The Shocking Story of Y: Imprisoned in the UK Without Charge or Trial on the Basis of Secret Evidence Since 2003


The status of Lady Justice on the Old Bailey in the City of London.The “war on terror” declared by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has, primarily, been an American obsession, with the prison at Guantánamo Bay operating as its most well-known icon. Other notable aspects of the US’s cruel and disproportionate response to 9/11 are Bagram in Afghanistan, eventually handed over to the Afghan authorities, but the site of several deaths of prisoners in the early years of the “war on terror,” the network of secret CIA “black sites” most recently exposed in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the CIA’s torture program, and, it should be noted, Camp Bucca in Iraq, where ISIS was formed.

As an op-ed in New York Times explained last October, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, spent nearly five years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. A majority of the other top Islamic State leaders were also former prisoners, including: Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja. Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America. Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following. At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any violent crime. Coalition prisons became recruitment centers and training grounds for the terrorists the United States is now fighting.”

It has long been known that the assistance of many other countries was required for the “war on terror” — from sharing intelligence and turning a blind eye to rendition flights to, in some cases, hosting “black sites.” In a report for the United Nations in 2010, on which I was the lead writer, 39 countries were identified, and in 2013, in “Globalizing Torture,” the Open Society Justice Initiative identified 54 countries complicit in the rendition, torture and indefinite detention without charge or trial of “war on terror” prisoners.

Less noted, generally, is how other countries have adopted their own policies of indefinite detention without charge or trial — like Australia and Canada, for example, and, of course, the UK, America’s closest ally in the “war on terror.”

I have, over the years — and particularly from 2009-10 (see here, here, here, here and here) — written extensively about the system of indefinite detention without charge or trial in the UK, imposed after the 9/11 attacks, which involved: a number of foreign nationals being imprisoned without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence; immigration bail, a form of house arrest implemented while the government tried to deport alleged terror suspects in contravention of the UN Convention Against Torture; and control orders — replaced by TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) under the Tories — which also involved a form of house arrest, and which were applied to British nationals as well as foreign nationals.

Since 2010, I have largely covered other aspects of Britain’s shameful counter-terrorism policies — extradition to the US (see here, here and here), and the Tories’ obsession with stripping dual nationals suspected of terrorism of their citizenship (see here and here), although I have also continued to keep an eye on the deportation of alleged terror suspects — primarily in the case of Abu Qatada, commonly referred to by the government and the media as al-Qaeda’s ambassador in Europe, despite there being, apparently, no evidence with which to charge him in the UK.

For the government, sending Abu Qatada back to Jordan became an obsession, even though he faced the risk of torture, or of an unfair trial based on information obtained through the torture of others, and it is still his case that largely informs the idiocy of the Tories’ latest plans to withdraw from European human right legislation.

Ironically, when Abu Qatada was finally returned to Jordan, the case against him collapsed. However, other men — all Algerians — are still held under a form of house arrest, based on a shocking Law Lords ruling in February 2009, dealing with their cases and that of Abu Qatada, in which, as I explained in an article in April 2012:

[I]n February 2009, the Law Lords finally endorsed the forced repatriation of foreign nationals to countries with dubious human rights records, despite their fears of torture, ruling that the cleric Abu Qatada, routinely described as Osama bin Laden’s spiritual advisor in Europe (even though no court has ever established whether or not that was true), could be returned to Jordan, and that a handful of Algerians could also be repatriated.

The reasons for believing that Abu Qatada and the Algerians would be safe — and that Britain would not be deliberately undermining the UN Convention Against Torture — were, to be blunt, ludicrous. The Lords claimed that Qatada was too famous to be tortured, and that, in any case, human rights groups would be able to monitor Jordan’s compliance with its promise to treat him humanely. The same outsourcing of responsibility was extended to Algeria, where, the Lords claimed, Amnesty International would be able to monitor the Algerian government’s compliance with its promise.

In recent years, however, there has been very little mention of the Algerians, and so it came as a pleasant surprise when, on July 5, the Observer published a profile of one of these men, publicly identified only as Y, by Ian Cobain, which captures his Kafkaesque existence (the choice of adjective is appropriate), and which ought to appal anyone concerned with justice in the UK.

