As Stephen Lawrence’s parents sat in court this week, they were a reminder to us of how their son became the trigger for a self-critical look into the dark side of British institutional racism, thanks to Lord Macpherson’s inquiry. Eighteen years after the Lawence murder, the case of Babar Ahmad may be poised to trigger another, equally explosive outcry into the institutional racism and Islamophobia that have allowed him to remain in a high security prison in Britain for more than seven years fighting extradition to the US. The Crown Prosecution Service has refused to prosecute him for the crimes that the US alleges he has committed here.
The Ahmad case became explosive when family and friends amassed 140,000 signatures on an e-petition for a parliamentary debate on his right to a trial here. In places like Bradford and Luton, young people mobilised by mosques, youth leaders and social networking have made their first forays into mainstream politics – deluging MPs with letters and emails.
The initial response of the backbench business committee last week was to tag this e-petition on to a pre-arranged debate on extradition to be held not in the main chamber, but in Westminster Hall. The MPs involved appeared unaware of, or impervious to, the groundswell of real anger among young people in particular, who felt disrespected by the MPs’ decision. And the outrage went much broader, with more than 100 lawyers, including QCs, writing to the leader of the house, Sir George Young, asking for a full debate.
Last Tuesday backbench MPs decided that on Monday there will after all be a debate on a motion “to reform the UK’s extradition laws as a matter of urgency to strengthen the protection of British citizens …”. But it does not mention Ahmad and the e-petition, with Dominic Raab – the MP who was instrumental in securing the debate – refusing to insert the key phrase “pending cases” into the motion, which would have included people facing extradition. This is not the democratic outcome of listening to 140,000 people’s voices.
Five other men, including three Britons, are in the same position of having been fighting extradition to the US for years from prisons in the UK, where they are accused of no crime. The stress on their lives can be gauged from the fact that one has been moved to Broadmoor after a breakdown in the special detainee unit where Ahmad is held.
Ahmad’s ordeal has had particular resonance in part because of the saga of the 73 injuries he received during his arrest, and his subsequent court case against the officers involved. In 2009 the Metropolitan police made an unprecedented admission that officers subjected Ahmad to a brutal beating causing multiple injuries, and offered him £60,000 compensation. The case exposed shocking behaviour by some officers, in which racism and islamophobia were overt; and incompetence, or worse, lay behind the curious disappearance of many sacks of vital evidence.
Two years later, in a criminal case against the officers, the jury was not told of the Met’s admissions, or the payment it had offered, and the four officers concerned were found not guilty.
The stigma of terrorism is behind this story of abuse and corner-cutting by police, compounded by an attempted cover-up in court – which failed once and succeeded the second time. Only last week it was revealed that the police, with extraordinary laxity, in 2003 sent material gathered from his house to the US, without showing it to the Crown Prosecution Service. Along the way, the Home Office, and regrettably some MPs, have failed to see the huge resonance of this case for Britain.