(PHOTO: Robert H. King of the Angola 3 and Hamja Ahsan in London.)
Do US Prisons Violate European Human Rights Law?
--An interview with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl
On April 10, 2012, the European Court of Human
Rights (ECHR) issued judgement in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom
, thereby making a
landmark ruling on the legitimacy of solitary confinement, extreme isolation
and life without parole in US supermax prisons (view ECHR press release
). The ECHR denied the appeal filed jointly by six appellants, consisting of four
British nationals (Babar Ahmad, Haroon Rashid Aswat, Syed Talha Ahsan, and Mustafa
Kamal Mustafa--aka Abu Hamza), an Egyptian national (Adel Abdul Bary) and a
Saudi Arabian national (Khaled Al-Fawwaz) who have been imprisoned in the United
Kingdom, pending extradition to the United States for alleged terrorism-related
This judgement is now being appealed to the ECHR's
Grand Chamber, with a decision expected in September regarding whether or not
the appeal will be heard. Arguing against their extradition to the US, the six
appellants have asserted that the risk of imprisonment in the United States (with
specific citation of long-term isolation at the notorious federal prison in
Colorado, ADX Florence--also the subject of both
a June Senate Hearing
and a recent civil rights lawsuit
by prisoners alleging human rights violations there) would breach their
right under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human
Rights not to "be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading
treatment or punishment." Ruling against the appellants, the ECHR argued
in their April 10 ruling that isolation in a US Supermax prison is
and will become a violation of Article 3 ECHR (which prohibits torture),
if it extends indefinitely.
A third party intervention
to the European Court of Human Rights in this case was jointly submitted in
2010 by INTERIGHTS, Reprieve, the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law
School National Litigation Project, arguing that "U.S. legal protections
against ill-treatment in imprisonment fall short of those provided under
Article 3 ECHR." Furthermore, "it is submitted that any protection the
applicants will receive under U.S. law is speculative at best. The past two
decades have seen a strong trend of limiting prisoner access to courts overall
and restricting judicial oversight, particularly in the absence of overt
physical harm. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution affords little in the way of
real protections against the documented harms of prolonged sensory and social
deprivation"To the extent the United States suggests that Petitioners will be
adequately protected by administrative review, the record in cases involving
ADX Florence is that such procedures are largely illusory."
In this interview we speak with Hamja Ahsan and
Aviva Stahl--two London-based activists working around this case. Aviva Stahl
works as the United States researcher for CagePrisoners.com
, a London-based
human rights organization that is committed to defending the due process rights
of detainees of the War on Terror. Her
current work focuses on the criminalization of Muslim communities on American
soil, and draws on the parallel past experiences of other communities of color.
She also helps run a pen pal program in Britain that links folks across prison
walls, with the aim of building relationships based on solidarity and mutual
An artist and curator by profession, Hamja Ahsan is
the younger brother of appellant Syed Talha Ahsan, and leader of the Free Talha
Ahsan Campaign. Declaring that Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and writer with
Asperger syndrome imprisoned since 2006 "deserves freedom or a fair trial in the UK," www.freetalha.org
details how "Talha Ahsan
was arrested at his home on 19 July 2006 in response to a request from the USA
under the Extradition Act 2003 which does not require the presentation of any
prima facie evidence. He is accused in the US of terrorism-related offences
arising out of an alleged involvement over the period of 1997-2004 with the
Azzam series of websites, one of which happened to be located on a server in
America. He has never been arrested or questioned by British police, despite a
number of men being so from his local area in December 2003 for similar
allegations. All of them were released without charge. One of them, Babar Ahmad
, was later compensated -60,000 by the Metropolitan police after a civil
case in March 2009 for the violent physical abuse during his arrest. It was
evidence from this incident which formed the basis of Talha's arrest two and a
half years later."