On reviewing my involvement with these cases (and my involvement with Y’s case began here), I was rather shocked to note that it is four and half years since Y’s case was last featured prominently, in an event at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Centre, organised by my friend Saleyha Ahsan. This was to promote Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was, written (with the journalist Fiona Bawdon) by Lawrence Archer, one of the jurors in the farcical 2004 ricin trial. At the meeting, memorably, the chair, Peter Oborne, spoke to Y by phone, in a call that moved him and the entire audience who were listening intently as his words were amplified for everyone to hear. Despite all he had been through, he was extremely gracious and humble.

Please note too that, as Ian Cobain notes, seven other men, mostly compatriots of Y, are still held in similarly Kafkaesque conditions, on immigration bail arranged by SIAC, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, a secret terrorism court that has no place in a country that claims to respect the law and, as Dinah Rose QC explained in a powerful statement at a Parliamentary meeting on secret evidence in 2009, one that claims to respect the principles of open justice.

Ian’s article is cross-posted below. I had meant to post it shortly after it was first published, but it came out at a busy time for the We Stand With Shaker campaign, and I have only just found the time to write an introduction to it, and to make it available now. I’m glad to see that nearly as thousand people shared it when it was published, but I hope my crosspost enables it to reach a whole new audience, and that you will share it if you find it useful.

Walk down the wrong street and you’re back in prison: the Kafkaesque life of a terror suspect in Britain
By Ian Cobain, The Observer, July 5, 2015

Since Algerian asylum seeker Y was arrested in 2003, he has spent years behind bars or unable to move more than a few miles, yet he has never been convicted of a crime. What is it like to exist under such extraordinary restrictions?

This is a true story.

One January morning, Y went to the cashpoint near his home to draw out some money. When the machine swallowed his card, he went into the bank, where he was told he needed to contact the card provider.

He arranged to visit a local branch of his own bank, where he was introduced to the manager. Y noticed that the manager appeared to be slightly nervous. A man and a woman walked over to Y, asked him to confirm his name, then asked him to accompany them to another office at the bank. Inside, six or seven policemen were waiting. Y was informed that he was being arrested as a suspected terrorist. He was handcuffed, and led away.

That was in 2003. Since then, Y has been convicted of no criminal offence — “not so much as a parking ticket”, he says — yet has spent years behind bars. When allowed out of prison, he has faced extraordinary restrictions on his movements.

Y is told in which house he must live. At one point, he was told in which town he must reside. On first arriving at his new home, he is given a map of the neighbourhood, on which is marked a boundary beyond which he cannot stray. If he crosses the boundary, he may be sent to jail. He is told how long he can remain outside his home: initially, he was allowed out for just two hours each afternoon. He must wear an electronic tag, which is linked to a sensor in his home, and must telephone the company that operates the tag every morning and every evening. If he fails to make the call, he may be sent to jail.

Y cannot meet anyone without the prior permission of the government. Any prospective employer must agree to be vetted by the government and, as a result, few are prepared to give him a job. If he returns to education, the government will decide what he can study.

Visitors are not permitted to remain in his home overnight. He has recently been given permission to buy a computer, but he must connect to the internet by cable, and is barred from using email, Skype or any form of social media. If he attempts to do so, he may be sent to jail.

And then there is the little matter of his name. When Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, his story of a young man who is subjected to a bewildering legal process that he can never influence, the novelist at least gave his protagonist, Josef K, a first name.

By order of a court, the Guardian cannot publish Y’s real name. We may identify him only as Y. If we breach the order, I may be sent to jail.

All this is happening in Britain in 2015.

Y was born 45 years ago in a town in western Algeria, where he worked for many years as a tax inspector. He was a supporter of the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist political party whose imminent victory in the general election of January 1992 was annulled by a military coup. After the coup, members of the party were arrested or murdered, and the country slid into civil war. Y was detained and severely beaten: he still carries the scars. The Algerian government says he is a terrorist. It is an allegation he denies.

In 1998, he left Algeria for Spain, and, in 2000, he arrived in the UK. In Algeria, meanwhile, he was tried in absentia, convicted of criminal association, and sentenced to death.

In the UK, Y claimed asylum and, in 2001, was given indefinite leave to remain. He settled in north London and helped to run the bookshop at the mosque in Finsbury Park, which would later become infamously and inextricably linked with the preacher Abu Hamza.

