A terror conviction can stay with you for life through stigma and restrictions under which you may have to live. Fahad Ansari explores whether living such a life can be any life at all.
"Perhaps being in prison is better than being dead"
This was the advice given by Detective Chief Superintendent Sue Southern, head of the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit, yesterday to a small crowd that gathered at Birmingham Central Mosque for a meeting to discuss the issue of British Muslims travelling to Syria. The meeting, which attracted more media than Muslims, was part of the police's campaign to persuade parents to report their children to the authorities if they suspected that they intended to travel to Syria.
Hinting that such action could lead to the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of a loved one for terrorism offences, DCS Southern urged parents to be more vigilant in monitoring their children's activities. In an effort to pull at their heartstrings, she said: "It does not always mean that person going to prison, but in the end perhaps being in prison is better than being dead."
To those without a loved one in prison, perhaps being incarcerated is indeed better than being dead. Those living the experience however view matters from a different perspective. For the individual in prison in these circumstances, it is not just a matter of being any prisoner but being a convicted terrorist, possibly the worst label to marginalise and demonise an individual in today's society – drawing more public opprobrium than that normally reserved for rapists and paedophiles. For the prisoner, it is not just a matter of serving a short sentence of a handful of years, it is the probability of receiving a 'Muslim surcharge' on an already lengthy sentence that could result in one spending half their life in prison, if not more. Even upon release, the reality is that the individual remains subject to strict surveillance and monitoring, is required to report their movements to the authorities for another decade, and faces the prospect of having their passport revoked, an effective travel ban. If this is not difficult enough, there is the stigma associated with being a convicted terrorist such that your own community abandons you, let alone the wider society. There is no prospect of employment and the media will continue to blacken your name whenever possible.
Make no mistake, a terrorism conviction is a life sentence for the individual.
As for the families who the police are attempting to recruit as unpaid informers, their existence is little better. As has happened in dozens of cases already, it is their personal lives and belongings that will be violated in the most insensitive manner as their homes are subjected to pre-dawn raids by counter terrorism police. Doors may or may not be broken down but lives will definitely be shattered. They will have their property seized and taken away, including mobile phones, computer equipment, books, magazines, CDs and DVDs. The word 'privacy' ceases to exist. They will be forced to leave their home and be lodged in a hotel for days on end while the police scrutinise every corner of their home in the search for evidence to support the case against the accused. The stigma will attach to them too as the media circus gathers outside their home with curious and often judgmental neighbours peering through the curtains. The EDL have even been known to gather and demonstrate outside the homes of terror suspects so that also cannot be ruled out.
Throughout the period of incarceration, these parents will have to travel to visit their children in prisons often located in remote parts of the country hundreds of miles from their home. If driving is not an option, it is usual to take a combination of buses, trains and taxis. The journey is long and arduous and in the winter months, dangerous. The visit itself is far from a pleasant experience with family members themselves treated like criminals being subjected to body searches, dog searches, casual racism and Islamophobia from the prison guards. Entire lives are placed on hold as visiting one's son in prison becomes the central event upon which the family’s life revolves. On joyous occasions, parents will remember their son in his cell. On bereavements, the prisoner will remember his loved ones alone. Upon release, the parents will welcome back to their home a grown and hardened man who may forever begrudge them for reporting him to the police for simply wanting to help a long suffering people.
Make no mistake, a terrorism conviction is a form of collective punishment for the entire family.
There is no guarantee that those who travel to Syria will die but it is almost certain that those who are reported to the authorities will end up in prison. In such circumstances, perhaps it is indeed better to be dead having tried to give freedom to others than to live a monotonous existence in prison for life.
(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.)