In this interview, Ahsan and Stahl discuss the
extreme importance of the upcoming Grand Chamber ruling on a personal level for
the six appellants fighting their extradition, as well as the ruling's broader
significance for all US prisoners and the communities around the world targeted
by the US' so-called "War on Terror." Among the many prominent human rights
activists speaking out is US author Noam Chomsky
who asserts that "with the sharp deterioration of protection of elementary civil
rights in the US, no one should be extradited to the country on charges related
to alleged terrorism"the prisons and the incarceration system in the United
States are an international scandal," and "the shallow and evasive charges" in
Ahsan's case "strongly reinforce that conclusion."
Robert H. King of the Angola 3
, released in 2001
after 29 years in solitary, recently met up with Ahsan and Stahl (read Stahl's
) while touring the UK with Amnesty International
as part of their campaign demanding the
immediate release of the Angola 3's Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace from
solitary confinement, where they have now been for over 40 years (sign Amnesty's
Angola 3 News: Hamja,
how has Talha's arrest affected you and your family?
Ahsan: The case is extremely disturbing
and upsetting. In February of 2006 the police came and raided our family home
at the behest of the United States. Neither I, nor my brother, nor my elderly
mother or father, have ever been to the United States. How could a foreign
country come and invade my house like that?
police took everything -- my diary, my mobile phone, my CD collection, my
nephew's cartoons, my camera, my university artwork and ridiculously, they even
took my PlayStation 2 memory card. Six
years later, other than our computers (which were returned the next day with
all the content intact), we haven't gotten anything back, despite a vocal
assurance that we would. If there was anything dangerous or incriminating on
those computers, why would they be returned intact? We still use those computers to this
parents are average, middle class Asian parents--often excessively concerned
about school grades, and stereotypically displaying little emotion. Now they
regularly break down crying in public and on media. Julia O'Dwyer, the mother of British student
Richard O'Dwyer, who is also fighting his extradition to the US, says it's a
punishment for the whole family, and you're punished before you're even found
these last six years we've lived in uncertainty and fear. I didn't think that
being detained without charge, trial or evidence would last this long.
A3N: Can you
please tell us about who your brother, Talha Ahsan, is as a human being and a
member of your family?
Talha had a job interview to be a librarian
the day of his arrest in July. That's the type of person he is, an academic
type of librarian. He is diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, much like in the
film My Name is Khan
, which has become part of our campaign work, and
the cause celebre for hacker Gary McKinnon.
Talha is a published poet who has drawn the sympathy and acclaim of many
other distinguished novelists, poets, and musicians, including Michael Rosen,
Shailja Patel, Tariq Mahmood, Zita Holbourne, Avaez Mohammad and Riz
Ahmed. The two most beautiful pieces
written in support of Talha were by novelist A.L. Kennedy in the Guardian (1
is as much a threat to the American and British public as an average librarian
is. His published book of poetry in prison was launched by A.L. Kennedy in
Edinburgh in 2011, and it keeps selling out and having to be reprinted. Many people are touched by his words and a
young filmmaker made a documentary based around his prison poetry called
"Extradition." Like so many others who write to him, Amrit Wilson, winner of
the Martin Luther King award, said that despite her differences in age, religion,
and gender, she found through correspondence that he was a deeply caring
the psychological anguish of being detained without trial, he manages to care
about other British causes such as Black deaths in police custody and
A3N: What is
your response to the argument made by the European Court of Human Rights court
that isolation in a US supermax prison is "relative'?
Stahl: First off, I want to quote from
the statement released by Babar Ahmad
and Talha Ahsan's lawyers, Binberg Piece and Partners: "It
will come as a considerable surprise to the inmates of ADX Florence, the prison
in question, and their lawyers who struggle fruitlessly to challenge in the US
courts their continuing solitary confinement for 8, 10, or 16 years, that the
prisoners' grim isolation could be considered only "relative' and its
continuance as justiciable. It will be equally surprising to international
lawyers, who may include the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the European
Committee for the Prevention of Torture, that the view of the European Court as
to what constitutes isolation is apparently in conflict with their own."
it's important to note that the European Court of Human Rights made that ruling
based partially on the (mis)information provided to them by the Bureau of
Prisons in the United States. In its submission to the Court, the BOP
maintained that supermax prisons did not constitute extreme isolation on the
basis that prisoners are able to shout to each other through ventilation
systems -- a claim which the Court readily accepted. The BOP also claimed that prisons are able to
"step-down" within 3 years, even though there are many prisoners in ADX Florence
who have been in solitary for over ten years.
