suffering in the here and now: Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Richard O’Dwyer, Gary McKinnon and others. For instance, we can support initiatives such as … Caroline Lucas MP’s Early Day Motion on the subject, or by simply getting informed, and helping inform others, about these issues.
This is possibly one of our very last opportunities to redress a colossal injustice and stand up for the civil liberties we claim as our own. We shouldn’t waste it.
For more info on those facing detention without charge and extradition to the US, visit the campaign websites for Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Gary McKinnon, Richard O’Dwyer and Friends Extradited. See Also: Politics When Innocence is Not Enough: Talha Ahsan and the Rise of the (In)Security State [a fascinating article from Ceasefire, last July, written by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed].
As you will know, I am not in any way a fan of arguments which claim that artists are more sensitive than others, or indeed liable to be more insane than others. I do agree — and find it reasonable to assert — that any profession, or longterm activity, can leave its mark on the practitioner, physically, mentally and emotionally. Forensic anthropologists can identify archers from wear patterns on their teeth; the interested disinterest with which doctors and surgeons can view their fellows is a recognisable trait; as are the impulses towards control and improvement which manifest themselves in educationalists.
The arts, if I can be brief with my definition, are about communication. We can argue later about pieces of art which try not to communicate and why I think they’re not really pieces of art at all and more like telegrams from people who have issues with commitment. Put simply, someone who works in the arts notices things: emotions, actions, remarkable and humdrum elements of their lives and the lives of others and — of course — the fruits of their imaginations. The artist generates and captures material, analyses it, crafts it and then presents it. An almost infinite variety of inspirations combine, distil, appear without warning, bubble up over years and generally bother the artist, delight the artist, scare the artist and become insistent that they should be expressed. And the artist expresses. Something only they know about and have come to understand is given to us — we are made richer by a stranger, who takes us into times, places, situations and personalities which we could not otherwise experience. This is a beautiful and generous phenomenon and I have been glad of it for all my conscious life.
And artists do, through time, become recognisably artists. They love what they do and love to do it. Their desire to communicate to strangers can override very reasonable demands from family and friends that they should be a little more domestically focused and expressive. And specialities begin to show: someone like me will notice when words are repeated in conversations, or have unusual lyricism, or when an advert pretends to imply positive qualities and happy lives while meaning very little. Painters will see and see and see: the fall of clothes, the combination of colours, the alteration of faces, the endless effects of light. Actors will pick up minute alterations and inaccuracies in inflection, will assess strangers with horrible rapidity and accuracy and, having spent years making themselves deeply accessible to their emotions in a way that allows them to pay their bills, will cry at the drop of a hat.
To repeat, the artist generates and captures material, analyses it, crafts it and then presents it. I mention this, because the poet Talha Ahsan has been much in my thoughts lately. I have never met Ahsan, but I have read his poems; been given his expressions of landscapes, the touch of loved skin and something of his experience of being imprisoned.
I have written about Ahsan here before and you may be aware that he is a British subject and resident who was arrested on 19 July 2006 and who has been held without trial ever since, awaiting extradition under the terms of the increasingly notorious Extradition Act 2003. The US requested his arrest and the UK authorities obliged, although he has no case to answer in the UK. The Extradition Act doesn’t require the provision of prima facie evidence. It seems that evidence gathered during Babar Ahmad‘s interrogation — an interrogation described in the high court as “grave abuse, tantamount to torture” — may have helped form the basis of the case against Ahsan. Ahmad was later awarded £60,000 compensation by the Metropolitan police and also has no case to answer in the UK. He also remains in custody awaiting extradition to the US.
The situation of these two men is mirrored in a number of other appalling cases, some of which affected white Christians and therefore received rather more media attention. I would hope that any reader would feel compassion for their position, which is something far closer to purgatory than anything I would wish on anyone.
For me, Babar Ahmad is someone I have read about in newspapers and on websites. Talha Ahsan is someone who has written me letters from his prison and who has written the letters to a wider world which are his poems. The insight into his predicament and his humanity which his writings offer remind me why so many politicians prefer that unsanctioned forms of expression — especially artistic expression — should be limited, or entirely curtailed. And they remind me of how human beings can make beauty flower, even in a wasteland of absurd and willful amorality.
If Ahsan is finally extradited to the US and found guilty, he will be detained in a supermax prison where he will remain in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. The vast majority of his interactions with prison authorities will be provided virtually, via a black and white TV. Human contact will be limited to occasional strip searches, medical interventions and the arrival of his meals. He will have a tiny window. Less technologically advanced forms of solitary confinement were used in Victorian prisons until it was found they tended to make inmates insane.
This is intolerable. The lack of justice, the lack of transparency, the stain of torture, the calculation of imprisonment amounting to torture — this is all intolerable. This should not happen to Babar Ahmad — because it is intolerable. This should not happen to anyone — because it is intolerable. This should not happen to my friend Talha Ahsan who writes poems about drinking turkish coffee and getting a haircut and kissing while mouths taste of peaches and prayers and compassion and love and wishing to have never been born and illuminates each line with himself and his voice and his music — because it is intolerable.
In prison Talha suffers, as we all do, idiosyncratically. Should he be confined to a supermax facilty, he will become a man who has almost nothing to notice every day and who has no one to share his life with, or to hear his voice. He will be denied the right to communicate — something enshrined by the UN as fundamental to our experience of being human. One of the parts of who he is, his occupation, will have been constricted to its vanishing point. He will rehearse his death, the last of his absolute removal, until it becomes reality. Although he is a man of immense personal strength and compassion, I feel there may be no onwards for Talha which is not very dark. I hope I’m wrong. Free and in my study and with all the wider world under my fingers, I hope I’m wrong.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Pauline Kiernan wrote:
Thanks Andy and sharing
Thanks, Pauline. Good to hear from you.
My friend cosmicsurfer wrote:
This falls on the heels of the story of Assange’s attempts for political asylum. The attempts to extradite him to Sweden for a certain prison term at what, I believe, is the covert behest of the US. The US wants to shut people up and what better way than forcing nations to detain and imprison those who speak out …
All too “Brave New World”, “1984”, “V” for my liking … Didn’t anyone READ at school?
The US has gone to manipulating government through their “justice” systems. Involving themselves in the liberties guaranteed by OTHER countries, influencing the politics and demanding their courts silence people around the world.
Bad enough we do it to our own but to do it to people who aren’t even US citizens or on US soil is beyond appalling.
Leonardo L Larl wrote:
…., this is so atrociously insane that there’s no excuse for a “democratic” society allowing case like this to happen and worst is that the US would never ever allow the reverse procedure for an american.
Yes, one of the problems, Leonardo, is that it’s one-sided in favour of the US, but even more importantly, i think, extradition should’t be used when the host country could undertake a trial, or if what is a crime in the country of extradition isn’t a crime in the host country – otherwise it’s rather like a form of kidnap.
Zilma Nunes wrote:
it’s right is like a form of kidnap…They create strange “Laws”. Have you seen how they deal with outsiders with their immgrant’s stupid laws ?
Zilma Nunes wrote:
..and the excuse is the terrorism…They make a terrorism in the people’s lives and everybody is a suspect about something …
Thanks, Zilma. Yes, the paranoia – whether real or manufactured cynically to preserve a climate of fear in which people can be exploited politically – is out of control in the US.
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