Not content with having the largest domestic prison population in the world, both in numbers and as a percentage of the total population, the US also imports prisoners from other countries, at vast expense.
Last week, five men were extradited to the US from the UK to face charges relating to their alleged involvement with terrorism. The men’s extradition was supposed to have been made into a straightforward matter by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in 2003, approved the US-UK Extradition Treaty, which purportedly allows prisoners to be extradited without the need for any evidence to be provided.
However, there have been sustained legal challenges to the treaty, with the result that, of the five men extradited last week, two British nationals, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, had been held without charge or trial in the UK for eight and six years respectively, and two foreign nationals, Adel Abdel Bary and Khaled al-Fawwaz, had been held without charge or trial since 1998, as their lawyers tried to prevent their extradition. The fifth man, Abu Hamza al-Masri, was the only one to have been imprisoned in the UK after a trial. Convicted in 2006, he was given a seven-year sentence.
On arrival in the US last Friday, all five men were jailed — Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan in Connecticut, and the others in New York. All appeared in front of judges on Saturday where they pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, and the New York prisoners were told that their trials will take place next year.
The problem, as politicians, lawyers and campaigners in the UK have tried for years to establish is that there are not necessarily compelling reasons for the men to have been extradited, because of fundamental weaknesses in the treaty. In June 2011, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said in a report that safeguards in US cases were “inadequate,” and, as the BBC explained, also said that “more evidence was needed to justify requests and judges should be able to refuse them if they were not in the ‘interests of justice.’”
The committee also called for the treaty to be “urgently renegotiated,” to “enable the government to refuse extradition requests if UK prosecutors have decided against beginning proceedings at home,” as the BBC put it, and added that extradition requests “should only be considered if the US authorities provide prima facie evidence that the suspect has a case to answer to prevent people being sent to face trial abroad on ‘speculative charges.’”
None of the changes have taken place, however, leaving Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, in particular, in a distressing situation — stuck in the US, where the overwhelming majority of court cases involving Muslims and alleged terrorist activities end in convictions. Their alleged crime involves running a website that supported Muslim freedom fighters in Chechnya and elsewhere, but although the site was hosted in the UK, one of the servers was apparently located in the US.
Perhaps new evidence will surface to justify these men’s long ordeal, but as it stands at present, a former employee of a London university, who worked in IT (Ahmad) and a talented poet and scholar with Asberger’s (Ahsan) face an unfair trial and the prospect of a lengthy sentence in isolation in a Supermax prison for an alleged crime that, it appears, was not something for which they could have been prosecuted in the UK.
As for the other men, it is also uncertain whether their extradition will prove to have been the best way to proceed in the search for justice. Abu Hamza, a caricature of a firebrand Islamist preacher, who lost both his hands in Afghanistan during the time of the Soviet occupation, was sentenced in the UK for “soliciting murder,” and for “intent to stir up racial hatred,” but, as Alun Jones QC, who represented him in his extradition proceedings, asked in the Independent on Wednesday, “Why was Abu Hamza extradited to the US for crimes he is alleged to have committed in this country?”
Jones proceeded to explain:
He is accused on a single US indictment of three groups of crimes, committed while in London. By far the most serious is an allegation of directing, via satellite phone, the kidnap of Western hostages in Yemen in 1999. In a shoot-out, four of the hostages were killed, three of them Britons, one Australian. One American was wounded. The UK police conducted a detailed investigation. The second group is a charge that Abu Hamza conspired to organise a terrorist training camp in Oregon preparatory to waging jihad in Afghanistan in 1999 to 2000. The third involved assistance in providing money and weapons to the Taliban in furtherance of terrorism in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.
Jones concluded, “If persons are accused of committing serious international crimes in or from this country, we should normally try them here. That is what independent and robust criminal justice systems do.”
It is hard to disagree with Alun Jones’ conclusion. Both of the other extradited men, Adel Abdel Bary, an Egyptian, and Khaled al-Fawwaz, a Saudi, are accused of being involved with Al-Qaeda’s deadly attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 1998, for which a case can be made that a trial in the US is appropriate. Nevertheless, their alleged involvement in Osama bin Laden’s plans also took place in the UK.
In some quarters, the eventual extradition of these five men has been regarded as a victory. After years of legal challenges, the European Court of Human Rights refused a last-ditch appeal, in which lawyers for the men had argued that, if convicted, the solitary confinement regime in the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where they would be held, perhaps for up to 50 years, would amount to torture or inhumane and degrading treatment.
The Court disagreed, even though, as the Guardian noted, “The regime is designed to prevent all physical contact between an inmate and others and to minimize social interaction with staff,” adding, “For those in solitary confinement, contact with staff could be as little as one minute a day,” and also noting that inmates “have only 10 hours a week of recreation time outside their cells.”
The judges’ decision, however, turned on information provided by a representative of the prison, who stated that prisoners “could have five social visits a month with no limit on their correspondence with their families,” and added that they “have in-cell access to 50 television channels and seven radio stations, a copy of USA Today and can speak to inmates in the next cells using the ventilation system as a voice conduit.”
I am not alone in concluding that the almost total denial of human contact to prisoners, over the course of decades, is actually an insidious form of torture, and it is, I believe, deeply unfortunate that the European judges appear to have provided some sort of approval for the inhumane conditions in which human beings are treated in America’s Supermax prisons.
Moreover, as the Guardian also explained, the problems are not just with the post-conviction conditions. As the US filmmaker Sadhbh Walshe explained, the men’s “chances of getting a fair trial will also be compromised by the pre-trial conditions in which they are likely to be held” — namely, Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), initially introduced by the federal government in 1996 “to deal with certain gang leaders who had demonstrated substantial risk that their ‘communication or contact with persons could result in the death or serious bodily injury to persons,’” but now routinely applied to “terror suspects.”
Under SAMS, as Walshe explained, pre-trial defendants “are not only held in the kind of extreme isolation that is routine in facilities like ADX Florence,” but are “also subjected to extra measures of isolation,” ensuring that “they are completely cut off from the outside world and that the outside world is cut off from them.”
As she proceeded to explain:
A defendant placed under SAMS is usually only allowed to communicate with his immediate family (parents, siblings, spouse and children) and his attorney. Letters to and from his approved family members can take up to six months to be cleared. Such prisoners cannot write to or receive visits from anyone else: friends, extended family or supporters; and they can have absolutely no contact with the media. In addition to the gag that is placed on these defendants, the small number of people with whom they are allowed to have contact are also gagged, as they, too, are bound to abide by the SAMS.
In conclusion, based on all the information above, I fail to see how the vast expense of bringing these five men from the UK to the US is either good value for money, or justifiable in terms of justice being done. As with everything related to terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, it seems, instead, that the US-UK Extradition Treaty is merely adding new injustices to those inflicted in US courts on US citizens accused of offences purportedly related to terrorism, and those inflicted with no acceptable process at all on the foreign nationals held at Guantánamo.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and thedefinitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog atandyworthington.co.uk.