HA: As referred to in the statement, the United
Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, wanted to intervene in the
judgement to say it amounted to ill treatment. He hasn't been allowed to visit
the United States to examine the international scandal of its prison system,
particularly "supermax" prisons such as ADX Florence. Amnesty International has also frequently
campaigned against the use of long-term solitary confinement, for example they
are staunch supporters of the Angola 3.
was such extensive support for Bradley Manning when he faced 11 months in
solitary -- but what about people who face that for a lifetime?
A3N: What are
the key arguments of your campaign against extradition?
HA: To start with, the extradition treaty was
introduced in 2003, a few months after the Iraq war and at the height of the
George Bush-Tony Blair partnership. It's part of the authoritarian, excess
legislation introduced by the new Labour administration. David Blanket, the Home Secretary who
introduced the legislation, now regrets it.
It removes the need to have prima facie evidence.
simple way of exposing the dangers of the new removal of this evidence bar is
the case of Lotfi Raissi, an airline pilot accused of training the 9/11
hijackers. After the United States
requested his extradition, he was held in Belmarsh prison; after five months, a
British court ruled that there was no credibility to the charges against him
and ordered his release. He was
eventually awarded over -2million in a government payout, and also won an
undisclosed sum from the Mail on Sunday
newspaper in a civil suit for printing false information about the charges he
extradition treaty removes the most elementary civil rights such as habeas
corpus, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, access to family, and
protection from torture. And above all,
the very first duty of government, which is to protect its own citizens.
not just a Muslim issue, as we've learned from a number of high profile cases
where the accused were white, such as Christopher Tappin, and the NatWest3 (who
have been actively supporting our campaign, even though they're from a more
conservative establishment background).
David Birmingham wrote an excellent book called "The Price to Pay,"
outlining the cost of this legislation. The most ludicrous case is that of Richard O'Dwyer, a 23 year old
student who ran TVShack, which isn't even a crime in Britain. There are close
family relationships between all the families affected by this
legislation. In sum, a bad piece of
legislation bites back at all British citizens.
from reforming the legislation, there is also an immediate action point for
these campaigns. Babar and Talha have never even been to the United States, so
why should they be tried there? We want
the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to review the evidence
against Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan in full -- something he has never done. In
November 2011, the Criminal Prosecution Service admitted they had never even
seen the evidence seized from Babar's home! The case of Regina v Sheppard
& Whittle (2010) clearly established that a person should be tried in
the jurisdiction in which a substantial measure of activity took place. So even
according to case precedence, the most appropriate forum for Babar and Talha's
trial is in the UK, if there is indeed enough evidence to charge them.
a reform of the law to include a forum bar, meaning a judge rather than a
prosecutor decides the best place that a trial should took place -- similar to
Ireland's extradition treaties, and also an evidence bar -- an incredibly important
protection that was lost when the Extradition treaty was passed, as the case of
Lotfi Raissi demonstrates. Even
Lithuania has better protections for its own citizens in relation to
extradition than Britain. In context,
France doesn't extradite its citizens at all.
And within Holland, a foreign sentence is served on home ground.
it about being tried by the US criminal justice system that these six
appellants before the European Court of Human Rights object
In their appeal to the ECHR, Babar Ahmad
& others argued that being extradited to the United States would violate
the rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human rights, namely
that " no
one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment", based on the conditions they'd face once on the inside. For
example, some terrorism suspects in the States have faced up to three years of
solitary confinement even prior to their trial - for example Fahad Hashmi
about what he went through here
). Fahad was also one of many people subject to "Special Administrative
Measures," which are special conditions imposed on people (both pre and
post trial) if the Attorney General deems it necessary. John Walker Lindh ("the
American Taliban") for example, was barred from speaking Arabic.
it's not only the conditions on the inside that we object to. The criminal
justice system is incredibly flawed, especially for people facing charges of
terrorism. There's an immense amount of
pressure to plead guilty once you get to court -- in fact over 98% of people
plead guilty in federal cases. Also, as
many people here are aware of, the criminal justice system doesn't treat all
people equally. It's racist, pure and simple, as is utterly evident from the
case of the Angola 3.
