Last night’s BBC interview from a high-security prison with Babar Ahmad, who is wanted for extradition to the US on terror charges, confronts the government, yet again, with a case full of embarrassing questions for the Metropolitan police. And for the justice minister, Ken Clarke, it highlights the challenge of how to justify holding a man in a maximum security prison for eight years when he faces no charges in the UK. Clarke may be quietly praying that next Tuesday the European court of human rights will rule that Ahmad cannot be extradited to the US, and British courts therefore can after all hear the case.
Ahmad had no illusions that the interview was his “last chance to convince the authorities,” and he directly asked the director of public prosecutions to put him on trial in the UK here and now, as his family have requested on countless occasions.
At the centre of the US case against Ahmad is evidence that was not seen by the British legal authorities before it was sent to the US – a situation described in parliament last week by both the Conservative MP Dominic Raab and the Labour MP Andy Slaughter as Kafkaesque (and reiterated by Green MP Caroline Lucas in last night’s BBC programme). They are certainly not the only ones wanting to know why that happened.
The Metropolitan police – the very body that took the evidence and sent it straight to the US without showing it to the Crown Prosecution Service – had inflicted more than 70 separate injuries on Ahmad during his earlier arrest in late 2003, when he was released without charge. Did anyone think at the time that to extradite him to the US under the new fast-track procedures would conveniently get the problem of his attempts at redress from the police safely out of the way?
In fact, at the same time in 2004 that the CPS concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge him here (having, we now know, seen only a small percentage of it) they were also concluding that there was insufficient evidence to charge any police officer for assaulting him. That decision was reversed some years later. In March 2009, in a civil case, the Met admitted liability and paid Ahmad substantial damages of £60,000 for his injuries.
Did the police or the CPS never imagine the future trouble they were piling up in every direction? The assaults on him, the failure to prosecute the police and the failure by the police to give the CPS the material on which to prosecute Ahmed. The CPS then changed its mind when pressed on the police assaults and prosecuted them. Meanwhile the UK government resisted flat out in the European court of human rights for four years any suggestion that the US might not be the right place to deal with this very domestic affair. In the Muslim community in Britain every aspect of this case is followed in detail and has an impact, which will not just fade away. Parallels with the Stephen Lawrence case are hard to ignore.
In the years Ahmad has been locked up, he has lost his marriage and his job. The UK has meanwhile prosecuted several people for terrorism-related offences involving extremist websites, some of them the very websites, hosted in the US, at the centre of the allegations against Ahmad, his lawyers say.
The US and UK extradition laws introduced by the Labour party after 9/11 have become a major concern in parliament, and this case highlights it again. A US campaign to suggest there is no discrepancy in standards between the two countries has been in high gear for some time, and was deployed again by various US spokesmen on the BBC yesterday, confusing the issue. But as Menzies Campbell, himself a lawyer, pointed out in one of the many interviews dominated by US spokespersons, this is just not true.
Ahmad’s words from prison are an unforgettable indictment of the British system that has failed him, through incompetence and Islamophobia.
“Eight years without trial is like living on death row. It’s like you are living every day for a tomorrow that might or might not come. And it has been very, very difficult… Detention without trial is the most unimaginable type of psychological torture.”
Ahmad’s case is not unique in Britain today, and its impact on others has been devastating. Men like Haroon Aswat have suffered complete breakdowns and removal to a mental hospital. And in the special unit of Long Lartin prison are other Muslim men equally affected by the long, slow failure of the system. One, Talha Ahsan from south London, is in a case linked to the same website as Ahmad. Another, Egyptian Adel Abdel Bary has gone through the same ordeal for even longer – 12 years. Next week the ECHR will give its judgment on the future of them all.