Babar Ahmad - the buck stops with Theresa May

First published November 2010. Re-published with minor revisions October 2011

Update on Babar Ahmad

Babar Ahmad, his family and supporters are asking for just one thing - a trial in Britain. Britain's terrorism laws are unjust, but Babar Ahmad's chances of receiving justice are nevertheless much greater in a British Court than in a US Court. The only reason why the US and British authorities want to see him extradited is to provide the maximum chance for justice to miscarry. Worse still, a conviction in the US would throw him into a prison system where long-term solitary confinement is widespread, in violation of international standards.

On International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2011, SACC wrote to world leaders asking them to take action to ban the long-term solitary confinement and isolation of prisoners. The call for action is supported by intellectuals of international standing, legal practitioners, human rights experts, experts on penal policy, and current and former prisoners.

When a gangster puts up his hands and admits he's at fault, you'd better watch your back.

When a gangster puts up his hands and admits he's at fault, you'd better watch your back.

In March 2009 the Metropolitan Police admitted full liability for assaulting Babar Ahmad during an "anti-terrorism" raid on his Tooting home in December 2003. In September 2010 four police officers appeared in court on charges of causing Ahmad actual bodily harm (ABH). ABH is a relatively minor charge that sits uneasily with the earlier admission by Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that his officers had subjected Babar Ahmad to a "sustained and brutal beating occasioning him multiple injuries." To most people that sounds like GBH.

Although the Commissioner admitted liability in the 2009 civil case, he has refused to apologise for the actions of his force. Gangsters don't do apologies

The police officers responsible for the injuries to Babar Ahmad were acquitted of any criminal offence in June 2011.

Seven years, no charge

Babar Ahmad was held in police custody for 6 days in December 2003 and was then released without charge. Y

He was re-arrested eight months later, this time on an extradition warrant from the United States. He has not been charged with any offence in Britain, but he was refused bail and has now spent over 7 years in high-security jails. That's what you get for filing a complaint against the police.

The US warrant was based on an indictment from the District Court in Connecticut. The indictment alleges various actions that might perhaps be described as "internet terrorism." Most of the alleged actions should more properly be called internet activism. All were supposedly committed not in the US but in Britain. The claim of US jurisdiction is based entirely on the fact that one of the numerous websites associated with Ahmad happened to be hosted on a server in Connecticut.

It isn't automatically the fault of the Metropolitan Police that a US Court is seeking Babar Ahmad's extradition. Not quite automatically. But the police always assure us that they work closely with MI5, and MI5 share their intelligence with the US. The civil court case brought against the British Government by a group of former Guantanamo prisoners managed, before it was halted, to unearth evidence that establishes British involvement in a number of abusive cases in which the Government had previously denied any hand. Britain's law-enforcement, security and intelligence agencies are no longer entitled to expect that their good faith should be taken for granted.

The police persecution of Babar Ahmad has been relentless. The Sunday Times revealed in 2008 that police had bugged prison visits to Babar Ahmad by his MP, Sadiq Khan in 2005 and 2006. A subsequent inquiry concluded that this wasn't illegal, but that the law should be clarified.

One of the links connecting the British authorities to the US indictment has now been established. The evidential basis for the US indictment wasn't known at the time of Ahmad's extradition hearing, since Britain's extradition agreement with the US doesn't require any evidence to be presented in order for extradition to be approved. But it later became clear that the US evidence is precisely the material seized from Babar Ahmad by the Metropolitan Police in December 2003. The Crown Prosecution Service found no basis for a prosecution in that material.

Amongst the websites to which Babar Ahmad contributed was one that US prosecutors say supported the Taliban while it was the government of Afghanistan. But the main focus for Ahmad's activism – and for the US charges against him – was his support for forces that resisted the Russian invasions of Chechnya in the 1990s.

No Chechen group has been placed on Britain's list of proscribed organisations. Chechen resistance leader Akhmed Zakayev is based in Britain, where he has been given asylum. Zakaev is the former Deputy Prime Minister and later Prime Minister in exile of the secessionist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. A Russian attempt to obtain his extradition was rejected by a British court in November 2003.

In addition to seeking Babar Ahmad's extradition because of his support for a Chechen resistance movement that was broadly legitimate (notwithstanding the illegitimate actions of some Chechen groups and individuals), the US has added peripheral allegations that appear to be entirely fanciful. US prosecutors say that a plan of a US warship was seized from Ahmad in December 2003. But Lord Goldsmith, Attorney-General at the time of Babar Ahmad's arrest, says that it cannot be proven that the plan was in Ahmad's possession.

US prosecutors also cite a tourist brochure that was found in Babar Ahmad's house. The brochure belonged to Babar Ahmad's father and is dated 1973. It depicts the Empire State Building. Its discovery led to media claims that al-Qa'ida was planning to attack the building.

Extradition without evidence

None of these follies has been or can be examined by a British court, since the Extradition Act 2003 does not allow a court to weigh the evidence before deciding whether to allow an extradition to the US. Babar Ahmad's legal team asked the Extradition Court at Bow Street, London to to consider instead the effect that extradition would have on his human rights. The court found that Babar Ahmad was at risk of being declared an "enemy combatant" under "Military Order No 1" by the US, that he would then be liable to "trial" by a Military Commission and that this could not possibly meet international standards for a fair trail.

A transatlantic panic ensued, causing the US Embassy to provide unenforceable assurances that Babar Ahmad would not be declared an "enemy combatant" or tried by Military Commission.

