Interview with Ann Alexander

CAGEPRISONERS: CP: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Ann:
My name is Ann and I live on the east coast of Scotland. I am married with a son and 4 year old grand daughter. I am a member of SACC (Scotland Against Criminalising Communities) and Amnesty International. I am not a member of any political party.


CP: What contact did you have with Muslims prior to writing to the Belmarsh detainees and what was your impression of Muslims?

Ann:
As far as I'm aware, no Muslims live in my town and I did not know anyone of the Islamic faith until I got to know Rachid (Ramda), an Algerian Muslim. Rachid has been incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison in London without charge or trial for nearly nine years now. Although his extradition to France was quashed in June 2002, he is still held there as David Blunkett has appealed this decision. Rachid says of that time, "I have to admit that when I heard the court ruling I was over-optimistic and I packed my kit waiting for the fax of my release to arrive! I even distributed some of my belongings to other inmates! Well, shall I say - I was gullible and too naïve!" More recently, Rachid wrote, "The Home Office don't have any excuses whatsoever about the delay in replying to the court's decision since 22 June 2002. I, who has a court decision to quash the British Government's decision, am still in prison. What can I say?" However, I only discovered about the detainees in Belmarsh when I read about them in the newspapers and asked Rachid about them.



CP: What motivated you to write to Rachid Ramda, in particular?

Ann:
I already wrote to an Italian friend, TB, in Belmarsh and he told me about his friend Rachid. In one of my letters I had told TB a story about being bitten by a spider and in his next letter, he enclosed a poem written by Rachid - The Lady and the Spider - about my spider adventure. It was so funny and touching too and I liked Rachid immediately. I wrote and thanked him for his poem and he wrote back with a letter of introduction and we have been writing ever since. He said in his first letter, "I received your letter with joy and delight. It's very kind of you to give me some of your time and generosity to ease the wilderness of this place. I truly do not mind the religious factor in making new friends nor do I mind about the gender. I do not have any sensitivity about these subjects. I do observe my religious duties but this does not mean that I am a zealot. In fact, Islam urges people to know about others and asks us to be open-minded and respect the human race because at the end of the day we all come from the same father and mother - Adam and Eve". "Let's talk about poetry ....".



CP: What kind of conditions has he been held in and what treatment has he been subjected to?

Ann:
Rachid does not often speak about his conditions in Belmarsh or the treatment he is subjected to as he does not want to upset me. However, from the little he does say and from what I discovered from my friend TB, Rachid has been subjected to unimaginable cruel treatment. I could not believe that people were held like this in British prisons. Rachid, until recently, has been held in the Special Secure Unit at Belmarsh. He was locked up in what can only be described as a concrete coffin for 22 hours per day. After two years in this situation, he was put in the mainstream prison for a short while to recover his mental and physical health, and then in a cruel and calculated manner, he was again incarcerated in the SSU. I don't know how long Rachid was kept there as I am afraid to ask him. I find it too unbearable. I know that his eyesight is damaged from his time there due to the constant artificial lighting and he has problems in all his joints due to his immobility in this unit.

He explains in one of his letters, "They moved me from the unit to the House block for a short period of time to change the atmosphere because the regulations - unwritten - say no staff or prisoners should spend more than two years in Special Secure Unit because of its psychological damage. So TB was there in house block - I think it was a Thursday morning when he knocked on my door and presented himself. He tried to make me comfortable and we spend a good time for a few months before they took me back to the Special Unit".

He says in another letter, "I am not a fitness fanatic but I like to run. It makes me feel light and fresh. Sometimes we have competitions with the other guys but the main reason is that because I used to spend long hours in my cell (sometimes 22 hours) without moving, that affected my health in general. For example, I have constant pain in my joints, especially my knees ankles, shoulders and even my elbows. My sight has been decreased because of the overuse of artificial light. Loss of memory sometimes and lack of concentration most of the time. Needless to say it has an effect on the psychological side. I may talk about this in my next letter. (He never did). I just wanted to say I run to feel I still do exist!! Sorry for this sombre picture. I did not mean to upset you".