In early January 2003, as the countdown began to the invasion of Iraq, police raided a flat above a pharmacy in nearby Wood Green and arrested six men on suspicion of attempting to use the seeds of castor oil plants to make ricin, the highly toxic protein.

The media went into overdrive. The Mirror, for example, gave over its entire front page to a graphic showing a skull and crossbones over a map of Britain, below the banner headline: “IT’S HERE”. The BBC reported that sales of gas masks were soaring.

Tony Blair said “the find” highlighted the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, while the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, referred to the “UK poison cell” while making the case for the invasion of Iraq to the UN.

It was against this background that Y was arrested: his fingerprints were found on a ricin recipe discovered at the Wood Green flat. The only problem with the ricin plot was that there was no ricin. None. There never had been any, but there was no public admission of this until 2005, when a government scientist was compelled to reveal the truth while giving evidence at the Old Bailey, where Y and the other men were on trial, accused of conspiracy to murder.

Clearly somebody at the flat had been up to no good, in a bumbling sort of way: there were a small number of ingredients that could be used in an attempt to manufacture ricin, plus the recipe. And one of the defendants, Kamel Bourgass, was extraordinarily dangerous: while on the run after the Wood Green raid, he stabbed to death a Manchester policer officer, Stephen Oake.

Y’s defence was that he operated the photocopier at the mosque bookshop, and that his fingerprints would be on thousands of documents he had never read; he said he had never met Bourgass. At the end of the trial, Bourgass was convicted of the lesser charge of conspiring to cause a public nuisance. He had already been jailed for life for the murder. Y and three other defendants were cleared — the jury was unanimous — and the prosecution of four further men was abandoned.

Y, who had been held in Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London, was a free man, but that did not last long. The Home Office gave notice that it was going to attempt to deport him to Algeria, regardless of the death sentence hanging over him, and a few months later he was detained, pending deportation. He is almost philosophical about this turn of events: “It was after 7/7 and the home secretary — I think it was Charles Clarke at that time — had to show that he was doing something.”

The jurors were furious, however. Two of them, who had subsequently befriended Y, wrote in the Guardian that a government “that seems bent on chiselling away at civil liberties” was ignoring their verdict.

And Y was about to have his first dealings with the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, or Siac, a place for which the adjective Kafkaesque could have been created.

Siac is the extraordinarily secretive court that deals with appeals against government proposals to deport people believed to pose a risk to national security. Aptly, perhaps, it convenes underground, in the basement of a building off Chancery Lane in central London. There is a curtain around the witness box from which unseen members of MI5 give evidence, and a screen down the centre of the court to shield government observers from the gaze of members of the public or the press.

Not that many journalists attend Siac. One of the few who does, the BBC home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani, says: “It’s the only court I can think of where I can be told there is a case of national importance, only to find the doors locked and no clear indication of when they are going to open.”

It is not only the journalists who are turfed out of court on a regular basis: so, too, are the appellants and their lawyers. Whenever the government deploys what it euphemistically calls “closed evidence”, the appellants can be represented only by government-appointed barristers known as “special advocates”. And once the special advocates have seen the government’s secret evidence, they cannot talk to the appellants to take instructions.

As a consequence, Y cannot know the evidence that the government relies on at Siac. It is clear, however, that MI5 believes the Old Bailey jury reached the wrong verdict, and, in 2006, after seeing the secret evidence, Siac concluded that he did pose a risk to national security.

Y was released on bail from Belmarsh and went to live in the house of a man in east London, a peace activist who wished to help. “The problem was that he had to keep his computer locked in a box, and his daughter had to get permission from the Home Office to visit him. Even his cleaner had to get permission to come inside the house.”

Y told the Home Office he wanted to move and was found a new home in north London. At this point, he was allowed out of the building for two hours each day, between midday and 2pm. The house was on a road opposite a park, but he was forbidden to enter: the boundary on the map that he was given ran down the middle of the road. “Why were the boundaries drawn that way? I was never told.”

Later that year, when the government began to believe it had a chance of deporting Y, he was detained once more so that he could not abscond. This time he was sent to Long Lartin maximum security prison in Worcestershire. Bail was refused — for “reasons which can only be given in closed”, said the Siac judge — and Y began receiving treatment for depression. It was almost two years before he was released, and this time he was told he must live in a house in a small town 45 miles north of London.

