All four of the officers accused of assaulting Babar Ahmad in 2003 have been acquitted this morning at Southwark Crown Court. Detective Constable John Donohue said that he was “relieved” by the jury’s decision. The officers’ solicitor Colin Reynolds said that “they are hoping to put these unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations behind them.”
Babar Ahmad’s father read out a statement on his behalf: “The Metropolitan Police admitted at the High Court that I was brutally assaulted by its officers without resisting arrest. Today’s verdict means that no police officer has been held to account for this abuse.
The following article was written before the verdict was known, due to our Thursday evening print deadline
There was a brief glimpse of a man slumped against a grey cell door on the video link to Babar Ahmad’s prison cell in a special unit at Long Lartin maximum-security prison. He observed as the trial took place below him from a discrete camera overlooking the jury box. Britain’s longest held detainee-without-charge cannot simply walk through the doors of Southwark Crown Court, even though he’s not the one on trial.
Four men sat in the dock last Tuesday 31st of May, officers of an elite counter-terrorism police force, the Territorial Support Group (TSG); Police Constables Nigel Cowley, Roderick James-Bowen, Mark Jones, and Detective Constable John Donohue.
They are held accused of committing assault occasioning actual bodily harm during the arrest of Babar Ahmad, a former Imperial student and staff member, on December 2nd 2003 at his home in Tooting, South London. Babar Ahmad was previously an engineering student at Imperial and working as an ICT support analyst for the college before he was arrested and detained under the Terrorism Act. Although he was released without charge six days later, he was re-arrested the following year and continues to be detained while fighting extradition to the US. Two years ago, the Met police commissioner admitted that he was subject to abuse during the arrest and he received £60,000 compensation, but the officers involved now face charges. If found guilty the maximum sentence they could receive is five years imprisonment.
From a hidden door, the jury were ushered into the courtroom; the twelve people who will decide the fate of these four men. Upon a dais, the judge overlooked the proceedings as the barristers went to work in their wigs and gowns. A dozen people had gathered to watch from the public gallery. Babar Ahmad’s father sat there, a small well-dressed man peering at the proceedings from above his spectacles, accompanied by a young woman, his daughter.
Jonathan Laidlaw QC stood to present his closing speech for the prosecution. He recapped the injuries that Babar Ahmad had sustained in the arrest, described by forensic medical examiners, and totalling more than 70 physical injuries. Reminding the jury that all of the officers denied landing a single blow, he explained that there could be no middle ground; either the officers were truthful or they had lied to conceal an appalling assault. The officers’ defence told the jury that Babar Ahmad had struggled during the arrest and “fought like a caged tiger” inflicting the injuries upon himself. But the prosecution countered; none of the medical examiners had identified any fighting injuries on his hands. Laidlaw posed a question rhetorically to the jury: why might these officers have been driven to attack Babar Ahmad? They could have been frightened he speculated, or decided to inflict their own form of punishment, or perhaps they had a racial motive.
Unbeknown to either Babar Ahmad or the TSG officers, MI5 had planted a bug in the house to monitor his activities, which recorded the events of that December morning. The jury has heard the recording and read mutually agreed transcripts from the bug. It may be the first time that MI5 surveillance material has been used in the prosecution of police officers. Cumulatively, it has now taken more than 100 hours in court to analyse the 12 minutes of recording and the subsequent events that took place during the arrest.
In a predawn raid, counter-terrorism police invaded Babar Ahmad’s house and arrested him in his home at around 5am. Upon being confronted in his bedroom, the prosecution said that he raised his arms in surrender, but two of the arresting officers said that he adopted a “fighting stance”. Testifying in court last month, Babar Ahmad claimed he was victim to a “sustained and very violent assault” in which he was beaten so badly that he thought he was going to die.
All of the defendants have denied mocking Babar Ahmad or his faith. Pc James Bowen has told the court that the MI5 recording shows that officers did not shout, “Where is your God now?” – an allegation that he described as a “black cloud over me personally and professionally.”
Three of Babar Ahmad’s neighbours on Fountain road witnessed him being taken by officers from his house to a police van. None of them saw him struggle or shout, which the prosecutor told the jury contradicts the officers’ claims that he struggled and shouted violently.
The first defendant’s lawyer stood to address the jury and asked them to “try to put yourself in Roderick James-Bowen’s shoes – or should I say, boots” and lifted up a single black police boot, slamming it down upon the stand for emphasis. “This was not the arrest of some computer geek for stealing IT weekly magazines on Tooting High Street”, he said, “Mr Ahmad was not some nine stone weakling who’s only exercise was the walk to the tube on his way to aeronautical engineering classes at Imperial College.” The defence reminded the jury that he was just months away from a black belt in kung fu at the time and that a samurai sword was found in his bedroom.
Controversially, Babar Ahmad fought in the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. The prosecution argued that he was a volunteer on a humanitarian mission, and was only recruited in the fighting when he could no longer stand to watch the killing of Bosnian Muslims. However, the defence described him as “an unpaid mercenary in someone else’s war.” The shrapnel wounds he sustained during the war “were not the kind of injuries you get on Tooting High Street – even the rougher parts.” But testifying in court last month, Babar Ahmad refuted this interpretation saying he was “no Al-Qaeda Rambo.”
The defence concluded: “This was not Wolfie Smith and the Tooting Liberation Front… This was the real thing, as recognised by MI5 and anti-terrorist officers.”
In the public gallery a woman leant forward on her seat, watching the proceedings intently. Jenny Nelson, a professor of physics at Imperial, has followed Babar Ahmad’s case since it first began almost eight years ago. Her late partner worked with him at Imperial, and she, along with his former manager at Imperial, visited Babar Ahmad in Long Lartin prison in April last year. He is held there in a special unit for terror suspects where most inmates are facing extradition. Reflecting on the meeting, she said that he was entirely different from her expectations of a man imprisoned for years, and called him an “inspiring” figure. She found him “very welcoming” as they discussed his prison conditions, and his growing interest in other struggles around the world.
At the time of writing, the jury were expected to have begun deliberations on Friday.
The story of Babar Ahmad
Felix reports raid on campus in December 2003 –
Babar Ahmad was formerly a student and staff member at Imperial, working as an ICT support analyst in the Mechanical Engineering department. On December 2nd 2003, counter-terrorism police arrested him in a predawn raid at his home in Tooting, South London. During the arrest, he sustained 73 forensically recorded injuries including bleeding in his ear and urine. He alleges that he was beaten, choked, and subjected to religious verbal abuse. Although the IPCC initially refuted his claims, Met police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, admitted in 2009 that he was submitted to “grave abuse tantamount to torture” during the arrest and he received compensation totalling £60,000.
At the time, Babar Ahmad’s arrest was the latest in the War on Terror and part of ‘Operation Quarrier’, in which three other men were arrested in Southwest London and detained under the Terrorism Act. On the day of his arrest in 2003, Felix reported (pictured above) that a room in college was secured and searched by police with computers dismantled and removed for investigation. He was released six days later without charge. However, he was re-arrested on August 6th 2004 after the US issued an extradition warrant, accusing him of using websites and e-mail to raise funds to support terrorists in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Legal wrangling over his extradition is still ongoing and has passed from UK courts, to the House of Lords, and now to the European court of human rights. Imperial College Union passed policy in 2004 fully supporting Babar Ahmad in his fight against extradition. In March 2007, former Union President, John Collins, wrote to then Home Secretary, John Reid, urging him to halt extradition proceedings.
Babar Ahmad is now the longest detained prisoner in the UK without charge, having been imprisoned for more than six years – 2493 days on the day of print.