Asim Qureshi, CAGE’s Research Director, interviewed Umm Ahmed upon her release, she was convicted under the 2006 Terrorism Act for the possession of terrorism material. She was sentenced to 12 months in prison and was released in 2014.
As part of her release, she was subjected to the government’s deradicalisation programme, despite the judge in her case accepting that she was not a terrorist, nor had she ever posed a danger to UK society. The case speaks to how terrorism legislation, the PREVENT strategy and its accompanying Channel programme, seek to create statistics of terrorism, where the reality is very different.
With the government seeking to push through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, it is stories such as that of Umm Ahmed that should encourage us to rethink the narrative of whether or not there is an actual terrorism threat, or if these stories are more indicative of a threat being created.
My situation began in December 2010, it began with my family. My brothers were arrested, two amongst nine. It was a week before any of them were charged and we were told that they would have to be detained until trial, which was one year away. Of course it irritated us because we were not expecting a raid, we were not expecting charges and we definitely were not expecting arrests. We just kept thinking that our two brothers would be detained for a whole year, along with the seven others.
When they raided the home, it was in fact three homes as one of my brothers lived next door, and the other brother’s home was three streets away. Even though no one was arrested in the house I was living in, the fact that my brother had access to the property, permitted the warrant to also enter that home. The armed officers rushed in, shouting and telling us to get on the floor, which is quite funny because at the time my mattress was already on the floor, so I had no where to go.
It was an issue particularly because you can’t wear the hijab in that moment and no one goes to sleep with their hijab on or close by. You cannot even attempt to go for it. The armed officers guarded me while they got a female officer to come and conduct a search. You cannot move from the position on the floor until the officer has searched the whole body and they have checked to make sure it was safe.
They even searched my younger brother, making sure there was nothing around which would permit him to hurt anyone or himself. Eventually they brought us all down to one room and would not tell us who had been arrested or present any kind of warrant until much much later.
All I kept on asking for was the warrant. I wanted to know what this section 5 was that they kept on talking about. We were kept completely in the dark about the whole thing. We didn’t have time for anything, we couldn’t get anything we needed. You just had to do what they say.
The experience was horrifying, but compared to the raids that happened in London later, this was actually quite kind. In Cardiff they treated us with some kind of humanity.
After the properties were secured, we were first taken to Cardiff City Hall, and it was the first time we understood the scale of the arrests that had been made. This was just a few days before Christmas, so we got taken to the central hall as it was the only place that was open. This is where we found my sister-in-law and her kids, so we knew my other brother had been taken. My other sister-in-laws also were brought there and two other families that we did not know. The last family who arrived, were being manhandled quite badly. The wife of one brother did not even have her hijab on when she was brought, so she came with a blanket over her head as they had been kicked out of the house.
It was only here that they explained who had been arrested, that it was under something called section 5, and were finally given our warrant notices. They soon assigned us with accommodation as we were not permitted to return to the house. We went to the hotels and we attempted to figure out everything which is when the boys rang from the station to explain that they had been arrested. They said that they had been charged and that they would be facing trial, so they did not believe they would be coming home any time soon.
The properties were being searched for about a week, so the whole time we had been displaced from our homes, without any clothing. We could not even brush our teeth – no one was concerned. Eventually, after complaining, they took us to the local Tesco in order to get some clothes. We were finally sent home, but the locks were destroyed on the doors, so the properties were insecure. When we got inside, there was glass smashed everywhere and the properties had been completely turned upside down. We had to leave for another week, until we could fix the house up. There was no post-raid care or treatment, they just left you completely shocked with your homes destroyed without any consideration.
The legal teams told us that they would keep us informed of what was going on, but often they were slow in returning our calls or cooperating with us, so there were many things we actually needed to figure out on our own. I was often looking for answers. A lot of time passed just trying to get through the clearance procedures they had in place, it was really quite difficult.