“On my second day there I was late returning to the house. It was a Friday, I had been to the nearest mosque, but it was on the other side of the next town and I missed the bus on the way back. I ran, but I was late. The following Monday lots of plainclothes police from London arrived. I was driven straight to Belmarsh, and was back up before Siac in the morning. The judge let me go back to the house.”

Over the years that followed, Y’s case continued to ping-pong back and forth between Siac, the high court and the supreme court. It still does: he’s due back before Siac next month. In theory, he is on Siac bail pending deportation. In reality, he is living a life controlled by the government. He is not alone: seven other men are also on Siac bail.

That life is getting easier. In 2011, Y was allowed to return to London, and now lives in a house in the north of the city that is provided by the Home Office. “It’s got two bedrooms and a garden. It’s quite nice. I’d have been happy with a flat.”

He receives £74 a week in income support benefit, and works as a volunteer at a local Roman Catholic church, carrying out small repairs. As well as being allowed to use a computer at home, he is permitted to carry a simple mobile phone. He assumes his calls are monitored.

Y’s curfew conditions have been eased, and he is required to be at home only between midnight and 8am. His map is bigger too: today, Y’s world stretches all the way from Euston Road on the edge of central London, to the North Circular Road, six miles away. There is one street in the middle that remains out of bounds. “Don’t ask me why.”

In addition, he is permitted to go to the British Museum or the National Gallery, providing he gives 48 hours’ notice. He can also apply for permission to travel further afield and, on occasion, it is granted. He recently travelled to Canterbury, for example, although the Home Office warned him that he was permitted only to visit the cathedral and museum, and not the city itself. “They also said I couldn’t stop for a coffee at the railway station.” He shakes his head. “Someone’s sitting there in an office, making up these conditions.”

Y had been engaged to be married before his 2003 arrest, but the relationship could not survive the strictures of Siac bail. “We split up. She would have been subjected to all the same conditions, and she couldn’t live with all these conditions.”

His relatives live in Algeria and many of his friends eventually fell away. He finds it all but impossible to make new ones. Prearranged meetings need to be agreed with the Home Office. “And people from my community, the Algerian community, when they hear the words Home Office, they run: they’re scared of the Home Office. It’s hard, making friends.”

One of the few who has befriended Y is Bruce Kent, the former Catholic priest and vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was while sitting with Kent in a Costa Coffee shop, not far from Y’s home, that Y was pointed out to me.

He seems to be a patient man, and has not lost his sense of humour. From time to time he laughs out loud when describing some of the more absurd curbs that he has faced. At other times he uses the word “normal” to describe the restrictions. “Well, they’re normal to me now. I’ve been living with them for 12 years. They’ve become the norm.”

He still suffers from depression, however, and takes a range of antidepressants as well as sleeping tablets. “And I’m getting forgetful. Maybe it’s the stress. I’m really worried that one day I will forget to make the phone call to the tag company. And then I’ll go back to jail.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Sven Wraight wrote:

    11 years and I’ve just heard: that’s worrying!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I think, Sven, that it demonstrates quite how hidden this story has been, with very little outrage in the media over the years. And when I used to write about it for the Guardian in 2009, along with Saleyha Ahsan, we ran up against some very organised high-level trolling, from people who obviously liked imprisonment without charge or trial for Muslims, on the basis of secret evidence.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. The whole of the UK’s version of Guantanamo is something that far too many people – both in the UK and elsewhere – don’t know about, and yet its injustice still lingers, as the case of Y demonstrates.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Saleyha Ahsan wrote:

    We need to talk!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Saleyha, yes, I was thinking of you, of course, and managed to mention you in my intro to the cross-post of Ian’s article. Of course we should talk. It’s been ages! After the bank holiday looks good.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Saleyha Ahsan wrote:

    Ok cool – thinking a play!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Loving your relentless energy, Saleyha! Let’s talk soon then.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Tim Chadwick shared the article, I wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, Tim. Not a story that enough people know about – Britain’s own version of Guantanamo.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Pucci Dellanno wrote:

