I write to highlight the cruelty of the control orders placed upon my friends, their wives and children and I hope to encourage you, Muslim and non Muslim, to support them with your solidarity. Firstly, I think I should explain how I find myself in the lonely position of writing to you with this appeal.
Two years ago I could not count one Muslim amongst my friends. I live in a small town in the north east of Scotland and the nearest Mosque is in Dundee - 35 miles away. Then in June 2003, I received a letter from my Italian friend TB who is incarcerated in Belmarsh with Rachid Ramda. Rachid is an Algerian Muslim who has been held in this top security prison without trial and charge for nearly 10 years. My friend TB has been held for nearly 7 years now under similar circumstances. TB asked me if I had any Muslim friends who could correspond with Rachid but, not knowing any, I decided to write to Rachid myself and my life was immediately enhanced by the letters and poetry of this exceptional man. He is now my brother and over time he has generously shared his family in Algeria and his friends with me. In return for their friendship, I try to stay strong for Rachid and TB but on occasions my sorrow overwhelms me and when they most need my support all they hear is silence as I try to hide my tears. At these times, they sustain me until I find my fighting spirit again. Recently both these men, having successfully won their battle against extradition to countries - France and Italy - whose prisons are renowned for their ill treatment of inmates, have been informed by the Home Office that their extraditions will go ahead.
Rachid and I decided it could be useful to have phone contact and, under a new rule at Belmarsh, the vetting covered me for visits too. Rachid had to initiate this procedure and around two months later, after my husband and I sent photographs and other details e.g. date of birth, occupation, relationship to prisoner etc. we were visited in our home by two police officers from Tayside Police. I understand this visit was to verify our identities. They asked about our relationship with Rachid and we explained our connection. They were probably in our house for about half and hour. As they left, we were told that if we passed the vetting, we would be able to visit any prisoner in a British prison without having to go through these formalities again. They also left their card in case we "ever needed to get in touch" with them. Ironically, I visited Rachid in Belmarsh before I ever spoke to him on the telephone! His friends had failed the vetting on more than one occasion and I was his first visitor in eight years so it was with heavy heart that I was driven to Belmarsh by Rachid's dear friend who has been refused permission to spend a precious few hours in his company. Rachid and I had got well acquainted through our letters by then so I felt that I was visiting an old friend. Over 9 months I have met Rachid seven times and our visits are so happy and full of laughter. The only sad part is when I have to walk away and leave him there and I suspect it is even harder for him. I am his only visitor. Cruelly, the British Government has refused Rachid's loving family a visiting visa 12 times. Through Rachid and TB, I learned about the Muslim men, held indefinitely under the Anti-Terrorism 2001 Act experiencing great hardship under the direst conditions, and my heart went out to them. I started by writing to the single detainees - I was unsure of the propriety of communicating with the married men. However, their wives soon became my friends too and on my visits to London, they surround me with their warmth and hospitality and treat me like a sister.
One man under health, under indefinite detention, deteriorated so badly that he could no longer communicate but I continued to write to him every week and when he was eventually admitted to Broadmoor he asked me to visit him there. He is known as Detainee B but I call him McGregor. Because he was now in a hospital, I had to be vetted again - this time by Broadmoor security and the Thames Valley Police. I explained about my previous vetting and this time I did not have to provide photographs but the vetting still took months and I lost the chance of visiting him on my next trip to London. Another of my friends, Detainee M, was also transferred to Broadmoor and he had not received a visitor either in the three years he had been imprisoned. I applied to be vetting to visit M too and this took a lot less time. The cruel decision of David Blunkett to transfer them to Broadmoor sometimes overwhelmed me. Can you imagine how you would feel if this happened to your friends? Detainee B is a gifted potter and his free spirit appeared undiminished, even in such a frightening place but I was shocked by his weight loss of over 3 stones. I had a great time in his company and returned the next day for a second visit. On my second trip to Broadmoor, I also met Detainee M for the first time. This was very different from any visit I had made before. Detainee M is disabled so we met in the ward rather than the Visitors Room. The staff had set up a small table covered with a table cloth in the corridor and they provided coffee and biscuits. We could almost have been sitting chatting at a road side café. I already knew him through our letters and we were left alone for two hours to get re-acquainted. His physical disability would have been enough for any sane person to cope with and after fighting for years in Belmarsh to be provided with the most basic of care, he became clinically depressed. I felt so downhearted when I had to walk away and leave him there in a hospital for the criminally insane. I travelled to Broadmoor with Mrs. Abu Rideh and her five children who are one of the nicest families I have ever met. Each visit cost the family £80 in taxi fares. They had no alternative but to use this mode of transport and although Broadmoor reimburses half of public transport costs, taxis are excluded. He husband, Mahmoud, a victim of Israeli torture, had spend a very long time in Broadmoor after being transferred from Belmarsh due to his deteriorating physical and mental health. She has been alone for years now trying to protect her five children from harm and fighting a constant battle to draw attention to her husband's plight. This woman is so courageous. Perhaps I could do her justice if I had the eloquence of the Arabic language but I can find no worthy words to describe her fortitude.