There were so many stupid things that came up as the lawyers were preparing for the case. Just one example related to light bulbs. My brothers kept on telling us the entire case was a joke, and we couldn’t understand how the government could misconstrue things. The prosecution were alleging that light bulbs that we had in the home, were to be used as part of the construction of an IED. It was ridiculous, I had bought those light bulbs at Christmas for my sister’s wedding, I even had the receipts. It was such a joke, the things they were trying to use. We were absolutely sure that this was nothing, and that once we came to trial they would be released.
What we did not know during the whole period, was that there was a great deal of vocal surveillance, most of which was presented at the last minute by the prosecution. What was being said, was in our own language, not in English. Often the interpretation would be mixed up by the prosecution, the translations often did not match up to what was being said.
We were literally at the door of the trial, some evidence was provided by the prosecutors. We never saw what this evidence was, but it convinced some of the men to plead guilty. This situation resulted in my own brothers pleading guilty, as they said that they could not plead not-guilty when their co-defendants had pleaded. One by one, they all pled. The fear of a life sentence, was enough to plead on the basis of a good year indication.
Of course – we were completely devastated. We went the whole year thinking it would be easy to fight this, only to be told that they were going to plead guilty.
I was in my final year of university at the time, studying for my accountancy degree. Obviously I had a little more free time than anyone else, I did not have any kids and was not married, so I was a little more free to concentrate on the case. I was greatly concerned about both brothers, especially as they had families of their own. We did not know anything, so I had to understand the situation from scratch.
The whole thing really was based on Inspire magazine. Once I knew this, I became like a dog with bone, I had to find out what the case was all about. When I started looking into Inspire, I realised that all it was, was a book, nothing else. The problem with s.58 materials, is that where there is an instructional element, then it becomes criminalised. I will be honest though, the magazine was not particularly inspiring at all. In fact, it was so dangerous, that I left the USB with the material sitting in my handbag [sarcastically].
In June I got married, when I unfortunately found out the hard way, that a number of months before my husband had travelled to Pakistan. My husband is a Bengali but had gone there for a friend’s wedding.
I was living in London at the time and that was when we were raided. The police found the USB with Inspire magazine in my handbag. They arrested me, but this time without raiding the home.
My husband had been arrested first, and that was through a raid, which was particularly brutal. When I think about Babar Ahmad, you can’t actually believe that something like that happens until it happens to you, this is the police, the British don’t do this. You don’t realise how brutal they can be. They were vile in the way they entered. The first thing they did was to fill our home with smoke from canisters they threw into the property – that was completely unnecessary. I feel now that the Cardiff raid treated us like royalty in comparison. I have been left with the impression that the British are not as nice as they make out, they can be malicious and vile when they have a mind to be.
I’m not going to sit here and sing a song about how innocent my husband was, but what I will say, is that there were injuries to him when we were raided. There were extreme injuries. It was completely unnecessary and intentional. They were beating him up quite badly and he had injuries to his back. We took him to the doctors and had a number of photos taken of the abuse, and they acknowledged they used a certain level of violence, but said it was necessary.
The police cuffed me with plastic cuffs, but initially all I could do was scream for my hijab, it was the only thing that I could think of in that moment. The way in which they cuffed me…I know it probably sounds like a broken record…but it is true, there is hatred there, it is vengeful. When they put on the cuffs, they kept on tightening them until I was screaming that it was hurting, but they tightened it as far as they could and left me like that. I tried explaining that my hands were going numb, but they would not take them off. They would not give me my hijab or loosen the cuffs, so eventually I decided to quieten down knowing that they were going to do nothing to assist me.
My husband was outside of the room screaming for them to give me my hijab, but was powerless to help me. It was not just the hijab though, I was dressed in a way that did not adequately cover me, so all I could do in that situation as turn my back, humiliated by the way in which they were treating me. There were new officers who came into the house, probably CID, so as they were coming up the stairs, one of the police who had been there from the beginning threw a prayer mat over me, which only covered my back. It did not even cover my head, so all I could do was try and cover myself as much as possible with my hands bound.