    Bloody hell.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Bloody hell, indeed, Pucci​. A very understandable response.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    So Ian Cobain mentions seven other men held on deportation bail, who I presume are the seven identified, along with Y, in 2012, when the Court of Appeal turned down their appeals against the Home Secretary’s decision to deport them “on grounds of national security.” There were six Algerians – W, Z, G, BB, U and PP – and the seventh man, identified as VV, had publicly identified himself in 2010 as Hussain al-Samamara. Follow the links here for further information:

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s Saleyha​’s Guardian article from February 2012 about the Algerians and SIAC:
    And Hussein al-Samamara mentioned in October 2012 by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as being subjected to a TPIM:
    Hussein later returned voluntarily to Jordan.

  13. arcticredriver says...


    This sounds so inexplicable. One thinks such things don’t happen in a free country.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Saleyha Ahsan wrote:

    And do you remember being filmed for this? The secret evidence film?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh, that’s great, Saleyha. I didn’t know your secret evidence film was available online. Well worth watching. I remember that Eric Metcalfe, the director of human rights policy at JUSTICE from 2003 until 2011, was particularly good in it. (For those who don’t know, JUSTICE was “founded in 1957 by a group of leading jurists to promote the rule of law and the fair administration of justice”:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Saleyha Ahsan wrote:

    And here are Honor Blackman and Andi Osho reading for Y and another detainee in the Secret Evidence monologues

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent. Thanks, Saleyha.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    In response to 13, above:

    Yes, it’s the one area where other countries have taken off in directions that the US hasn’t, arcticredriver. Too few people in the UK know about what’s been happening here, and I suspect too few people in Canada know about what’s been happening there too.
    One of the first cases I heard about in Canada, many years ago, was that of Mohamed Harkat.
    Here’s the website for the campaign run by his wife:
    And his Wikipedia entry has some interesting information, in part about Abu Zubaydah:

    Public statements indicated that Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded during harsh interrogations by the United States, described a man “similar to” Harkat running a guest house in Pakistan that shuttled mujahideen to Chechnya, although he did not use Harkat’s name. This led the United States to accuse Harkat of “assisting terrorists, including the September 11 hijackers”.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Tim Chadwick wrote:

    Britain was the colonial master at one point, now the United Snakes is the empire master, and Britain has blindly followed this ally relationship, so while most might find this surprising, because the great Aimé Césaire’s book “Discourse on Colonialism,” I don’t. Britain is playing the acolyte position with award quality performances. thanks to people like you and George Galloway MP and others the truth sneaks out once in a while. I respect all your work about Guantanamo, as well as your reports on gentrification throughout London, which I saw on French news is becoming a very expensive place to live, in the same way that NYC and Washington DC have become virtually impossible places for working class people to live. Throughout the past three centuries the United Snakes and the UK mirror each other in their adoption of capitalism as a disease of separating the war into class struggles.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the kind comments about my Guantanamo work, Tim, and also for your interest in the latest phase of the class struggle. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is getting more and more extreme, and yet far too many people don’t even notice, and have been misled by the media and politicians playing their horrible cynical games based on notions of entitlement. It’s so shameful that the poor are being treated as having a sense of entitlement, when it’s the rich that have the most unacceptable sense of entitlement, and, with politicians’ connivance, are engaged in the ongoing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for this reminder Andy. It makes me ashamed that I have not done more for Y and the other Algerians living half lives for over a decade. It’s become easy to accept that this is their life and nothing more can be done apart from supporting them personally. It is worth noting that some of these men have wives and children who are living this half life too.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ann. Very good to hear from you. With all the interest you have shown over the years, there’s certainly no reason for you to feel ashamed – but I do understand your reflections about the passage of time and the feeling of impotence in the face of this ongoing injustice. It’s what I felt reading Ian’s article. Overall, however, I think the problem is that there’s not been enough interest from those representing the men in getting their story out to as wide an audience as possible.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    That’s true Andy – there’s not enough interest and Muslim groups seem to shy away from their story apart from Hhugs of course.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m going to see if I can devote a bit of time to the story again, Ann. The men deserve it.

  25. Bill Jones says...

    It’s the nature of the State.
    Vicious, incompetent, corrupt.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Very difficult to argue with that, Bill. Thanks for the comments.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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