Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) must be tearing his hair out. The news that solicitors for Karl Watkin, a British businessman, have written to Starmer asking his permission to commence a private prosecution against two British citizens for offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 could easily be dismissed as a storm in a teacup. It is anything but.
The response of the DPP to the request, and his reaction to the news that a summons has already been sought at Westminster magistrates’ court also accusing the two men of crimes under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, for which his consent is not required, has the capacity to define us as a nation.
At stake here are the issues of habeas corpus, the presumption of innocence, and legal sovereignty, not to mention the enormously contentious extradition arrangements with the US.
There is not much danger that either of the accused, Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan, from south London, will abscond. Both have been held in maximum security detention for many years, pursuant to a US request for their extradition on charges related to exactly the same conduct for which their UK prosecution is now sought.
Their case, together with that of four other terrorist suspects wanted by the US, is currently before the grand chamber of the European court of human rights, which is deliberating whether to hear their appeal against an earlier decision of the court this year that their extradition to the US, and possible lifelong detention in solitary confinement, would not breach their human rights.
Within minutes of that previous judgment having been handed down, the home secretary, Theresa May, was in front of the television cameras expressing her desire to see the men shipped out of the country at the earliest opportunity. Given that one of them was Abu Hamza, she presumably thought that public opinion would be squarely behind her, and she was probably right.
It’s not quite that simple, though.
Over the years, during the media and parliamentary controversy surrounding cases such as that of the NatWest Three, of which I was one, and Gary McKinnon, the case of Ahmad has been cited almost as a footnote. Arguably, though, it is the case that most strongly demonstrates the need for a UK judge to determine the most appropriate forum for a trial, something which is currently precluded by the Extradition Act 2003.
Whatever the public prejudice against alleged terrorists, the bald facts are these; Ahmad and Ahsan are two British citizens who are alleged to have run websites from their homes and places of work in London, inciting violent jihad in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Neither has set foot in the US. If they have committed any crime, they have demonstrably committed it in the UK.
Today is the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity. As a result, one of the legacies of the Blair government is some of the world’s most draconian anti-terrorist legislation in the UK. So why on earth would we put these men on a plane to America, where the nexus with the case is tenuous at best? Why not try them here?
In the original extradition hearing in 2005, the senior magistrate described Ahmad’s as “a difficult and troubling case” because there was no doubt that it could be heard in the UK.
Ahmad’s legal team have spent years pressing for a UK prosecution, as we did, only to be rebuffed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on the basis that there was insufficient evidence in their possession to bring a prosecution. In the absence of such a prosecution, as the NatWest Three found, extradition to the US becomes all but inevitable.
It was revealed late last year, however, that the reason that the CPS have been claiming that there is insufficient evidence is that the Metropolitan police did not share with them much of what was seized from Ahmad’s home in December 2003, instead giving it directly to the US. No explanation for this has yet been forthcoming, despite questions being asked in parliament.
I have visited Babar Ahmad in prison, and he knows my views on terrorists as a former soldier who served in Northern Ireland. But he is a British citizen, accused of crimes committed exclusively in Britain, and the right place for any trial is the UK. It’s not complicated. It is inconceivable that the US would allow one of their citizens to be extradited if the roles were reversed. Nor should they. The US do legal sovereignty perhaps better than any other nation.
Watkin’s solicitors clearly believe they have sufficient evidence for the case to be committed to trial here. Public interest therefore demands that it should be.
Two separate parliamentary committees have specifically cited Ahmad’s as a case which ought to be heard in the UK, and last year nearly 150,000 people signed a petition calling for just that. That is approximately five times the total number of people who voted in Theresa May’s constituency at the last general election.
In opposition, members of the current cabinet argued for the “forum” test that would see Ahmad, Ahsan and others like them tried in the UK. In government, however, a huge dose of moral cowardice has seemingly replaced their principles.
The DPP has it within his power to take over a private prosecution and either run with it, as advocated by Watkin’s lawyers, or discontinue it, a course which is doubtless being urgently pressed upon him by the Home Office. To do the latter would be the easy option, but would effectively confirm what many already suspect; that we have forsaken legal sovereignty and outsourced our criminal justice system to America.Doing the right thing is often the hardest, but it is what distinguishes leaders from followers.We are all Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan.