On 16 October, Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, blocked the extradition of Gary McKinnon, a British citizen who was wanted by the United States for hacking into the Pentagon computer system. May concluded that because McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome, sending him to America where he would face up to 70 years of isolation in a maximum security prison, “would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that the decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon’s human rights”.
Her decision, though extremely welcome, was also shocking on many levels – not least because the United States has now been called out by what is, arguably, its closest ally on its mistreatment of pre-trial detainees and its overuse of solitary confinement. Unfortunately, however, it appears that May’s concern for the human rights of British citizens subjected to the brutalities of the American justice system does not apply to British Muslims.
Less than two weeks before May blocked McKinnon’s extradition to the United States, she and many other like-minded British government officials were practically volunteering to pilot the plane to the US themselves so that five other British citizens – all of them Muslims – would be subjected to the human rights abuses that McKinnon was spared. The case of one of those five Muslims, Talha Ahsan, was strikingly similar to Mr McKinnon’s.
Ahsan is also accused of computer-related crimes, suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and has been assessed as a suicide risk. Yet, despite these glaring similarities, May apparently concluded that Ahsan’s human rights would be just fine in America. Unsurprisingly, the home secretary has been accused of double standards, and even racism, for the very different conclusions she reached on these back-to-back decisions.
One possible explanation for the disparity is that, as a devout Muslim, it was almost impossible for Talha Ahsan to put forward the kind of argument that prevented Gary McKinnon’s extradition, because his religious beliefs prevent him from admitting to wanting to end his own life in despair. Ahsan’s British-based lawyer, Gareth Peirce, told me, however, that the cruel prison conditions and decades of isolation awaiting Ahsan and the others who were sent to the United States should have been reason enough for the home secretary to have blocked their extradition also.
“In the end, Theresa May was able to read a body of psychiatric reports on Gary McKinnon that allowed her to say that he was at extreme risk of suicide if extradited. What is ultimately the case, however, is that the certain prediction that Talha (and others extradited at the same time) will be in conditions of brutal isolation designed to break the spirit of even the strongest prisoner, confined to a tiny cell without respite until trial and facing the prospect, if convicted, of interminable future isolation for decades.”
Ahsan, and his co-defendant Babar Ahmad, are currently housed in the Northern Correctional Institute in Connecticut, a maximum security facility, which, according to the prison’s website, is:
“[D]esignated to manage those inmates who have demonstrated a serious inability to adjust to confinement posing a threat to the safety and security of the community, staff and other inmates.”
This designation applies to neither Ahsan nor Ahmad, who were model inmates during their stay in British prisons, and who have no history of violent behavior. Yet, they are most likely being held in total isolation 24 hours a day and confined to their cell for at least 22 of those hours, even as they await trial.
I’d love to be able to relate how Ahsan, with his Asperger’s, is faring under these conditions, but since his extradition over four weeks ago, his family has not had a single phone call or letter from him. His brother, Hamja Ahsan, told me that, in contrast, when Talha was in prison in Britain, the family could speak to him on the phone daily, write and receive letters daily, and have at least one contact visit per week.
One of the other British citizens who was extradited at the same time as Talha Ahsan is Mustafa Kamel Mustama, the severely disabled Muslim cleric better known as Abu Hamza. Hamza is now confined to a tiny cell in Ten South, the most restrictive wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a pre-trial facility in lower Manhattan. MCC is known to insiders as a “Muslim Concentration Camp”. One source familiar with the facility, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said that “If you ask how many Non-Muslims are in Ten South, I would be astonished if the answer was anything other than zero.”
Amnesty International released a report last April decrying the “cruel conditions for pre-trial prisoners in US federal custody”, particularly those held in Ten South, where the cell windows are blacked out, the prisoners spend the entire day alone and where they are deprived of any outdoor exercise – “contrary to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners”.
Hamza’s attorney, Jeremy Schneider, has told me that his client – who has lost both his arms – is only allowed limited use of his prosthetic limbs and is in a cell where no special arrangements have been made to accommodate his disabilities. Schneider, who can only see his partially blind client through a wire mesh and glass screen, said it is unclear how he is managing to shower, eat and perform basic bodily functions without the proper use of his prosthetics.
Hamza may not be the most amiable of individuals and his alleged crimes are serious, but subjecting anyone to such inhumane conditions of confinement before, or after, conviction serves no useful purpose, tarnishes America’s international reputation and makes a mockery of the US constitution.
One can only hope that, now Barack Obama has been re-elected, he will make good on his promises to end some of the most egregious abuses of power brought about by the “war on terror” that have allowed these disgraceful pre-trial detention conditions to arise. It should serve as a wake-up call to America that the British government would block the extradition of one of their citizens because of concerns that prison conditions in this country would violate his human rights.
It’s just a shame that the same concerns did not extend to the five British Muslims.