Eventually, it was only when a female officer came that things became easier for me. By that time I was badly cut and bruised. The solicitor took pictures of the damage that had been done to my body, what can you do against them though? They also tasered one of my brothers-in-law and they man-handled the other. The police said that all were putting up resistance, but in reality the only one who was putting up any resistance was me. I really don’t want to recount the full horror of what happened, but needless to say they were vile.
As far as I understood, if they raid your house for a significant period of time, they are supposed to provide you with some accommodation. No such help was given to me, and being by myself in London, I had no where to turn to. Fortunately my solicitor knew of an organisation that assists those who have been raided, and so I was able to find some shelter through them in a hotel.
When we were permitted to go back to the property, that is when the police came for me. This time it was not a raid, but a knock on the door. I was already fully dressed in my niqaab on this occasion so after a female officer searched me, I was permitted to wear those clothes to the station. We got to the station and they just carried on in the usual way, asking me questions about who I was and where I was from. They asked me many questions about my political opinions and belief system. They kept on asking everything they wanted, but I refused to answer any of their questions. The questions were ridiculous, you could see they were stretching for anything, so that is why in the end the resorted to the s.58 offence of possession.
I had only been married to my husband for three and a half weeks at this time, and yet they were suggesting that I would somehow know about all of his activities. When my case was placed next to my brothers and husband, they kept on suggesting that somehow it was not just coincidence that I ended up like this, but they did not even try to understand that our community is small.
The solicitor asked me if I wanted to apply for bail, but considering I had no dependents, I decided that if there was to be any time served, then I would rather get it out of the way now, rather than wait for trial and then be convicted. Seeing the way the justice system had worked up until now, I had very little faith that there would be anything like a fair trial.
During the week of the sentencing, the CPS put their facts forward to which we provided our mitigation presentation. Anything they had asserted, we had explained well. There was nothing that did not have a reasonable explanation. I had no association or any links, and even the prosecution were shocked by the extent of our mitigation. 24 hours before the sentencing, the prosecution stated that they were going to make a deal out of the fact that my laptop had been taken in the original raids, and that there was evidence that Inspire had been read on the laptop, despite them recognising that there was a high chance that was the brothers. They were also going to assert that I was supposed to marry one of the co-defendants of my brothers. When these points got put before the judge he quite quickly asked where it was heading as he felt the links were quite weak.
In isolation, my sentence of 12 months seems terrible. You have to understand though, that I was going to have to argue my innocence before a jury, with both my brothers and husband’s association hanging over my head.
The judge said that he accepted our mitigation, that I posed no threat, that I had no intent and that I was not any kind of terrorist. The judge was trying to be quite fair and accepted my reasoning for having the Inspire magazine, especially due to my interest in my brothers’ case. He even mentioned that he thought I was a good Muslim! Despite all of this, the judge said that he had to pass a sentence, as s.58 possession of terrorism material is an offence, without there being any intention element involved – the mere fact I had Inspire in my possession was a criminal offence. The judge explained that he had to sentence me for 12 months in order to send a message to the public – a theme that was picked up by the prosecution who later said, let this be a lesson that those in possession will be charged.
Again, despite all the recognition by the judge, he gave me a 12 month sentence because in his words, he was unsure whether I was a fellow traveller, or if I was pretending to be something I was not. In order to ensure that I would be watched after my release, the 12 month sentence brought in the licensing element which allowed the probation service to keep a closer eye on me through notification requirements. Otherwise, he had wanted to give 11 months as a sentence.
When we got into the prison, we get assigned to different parts of the prison depending on our category. In the prison I was detained, there was a lifers unit, which is usually for those on murder charges. They also assigned me to this lifers unit, and although I did not think anything of it at the time, I only realised after that I had purposely been put there. I cant say with any evidence that this was the case, but this is based on the fact that when I was sentenced and brought back to the prison the guards asked what I had received, and they were horrified to learn that it was only 12 months. It seems they had felt that because it was a terrorism charge, the period of detention would have been far greater than it was.