In the end, District Judge Timothy Workman declared himself satisfied that the risk of an order being made under "Military Order No 1" had been "almost entirely removed." He accepted evidence that "special administrative measures" (solitary confinement and other forms of isolation) are apt to be applied to Muslims charged in the US with terrorism, but said:

"I feel unable to deduce from this that the measures would be imposed for the purpose of prosecuting or punishing the defendant on account of his race or religion."

Accordingly he ruled that there was no bar to Babar Ahmad's extradition. However, he commented that:

"This is a difficult and troubling case. The defendant is a British subject who is alleged to have committed offences which, if the evidence were available, could have been prosecuted in this country."

The evidence-free Extradition Act 2003 was the subject of a review announced by the Home Office in September 2010. But the Home Office says that the review will have no effect on cases currently under consideration.

Babar Ahmad's appeal against the Extradition Court ruling was rejected by the High Court in November 2006. The Law Lords refused to hear the case claiming, amazingly, that the points of law presented to them were not of "public importance." The case is now (November 2010) before the European Court of Human Rights. The court is expected to give its judgement in early 2011.

Isolation

Besides being at risk of pre-trial isolation in the US under "Special Administrative Measures," Babar Ahmad would be at risk, if convicted, of suffering decades of solitary confinement in the Supermax Prison at Florence, Colorado or under Supermax conditions in one of many special units elsewhere in the US prison system. The isolation imposed under these prison regimes is extreme. Meals are passed through holes in the cell doors. Prisoners are under constant CCTV monitoring. Human contact – even with prison officers – is minimal. Prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells, with an hour per of exercise, still in isolation.

It should be obvious to anyone that the psychological torment endured by these prisoners amounts to torture. The threat of this torture is used to elicit information, very likely false. Confronted with the likelihood of a long jail term in isolation, people accused of serious crimes enter into plea bargains: they agree to plead guilty to a lesser offence and, very often, to testify against other people.

Isolation is not a rarity in the US prison system. The Federal Supermax prison at Florence, Colorado has a capacity of 490 prisoners, but tens of thousands of people are held in extreme isolation elsewhere in the US. Figures are unreliable. Census data for the year 2000 shows over 25,000 people in prisons described as Supermax. The total number of prisoners being held in long-term isolation is, on one estimate, over 90,000. Isolation units across the US constitute a torture archipelago that should be off-limits to any jurisdiction that respects human rights. There is a small but growing campaign in the US to end this abomination.

Miscarriage of Justice under Construction

The US indictment against Babar Ahmad spans the period from 1997 to August 2004. The websites with which Babar Ahmad was associated were visible to everyone. Yet the US Government took no action over almost all that time. Then, a few months after Ahmad filed his complaint against the Metropolitan Police, an indictment materialised. Why?Babar Ahmad himself is clear about the motive for his extradition. An extraordinary behind-the-bars interview with him was published in the Independent in July 2010. He said:

"Following my release [in December 2003] I filed a formal complaint against the police and I gave several interviews describing my treatment. My case began to prove highly embarrassing to the Blair government."

When asked why the US was so determined to bring him to trial there, he answered:

"The question to ask is why has the Blair/Brown Government been so determined to extradite me? In my case there is documentary evidence to suggest that it is not the US that is really interested in me, but the Blair/Brown Government that has been determined to send me there at any cost. One only has to read the ferocious, lengthy representations that the Foreign Office has made to the European Court of Human Rights urging, almost begging, the Court to extradite me to the US. Their Herculean efforts eclipse those made by the US government itself."

The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition has so far shown no sign of halting the Herculean efforts that began under the Blair/Brown regime.The European Court will be deciding Babar Ahmad's case on very narrow grounds. It will not ask whether it is reasonable for a case to be spirited across the Atlantic just because material written in Britain and placed on the web in Britain happens to be hosted on a server in the US. It will not ask what that means for people in Europe who use US-based web services like Facebook. It will not ask whether the evidence is capable of supporting a prosecution. It will not ask whether the refusal to prosecute Babar Ahmad in the UK, coupled with the British Government's enthusiasm for his extradition, might suggest that a miscarriage of justice is under construction.

Inciting Justice

Whatever the court decides, the buck stops with Home Secretary Theresa May. She does not have to approve Babar Ahmad's extradition. She does not have to confine herself to narrow points of law. And she will not be able to escape the political consequences of her decision.

You who engineered Babar Ahmad's 7-year detention without charge, you who are engineering Babar Ahmad's judicially-stamped rendition to the US, you who think your manoeuvres will never be discovered or proven, just consider two things. The first is, don't count on it. The second is, we don't have to prove that the process is corrupt, we only have to prove that the outcome is outrageous. It's a safe bet that the US justice system will do that for us if Babar Ahmad is parcelled off there.

If Babar Ahmad is extradited, there will be outrage. Everyone who understands the US justice system thinks it likely that he will then be convicted (the Department of Justice claims a 92% conviction rate for federal crimes in fiscal year 2009). If he is, there will be uproar. There will be – and should be – large and forthright demonstrations outside the US Embassy. There will be – and should be – large holes ripped into US-British inter-Governmental co-operation, and wide bridges built between US and British people who care for justice.

In case policemen or other crazies are reading this, let me leave no room for misunderstanding. I am not trying to incite, or encourage or suggest or hint at violence of any kind. I am trying to incite a forceful, peaceful, multi-religious, multi-ethnic movement capable of rocking the Government and its dirty security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to their foundations. I am trying to incite hunger for justice. I am trying to incite the full and relentless exercise of the right to free speech. I am trying to incite journalists and MPs to do their jobs.

Freedom for Babar Ahmad!

Richard Haley, November 2010

More information:Justice for Babar Ahmad