not just against African Americans -- it's also incredibly racist against
Muslims, especially those facing charges for terrorism. As I documented in a report published last year
Muslims face systemic due process improprieties in the American criminal
justice system, from start to finish. Just think about how widespread
Islamophobia is today, how purported terrorists are put on trial by the media
even before they arrive in court, and then the kinds of attitudes towards
Muslims held by the American public, who are Talha and Babar's potential
jurors. As a Muslim facing charges for terrorism, it's impossible to get a fair
trial today because you've essentially been found guilty before the trial even
A3N: In the cases of both
the Angola 3 and these six appellates, they are appealing to the
international community about human rights abuses in US prisons. What other
similarities do you see regarding these two cases?
HA: I met Robert King at one of his Amnesty International
public events. He expressed strong solidarity and support for Talha and Babar,
and gave my family's campaign the last word. I asked him about what I could say
to Talha as words of solace as he was about to face solitary. Robert talked
about the strong grassroots campaign within America against extreme forms of
solitary confinement. Robert signed a
book in solidarity with Talha, that I will give to him when he's freed. Talha
has also shown a great deal of solidarity for the Angola 3. On the day of the
Angola Three's 40th anniversary, Talha had me express solidarity on
Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
AS: I think there are several similarities
between the two cases. The first and most obvious similarity, of course, is the
issue of solitary confinement. Both the lawsuit being brought by the Angola 3
in the federal courts in the States, and the arguments made by Babar and Talha
in arguing against their extradition, say essentially the same thing: that
being held in solitary confinement or supermax prisons is torture. It's cruel
and unusual punishment. It doesn't matter what you're accused of or who you
are. No human should suffer through that.
think there's another really important parallel between these two cases - the
way in which racism and racial paranoia are used to sustain dominant power
structures. Consider the case of the Angola 3. Robert King has commented many
times that they were convicted -- not for any crime they committed -- but because
they were Black Panthers. Why might a jury convict them on those grounds? Well,
in 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panthers as "the
greatest threat to the internal security of the country". How many of us would hear that now and think
it was preposterous?
when someone is accused of supporting terrorism -- most of all a Muslim man --the
details of the crime are insignificant. Just like we were socialized to fear Black
men on the street, we're taught to fear Muslim men on our planes. Certainly
that aspect of racial fear is present.
Men of color (whether Black or Brown) have been sites of fear, thought
to embody some kind of evil. That fear is integral to justifying dominant white
power structures, both at home and abroad.
A3N: The April 10 ruling by the
European Court of Human Rights is now being appealed to the Grand Chamber of the Court
and we are awaiting a decision about whether the appeal will be considered. In
the meantime, how can our mostly-US-based readership best support the fight against extradition?
We're expecting to hear in September about
whether or not the appeal will be considered by the Grand Chamber. In the
meantime, it would be great if folks could write to Talha
The most important is to get involved with
folks in the States campaigning against supermax prisons, solitary confinement
and the prison industrial complex. Remember that Senate hearings about the legitimacy
of solitary confinement happened just a few weeks ago. This is a crucial time
for all of us to push back against the injustices happening on the inside. Please listen to some incredibly moving testimony here
. Whether it's with Amnesty, the Angola 3, theStopMax campaign
, or other prisoner solidarity work". Get involved!
A3N: In an
interview conducted prior to the April ruling , SACC activist Richard Haley argued that
"if the court blocks the men's extradition it will send a signal to the US that
the harshness of the US penal system is damaging its international relations.
On the other hand, a ruling in favor of extradition could open the door to
harsher prison conditions in Europe." If affirmed by the Grand Chamber, what do
you think is the significance of the Court ruling for the US, UK, and Europe?