I thought I would be category A, but I was not, they placed me in a category B designation. People were able to visit me without any prior vetting. In fact, what was interesting, despite the number of people who came to see me and their various backgrounds, none of them were mentioned on my OASys record, although the sharing of the fruit dates did. An OASys record is a record they keep on you in prison regarding your behaviour, and they are not obliged to give it to you unless you request it. I learnt these records exist and they class you in different ways and this is featured as part of any decisions made in relation to release.
My record was very clean, except for two incidents which were recorded. The first incident happened in relation to a sister who was also in prison with me, she was serving time on an association charge due to certain clerics she was in touch with. During the month of Ramadan, she did not have any dates to eat. As a Muslim, no one should have to request something like that, out of the goodness of your heart you should offer. I said to the sister I would get her some dates from the portion that I would receive, and did so at the Jummah prayer. At this Jummah prayer, there was a random search and the sister was found with the dates on her, which she explained had come from me. This was logged on my record that I had built an association with a known terrorist suspect.
The second incident related to someone who wrote to me from outside prison, but that person had previously been arrested and not charged. This was also logged on my OASys record, but only these two small things.
These featured as part of the decision making process of my release. When they do start thinking about releasing you on licence, then a set of conditions are placed on you, such as not associating with certain people. You are tagged and put in a hostel etc. I was permitted to be in touch with my family, was permitted to move back to Cardiff, however I still had to be tagged and have a curfew.
On my release, the authorities said that I had been convicted of terrorism and so they had to treat me like a terrorist. They gave me a curfew that was twice a day, despite posing no risk.
In the determination for my release, there was also something called an ERG conducted – Extremism Risk Guidance – which is really about stats to say that they have successfully rehabilitated x number of prisoners. The ERG is an assessment that they conduct which assists in showing that they have secured the rehabilitation of an offender. A group of trained people get you to speak about your views and opinions, talk to you about current events – the purpose being to gain a picture of your mentality if you have any ‘extremist’ traits, if you do have any, do you pose a threat to the public. All of this gets fed back to MAPPA (Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements) – this in a nutshell is the way you will get treated as it is the culmination of police, Home Office, MI5, OASys and any other assessment that is conducted on your status to determine your level of risk. The levels of risk are 1-3, and I was designated the highest MAPPA category of 3. Probation, MAPPA, police and even the imams they bring in for deradicalisation all play a role in the final assessment that is made.
MAPPA set the guidelines for how a person will be treated when they are released. Going back to the ERG, it is relatively dangerous in fact, as it is based on your involvement, but it is designed to look into every aspect of your life and belief. I remember when they conducted my assessment, they explicitly stated that they did not consider me any kind of threat, or that I saw the UK public as a target or enemy, but during the ERG they were keen to know about my feelings on proscription of organisations. This was at the time of a post-Woolwich environment where those associated with the EDL were going around hurting Muslims. They asked about al-Muhajiroon, and I explained that under their categorisation, then yes they could potentially be proscribed, but then I said that the same standard should be applied to the EDL. The woman conducting the interview said she agreed with my viewpoint and that the EDL was a dangerous organisation – however – she still wrote into my record that I displayed having an “us v them” mentality.
By this stage, I had finished my licence period, at which point they said that they wished to stay in contact in order to keep on providing me with support.
I am not being hassled by any of the agencies as such now, as I think they know I am no danger to the UK. However Prevent have attempted to speak to me through the deradicalisation group I was forced to speak to on my release.
After all of this has finished for me, personally, I do believe that they have completely overestimated the threat that is posed, and their response is completely disproportional. I think that the security agencies have lost all control of the ‘war on terror’ and have lost sight of what they were after in the first place. It is no longer about dangerous Muslims, but the ideology of Islam itself – and that is the one thing that they can’t contain, they don’t know how to contain it.
For more information on the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and its particular impact on British Muslims see here, here, and here. For more information on what you can do to combat this and help Stop the Bill, see here.
(CC image courtesy of News Shopper)
(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.)