Less than a week after my visits, the detainees were discharged under Control Orders with their families being subject to the same constraints. Any sense of victory at their release lasted less than a day. I had waited anxiously with their wives over the space of many weeks, with hopes raised, following the House of Lord's decision to end the injustice of indefinite detention. My anxiety could not compare in the slightest with the uncertainly of the men still languishing in Britain's high security prisons where their hopes had been raised and dashed so many times over the years that had they reached the point of despondency. These control orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 are condemning my friends and their families to a "half" life. I believe there is nothing to stop their situation becoming almost permanent. They all live in a constant state of anxiety.
One friend's house was always full of her friends and extended family but no one has entered her home since her husband's release. Now, they will have to send their photographs to the Home Office to be vetted for visits and understandably some of them are frightened. She talks of their concern of continually watching the time to ensure that they are home by 7pm and she knows how hard it will be to be confined to their home in the light summer evenings ahead. Another woman, whose brother is detained under Control Orders and lives close by him, has still not passed the vetting to visit him and his family.
Another friend was left alone without the support of friends and neighbours when her husband was admitted to hospital recently. Although her husband wasn't there, her house was still under Control Orders and no one was allowed to enter. His mother, who had travelled from abroad, stayed at the hospital - she could not comfort his wife at home because she had not been vetted. I phoned my friend and we both cried. I called my friend in London who runs Hhugs (Helping Households Under Great Stress) and she cried too. Under the Control Order restrictions, we felt so impotent. We could do little to support our friend when she was most in need.
M is very lonely in his isolation. He is in temporary accommodation without a phone adapted for his disability. Some of his former friends prefer not to notice him in the street. No doubt because they are afraid they will draw attention to themselves. M understands this but sadly, after his long detention in Belmarsh and Broadmoor without trial or charge, when he desperately needs the support and strength of his friends, they are not there for him.
I phone B every evening to keep him company for a while. He was removed from Broadmoor against his wishes and on arriving at his temporary accommodation the door had to be broken down to gain entry as no one had the key. Due to his current mental state, he could not bare the restrictions under these conditions and was admitted to a hospital psychiatric ward. It is very upsetting to know that his vibrant spirit has been crushed so cruelly.
This is just a very small part of their stories. I expect that the other Muslim men and their families, suffering under the constraints of control orders, are faring no better. They are victims of a civilised world 2005.
Ann Alexander, 16 April 2005
How You can Help
- Please write to the ex-detainees. Your letter will make a tremendous difference.
- Financial Support. At most the men are receiving £35 a week on which to live. Many of them have young children and families to support. The council accommodation that has been designated for the single detainees is bare, dismal and depressing to say the least. Your donations can help to finance their needs and may go towards the payment of bills,food, furnishings, etc.
You can send cheques to:
Hhugs, PO Box 415, New Malden, KT3 9AF
- Practical Support. Hhugs are also looking for volunteers who will be able to help the men in practical terms; whether that may be shopping on their behalf, cooking meals for them, visits and so forth.
Please contact on 07931 833980 if you are able to help.