CP: Had he received any letters or visits prior to your letters?

Ann:
I'm certain Rachid's family in Algeria have been very supportive with letters. Until I visited him recently, he had had no visitors for eight years. His friends have been refused permission to visit him and although they are pleased that I now can, I know it is hurtful too that I can enjoy Rachid's company and they can't.




CP: How has Rachid's situation improved in the years you have known him?

Ann:
I don't think Rachid's situation has improved in the years I have known him. Each day seems like a year to him and I believe he has been robbed of the most productive years of his life. He was only 26 when he was arrested. He is now 35. I think his situation is more difficult for him now as he has now so many other Arabs incarcerated with him indefinitely. He is a very compassionate man and feels his brothers' pain keenly. He is more concerned about them than himself.




CP: Could you tell us about the recent appeal launched for RR?

Ann:
A recent appeal was launched to raise £500 to allow Rachid to fund a second Open University course in one year. He is trying to make up for all his lost time in the Special Unit. We still do not know if Rachid will be allowed to do two courses but the Open University has no objections and I understand the decision will be made by Belmarsh. The money was raised very quickly and Rachid is very grateful that so many people care.



CP: Could you tell us about your efforts to get the Muslim community to write to him? What response did you receive?

Ann:
I wrote to the Muslim Association of Britain, who I became aware of on the anti-war marches I attended in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but I received no reply. I then attended an Open Doors day at the Dundee Mosque and took the opportunity to mention Rachid there. They were initially very interested but apart from a young Muslim girl sending supportive messages through me, I have had no contact with them for over a year.



CP: Do you feel the action taken by the Muslim and non Muslim community for the Belmarsh detainees has been sufficient?

Ann:
I am reluctant to criticize anyone's efforts made on the detainee's behalf as they are so grateful to each and every one, Muslim and non Muslim, who bravely take action to make people aware of their lack of human rights. Perhaps non Muslims feel less threatened. I have made many Muslim friends and they all feel the detainees' pain personally. Many Muslims work tirelessly to bring this injustice to an end. However, our combined efforts will only be sufficient when all the men are released.



CP: What efforts did you then make on behalf of Rachid? What was the outcome of those?

Ann:
Rachid was very pessimistic that I could highlight his situation as his case is still with the courts. One day, I looked up the Special Secure Unit on the internet and was so appalled at what I read, I decided without Rachid's blessing, to try to do more for him. I tracked down Yamin Zakaria, a human rights activist I read about on the Internet, and through him I was contacted by Dr. Adnan Siddiqui and also Abdul Ghafur, a representative of the Luton Muslim website. They were so helpful and still are very supportive not only to Rachid but to the detainees and their wives as well. I also became friends with a Muslim girl who has spent a lot of time trying to draw media attention the plight of the detainees. I finally felt I wasn't on my own.



CP: Have you been in contact with any of the other detainees? What does Rachid say about the others?

Ann:
Rachid started by writing, "In this prison there are over 10 people who are detained under the new legislation of so-called Anti-Terrorism Act without charge or trial and the British Government keeps telling them they are not criminals or terrorists but the situation is very delicate - can you understand that? I don't, frankly. Please don't be stressed by what I have said. All I wanted to do is to put you in the full picture. However I am very optimistic that you will find genuine people who can help you .. Allah help us all." I started writing to them and now they are my friends too.

One is now in Health Care (neither about health nor care) and is in a bad mental state. He used to write but cannot do so any more. I feel a strong affinity with him as he was such a free spirit and enjoyed climbing our Scottish mountains. I still write to him every week. A lot of these men were already suffering post traumatic stress disorder and some have already been tortured in other countries.

One, who also sends me letters, has no arms below his elbows. He sent me a very sad letter (addressed from Guantanamo UK) explaining that he has asked permission of Muslim scholars to take his life as he cannot bare it any longer. He says at the end of his letter, "When I first arrived in this country I was hoping to experience so-called democracy, human rights, rule of law. Instead I find myself stuck under another dictatorship, stuck under a race charge whereby I am judged by the colour of my skin and the religion I believe in. Both these things do not make me a terrorist but sadly I am treated like one. I have no doubt that my freedom can only be achieved via death". "A victim of a civilized world in 2004".



