“During the supermax prison in America, for two years I lived through complete hell. Those two years were the darkest days of my life… I saw one suicide attempt a week, three suicide attempts in one day”. This is the way that Babar Ahmad described his incarceration in US supermax prisons. The prison conditions he described are unacceptable by any standard.
Four years into his imprisonment, in 2008, Babar Ahmad spoke out about his fears of being extradited. Speaking to CAGE (then Cageprisoners) Babar explained how a former inmate who was extradited to the US was placed “in complete solitary confinement, locked in a bare concrete cell without access to natural light”.
Babar understood only too well that he faced the real risk “spend[ing] the rest of my life in a ‘supermax’ US prison in total solitary confinement”. In doing so, Babar joined prisoners like Talha Ahsan, Abu Hamza, Khalid Al-Fawwaz and Adel Abdelbary, men fighting for their lives and fighting for their sanity.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez said “the practice of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement inflicts pain and suffering of a psychological nature, which is strictly prohibited by the Convention Against Torture”.
Being held for 23 to 24 hours a day in isolation and subjected to humiliating cavity searches each time you leave your cell is a terrifying prospect for any human being. It is a ghost-like existence, where the mind dwells in the far peripherals of reality. Without any mental stimulus the individual is left to their thoughts. Many are overcome by the isolation and develop serious psychiatric problems.
Disregarded concerns about human rights
In fulfilling its lopsided extradition treaty, the UK sacrificed centuries of legal protections and its tradition of human rights to respond to American demands. The entire British legal framework worked as a subcontracted branch of US prosecutors so that Babar and other British citizens could be sent away to torturous conditions. This embodied the very British proverb ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
In September 2012 the European Court of Human Rights paved the way for the extraditions to take place, stating, “that there would be no violation of the applicants’ rights if extradited to stand trial in the United States”. This ruling came despite the US obstructing attempts by the UN to visit its prisons. It was only in 2014 and in the capacity of an ‘expert’, not as an UN Special Rapporteur, that Juan Mendez was allowed to see California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, which keeps inmates in indefinite solitary confinement.
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Mendez has reiterated from the beginning of his tenure in 2010, that solitary confinement beyond 15 days can cause lasting mental damage and amounts to torture. Why the ECHR allowed the extradition to proceed thereafter is a matter that continues to perplex human rights advocates.
A far cry from justice
Since their extradition, all 5 men were convicted, unsurprisingly. Khalid Al-Fawwaz and Abu Hamza were sentenced to life, Adel Abdelbary 25 years, Babar Ahmed 12.5 years and Talha Ahsan to 8 years. The majority of them accepted plea bargains, as not to do so meant they would run the risk of serving an extremely lengthy sentence under further torture.
The definitions of ‘terrorism’ are also extremely broad. Too Blunt for Just Outcomes, a report by CAGE found that: “Even where the convictions against a Muslim suspect bear only a very peripheral relation to terrorism, a terrorism enhancement is being applied, which dramatically increases the number of years to be served by the defendant”.
The American justice system is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect in Britain, despite its shortfalls: “The US mainland requires much work before it can lay claim to a fair, open and justice system for all,” the report concluded.
Guantanamo Begins at Home, also a report by CAGE, “documents the systemic human rights abuses and Islamaphobia that pervade the [US] criminal justice system at every step: prior to indictment; from indictment through conviction; in sentencing; and inside U.S. prisons”. Within this context one cannot truly expect a fair trial.
CAGE’s research director Asim Qureshi, commenting on an article following the sentencing of Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan said, “When Babar and Talha pleaded guilty, it came as no surprise. We knew that this would at least give them a chance to come home, rather than face the prospect of a sentence of hundreds of years. It has to be understood that in the US, over 97% of criminal cases result in a plea deal, as the only concern the US have is to secure a conviction”.
The plea bargain system combined with documented torture of prisoners reinforces the narrative of the War on Terror; individuals are forced to admit guilt as a way of getting out of horrific conditions, even if the accusations aren’t true or are exaggerated. The public is served a story of ‘convicted terrorists’ when in fact this label deserves far more scrutiny under a more equitable and open justice system.
In his interview with the BBC Babar Ahmad eloquently expressed the torment he faced in US supermax prisons. It’s a testament to his bravery and the strength of his character that he was able to speak about the treatment he is now receiving after spending the past two years of torment in a US supermax prison.
The men Babar left behind continue to suffer deplorable conditions. In a moving letter, Abu Hamza’s daughter reminisces over her fathers memory and talks about her sense of loss and near bereavement since his extradition. “I still remember those precious days. From being able to see him everyday and talk to him whenever, to talking to him once every 4 to 5 weeks”.
Abu Hamza is only allowed a 30-minute phone call with his family every month. He had his prosthetics confiscated and his meals are provided in food packages he has difficulty in opening. There is also the psychological effect of existing in complete isolation. He is sleep deprived and like Babar Ahmad has lost a great deal of weight. “I can now count my ribs,” he said. Even the medication he is served causes him serious side effects. “The Americans are trying to kill me slowly” he believes.
The remainder of the prisoners who were extradited expect no different treatment. All are in isolation, all living in inhumane conditions.
Judicial Sovereignty exported since 2003
The political climate in the UK is engulfed by discussions concerning the upcoming European referendum. One of the central arguments of the Brexit campaign is to reclaim British sovereignty.
However, ironically, the British judiciary has effectively been outsourced to the US since 2003 under the US-UK Extradition Treaty, which is characterised by non-reciprocity: when Britain requests extradition from the United States, the Treaty requires that the UK provide a prima facie case that the person in question is guilty of the offense, yet there is no such requirement for the US when requesting extradition of a person from the UK.
This leaves Britain’s sovereignty in tatters. Whether politicians also push to repeal this Treaty and demonstrate their ‘commitment’ to Britain remains to be seen.
Image courtesy of BBC
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)