Talha Ahsan's poems are little gems. Darts of light leap from them, illuminating the poet's engagement with life, politics and spirituality.
Talha suffers from Asberger's syndrome. He graduated from SOAS, London University, with first class honours in Arabic. He is now 31 years old and has been in prison in Britain since July 2006. He was arrested at his London home following an extradition request from the United States. But he has never set foot in the United States.
The US indictment against him alleges that he conspired to provide material support for terrorism, provided material support for terrorism, and conspired to kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country. The charges all arise from Talha Ahsan's alleged participation, while resident in the UK, in the running of what the indictment calls "Azzam Publications and its family of websites." The US District Court in Connecticut – which issued the indictment – claims jurisdiction solely because one of a number of servers on which the websites were hosted happened to be located in Connecticut.
The indictment covers the period from 1997 to August 2004. The Azzam websites are no longer online, but snapshots of azzam.com, taken at various dates up to about December 2001, are available. One of the archived page says that "Azzam Publications is an independent media organisation providing authentic news and information about Jihad and the Foreign Mujahideen everywhere." A short document on training for jihad, attributed to Azzam Publications and archived from a related site, says that:
"Jihad is therefore an act to liberate people from the oppression of tyrants. Jihad is not illegal acts of terror against innocent people."
Azzam's choice of material suggests a distinctive viewpoint. It is roughly the viewpoint of the man after whom the website was named. Abdullah Azzam was an Islamic scholar from Palestine who became a key figure in the struggle against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Time magazine called him the "reviver of Jihad in the 20th Century."
This is not a viewpoint likely to find favour with British and US governments. But a viewpoint is not a crime. Numerous liberal intellectuals have promoted invasion and bombing as instruments of humanitarian intervention. Their viewpoint is arguably an incitement to break international law, but it has not led to their prosecution.
Both azzam.com and the US indictment give considerable weight to the struggle for independence in Chechnya. In late 1991 Chechnya declared its independence from the USSR - then on the brink of dissolution - and from the Russian Federation. The Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia had already declared their independence, as had Armenia and Georgia. All these countries were quickly rewarded with international recognition. Chechnya was not. It nevertheless survived the Russian invasion of 1994-96 and functioned as a de facto independent state until its capital Grozny was captured during a fresh Russian assault in February 2000.
The death toll amongst Chechen civilians during the two wars was enormous, perhaps amounting to nearly a fifth of the pre-war population of just over 1 million. Torture, disappearance and murder at the hands of Russian forces were widespread and systemic during and after the war. Abuses continue on a smaller scale to this day. The international community of governments did nothing and continues to do nothing. Many people from the international community of Muslims offered the Chechens whatever practical and political support they could.
The British Government has never branded the Chechen separatist forces as terrorist. No Chechen separatist 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 of Chechnya and for a time was its Prime Minister in exile. A Russian request for his extradition was rejected by a British court in 2003. The British authorities have made no attempt to bring charges against him, despite the broad terms of Britain's terrorism laws.
If the leader of the Chechen resistance can operate from Britain, how can it be criminal for a British citizen to show support for the Chechen resistance?
The US indictment alleges that Talha Ahsan and Azzam Publications assisted fighters in Chechnya, Afghanistan and elsewhere in ways that went beyond providing sympathetic media coverage. Some or all of these allegations might, if true, amount to offences under British law.
The key evidence against Talha Ahsan comes from computer files seized during a police raid on the home of another London man, Babar Ahmad, in December 2003. So Talha Ahsan is facing charges in Connecticut on evidence obtained by British police from British premises, for offences allegedly committed in Britain. Why? And why have prosecutors in Britain declined to bring charges?
Could it be that the US and British authorities don't like the Azzam viewpoint and want to punish someone - anyone - for it? Might US prosecutors have stretched the evidence to make it point to material support for terrorism and a conspiracy to kill? Might US and British authorities suppose that a US jury would be more likely than a British jury to meet the evidence halfway? Might they suppose that a US court would be less troubled than a British court about the circumstances surrounding the seizure of evidence from Babar Ahmad's house (the Metropolitan Police have admitted to a serious and unprovoked assault on him)?
If that's what they think, they wouldn't just be guessing. The US conviction rate for federal crimes in 2009 was 92%, according to the Department of Justice. The playing field is tilted still more steeply for Talha Ahsan. While awaiting trial he would be likely to be held in solitary confinement under "special administrative measures." Isolation weakens the mind and can leave a prisoner incapable of effective consultation with his lawyer.
If convicted, Tahla could receive a life sentence, probably beginning in solitary confinement at the Federal Superman prison in Florence, Colorado ("ADX Florence"). ADX Florence has been described as a "clean version of hell." Long-term solitary confinement is commonplace throughout the US prison system and afflicts tens of thousands of prisoners.
Long-term isolation is cruel, inhuman and torturous, whatever the reasons for it and whatever the circumstances. Unfortunately, courts in the US and Europe have so far been reluctant to accept that self-evident truth. At the time of writing, the European Court of Human Rights is considering whether, for Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad and two others, extradition to the likelihood of solitary confinement would amount to a human rights violation. It has refused to consider any of the other injustices that have been visited upon these men.
Talha has been held for over four years in high-security jails – equivalent to an 8-year sentence from a British court. But he has not been charged with any offence in Britain. Nor has any evidence against him been produced in a British court, since the US enjoys a privileged status under the Extradition Act 2003 and is not required to present prima face evidence in support of an extradition request. The decision to prosecute him in the US, coupled with the decision not to prosecute him in Britain, will ensure that his trial is as unfair as prosecutors can make it. Talha Ahsan deserves freedom or a fair trial.
Talha Ahsan's poems are the songs of a caged bird. Read them and enjoy them. But if that is all that you do, you will be a thief. The caged bird's song has this price: that you accept the obligation to do whatever you can to set the bird free.