CP: Could you tell us about the condition of the families of these detainees? What has been the impact of their imprisonment on their loved ones?

Ann:
I can only imagine how their wives and families are going through. I don't think any words of mine could do justice to explain their suffering The wife of the detainee now under house arrest lives a very stressful life. She is sole carer for her husband who now weighs 7 stone and is in a wheelchair. His tagging does not even allow for him to get fresh air in his back garden. They live in a one bed roomed flat with a young child who cannot have friends in to play. His wife's shopping is searched and they have no phone in the house apart from one to make 999 calls. (NB - in the last week, despite David Blunkett's objections, this man now has restricted access to his garden). Another wife did not visit her husband for the first six months of his incarceration as she could not speak any English and did not know where to go for help. She has three young children who still cry for their daddy every day. The wives and children only manage to visit with their husbands once every two weeks as Belmarsh is so distant from them and it is very costly to get there. They are all intelligent women but I think their lack of English isolates them. I am sure they are very supportive of each other though and in the past week, an organization of Muslim women -Hhugs - has been set up to give support to the wives of political prisoners.



CP: How often do you write? Have you ever lost heart?

Ann:
I write regularly to Rachid and send him paper clippings too. The length of my letters are restricted to 4 sides of A5 paper. He was not allowed a Scottish newspaper that I sent to him and he has also been refused the Muslim News. I now cut articles from these newspapers for him but I feel I have taken over the roll of the Belmarsh censors!! I am never sure what he will be allowed in. Recently, a friend sent him a Trail Guide of Hadrian's Wall and he wasn't allowed this as it contained "maps". This is an example of the pettiness and small mindedness of Belmarsh which gets the men down so much. They are now only allowed books written in English and even personal items like clothes have now to be bought from the prison shop. As one wife said, “My house is full of my husband’s clothes but I now have to send money to him to buy anything he needs”. I write to three of the detainees every week - one of them is now in Healthcare and cannot focus to reply but I never loose heart. I live with hope - Rachid says life can't withstand without hope and I agree.



CP: What do you believe is the effect and importance of letter writing?

Ann:
It is important that the men know that they are not forgotten and that there are people willing to stand up and speak about the injustice of indefinite detainment without charge or trial. A letter campaign was started and the men were receiving 60 letters a week each. One was from an eight year old saying "Dear Uncle, we will not let you be forgotten". Another was from a 60 year old pagan from Yorkshire. All these letters really lift the men's spirits.



CP: What is your response to those who say you are campaigning on behalf of terrorist supporters and financiers?

Ann:
What terrorists? What financiers? All these men are innocent. They deserve their day in court but this is denied them. They want to prove their innocence and find out the "evidence" against them. Unfortunately, in this political climate, they are denied this opportunity. It really saddens me that they thought that England was a land renowned for its human rights and have found the opposite to their cost.



CP: What is your response to the sudden release of detainee D?

Ann:
It's a strange world. I heard the news on the car radio, minutes after leaving Belmarsh after visiting Rachid. I can only imagine I felt a fraction of what D must have felt. A mixture of emotions. Why him? Why now? What was the last three years all about? I can't help feeling a bit suspicious about David Blunkett's motivation for releasing D. Is it to show us all how fair he can be in the light of the House of Lords pending decision? I know that it lifted the spirits of all the detainees though and they were really happy for D. He wasn't imprisoned in Belmarsh and I don't think they knew him.




CP: What was the significance in your opinion of the High Court's ruling that torture can be admissible as evidence?

Ann:
It must be one of the most important rulings the High Court has ever made. The judges ruled that British courts could use evidence extracted under torture, as long as British agents were not complicit in the abuse. It sets Britain apart from the rest of Europe. I am ashamed of belonging to a country where this is allowed. I wonder if the British people are aware of this monumental decision. Perhaps they will only wake up when it lands at their own doors.



CP: The fate of the Belmarsh detainees is to be decided by the House of Lords this Monday - what do you anticipate the outcome will be?