AS: Well, of course if it stands, the ruling
will give greater legitimacy to the practice of solitary confinement and the
conditions inside supermax prisons. The Court has essentially ruled that these
conditions "aren't that bad".
think it's also important to recognize the broader context, which is that the
ruling will simply strengthen ongoing trends on both sides of the ocean -- of
increased criminalization, imprisonment and privatization. As I'm sure your
readership is aware, the prison industrial complex has reached epic proportions
in the United States -- over 2 million people and counting are now held on the
inside. But the same things are happening here in the UK. The prison population
in England and Wales has hit a record high. After the uprisings ("riots") of
last summer, we saw kids being imprisoned for long periods of time for very
petty theft, and the importation of policies from the US, including gang
injunctions. With regards to privatization, G4S already operates several
prisons in England and is bidding to run many more. We need only look at the
wealth of evidence from the Olympic security debacle that privatization is a
other hand, I think it's important to recognize that the ruling has given us
the impetus to generate new kinds of alliances. This case represents just how
important it is for different communities to work together in challenging the
prison system, especially in its most pernicious incarnations. The ruling draws
new links of potential solidarity across the globe - from Pelican Bay Prison,
to ADX Florence, to the Communication Management Units of Terre Haute and
Marion, to Guantanamo Bay, to Bagram, to HMP Long Lartin, where Talha and Babar
HA: A lot of the British right wing media failed
to grasp that the ruling was about prison conditions and used a lot of racist,
Islamophobic language referring to Talha and Babar as "unwanted guests" and
"Muslim fanatics", despite not having been found guilty of anything. This was a
very terrifying and painful time for the family. I didn't sleep or eat properly
for many days.
A3N: What is
the ruling's significance for the communities targeted by the so-called "war on
terror," led by the US?
AS: I think that for Muslims in the US and the
UK, this ruling just legitimizes the human and civil rights abuses they already
experience - surveillance in their homes, mosques, and schools, entrapment from
undercover agents, harassment by cops and border police, even criminal
convictions for activities that should be protected -- like bookselling! It's to the point where Muslims' very religious
and political beliefs are being criminalized.
HA: The 2003 US-UK extradition treaty
effectively gives a dangerous level of extraterritorial jurisdiction to the
United States. If the websites in question did have a US server, it shows that most
of us living outside the US can go home, check out emails (Google, Hotmail,
Facebook, Twitter) and be on a US server. Most .com, or .net addresses work the
same way. Effectively most emails in the world pass through a US server. So
people are no longer being picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and
Pakistan, but from their bedrooms and family homes, in our case, in South
London. This is a frightening precedent for all of us. In Richard O'Dwyer's
case, the charges don't even have to constitute a crime under British law.
Entrapment and sting jobs which form part of Christopher Tappin and Nosratollah Tajik's
cases, are illegal and unacceptable under British law.
this: just before the ECHR released its decision, John Bolton, the former US
ambassador to the United Nations, said that a ECHR veto against extradition
would call "into question the ability of Europe as a whole to be an effective
partner in the war against terrorism."
Given the amount of pressure the US can exert on the rest of the world,
are we really that surprised that the Court ruled the way it did?
The US has
expanded its drone strikes into Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It's passed the
2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which essentially allows the US to
detain anyone, anywhere, if the US alleges that they have links to Al Qaeda or
associated organizations. This is just
more evidence of the US government and military's broad reach, justified in the
name of the War on Terror.
A3N: Anything else to add?
HA and AS:
There is an event in London on Saturday, September
8, entitled "Extradite Me I'm British
." It's an
evening of film, prison poetry, talks, drama, comedy, talks, nasheeds around
the notorious 2003 US-UK extradition treaty currently affecting British
citizens Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Richard O'Dwyer and Gary Mckinnon.
Hamja tweets on @hamjaahsan and @freetalha
Aviva tweets on @stahlidarity
more about Talha and Babar's case! Write to them! Stay up to date with the best
way to support them.
--Angola 3 News is an
official project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.
Our website is http://www.angola3news.com, where we provide the latest news
about the Angola 3. Additionally we are also creating our own media
projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola
3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement
as torture, and more. Our articles and videos have been published by
Alternet, Truthout, Black Commentator, SF Bay View Newspaper,
Counterpunch, Monthly Review, Z Magazine, Indymedia, and many others.