Ann:
I await their decision with trepidation. I have read what the men at Guantanamo Bay are suffering - evidence extracted through torture isn't evidence. One British Muslim released recently admitted to meeting Osama Bin Laden when he was actually working in Currys in Birmingham at the time! I expect this is the worth of all their evidence. Personally, I know I would say anything to stop the pain of torture and I expect most people are like me. The outcome has profound implications for the future of democracy and human rights in Britain. To quote the now suspended Scot, Craig Murray, who was ambassador to Uzbekistan, "We are selling our souls for dross".



CP: What was your response to Lord Steyn being "bumped off the case at the government's request"?

Ann:
I was really dismayed when I heard. His remarks, made a few years ago, could alter this historic decision. I have no faith in the House of Lords.



CP: Did you attend the protest at Belmarsh last Sunday? Can you tell us about it briefly and what was the importance of the event?

Ann:
Unfortunately, I could not attend the protest. I know the detainees were uplifted because they could hear the chanting from the prison. It got a lot of media coverage. It was attended by many Muslims and non Muslims who came together to draw attention to the lack of human rights in England.



CP: Could you enlighten our readers and tell us about the arrest of the group of Algerian asylum seekers in Scotland? On what pretext were they arrested and what was the outcome?

Ann:
Nine Algerian men were arrested in Scotland at the end of 2002. Newspapers reported that there was a potential bomb scare at the Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh. However, people obviously didn't take the threat seriously as it had the largest gathering ever to see the New Year in. The men were held in Scottish prisons for 110 days and then, because of Scotland's 110 day rule, they were released on bail. All the charges against them were subsequently dropped. Meanwhile, there names were printed as suspected terrorists in Algerian newspapers.



CP: What was the response of the Scottish people?

Ann:
A group was set up - SACC (Scotland Against Criminalising Communities) to support these men. Sadly, some of the men are so paranoid that they are suspicious of everyone and it is hard to gain their trust. We carry on helping them regardless.



CP: What is their present situation?

Ann:
They were very traumatized by these events and are still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Some are now on anti-depressants and they have lost a lot of Scottish friends as their friends were warned against them. In recent months, they have been threatened with deportation back to Algeria. One was recently asked to collect personal items at a local police station. Fortunately he attended with his brother because after he signed for his belongings, he was arrested and taken to Dungavel detention centre. He believes that had his brother not accompanied him, no one would have known his whereabouts. After a few days detention, made worse by his previous experience, he was bailed and now has to sign on at a police station twice a week which really limits his movements. One of them is a good friend. He says his English isn't so good now as he has no one to speak English with. I found this totally shameful.



CP: What would your response be to those who claim like the Home Secretary that the Belmarsh detainees need to be detained as they are a threat to national security?

Ann:
If these men are a threat to national security, show us the proof. More importantly, show the detainees the evidence against them. The men I know are intelligent, decent men who are being made an example of as a lesson to the rest of us - particularly the Muslim community. As foreign nationals, they have less rights yet the men I write to have lived in England for many years and their children were born there. Like the rest of us, they wanted what was best for their families - a good secure life.




CP: What do you feel the British public, Muslim and non Muslim alike, should be doing?

Ann:
I wish I knew the answer to this question. The tabloid press only appears to reinforce peoples' prejudices. I have went down the road of writing to my MP, MSP, MEP, Mr. Goggins (the prison minister) and David Blunkett and all their replies, except from David Blunkett who didn't have the courtesy to reply directly to my letters, were ambiguous waffle. My MP was very helpful though and I eventually got a reply to my letter 6 months later. Perhaps if the media could make us more aware of how our civil liberties are being eroded and give us a truer insight into the real "war on terror" we might wake up. I look forward to the day when we are marching through London, in the numbers who turn out for the anti-war marches, protesting about the erosion of human rights in Britain.


CP: What do you think of our website?

Ann:
I really like your website - it is really informative and I use it to keep up to date with all the Muslim news. I recommend it to all my friends and have sent your website address to Scottish journalists too.


CP: Ann, thank you for speaking to us.