Watching Thursday’s BBC Newsnight interview with Babar Ahmad, I was struck by how the man whose ‘Kafkaesque’ case that I have been closely following for the past eight years has ‘prematurely aged’ – a factor that proved central to the BBC’s court battle against a government ban on filming the interview.
For a moment, let us put aside the question of his innocence or guilt. After all, the correct place for this discussion is a court of law, and a trial is precisely what Ahmad and his family have been calling for.
The issue I wish to discusss here is the relentless campaign that the Ahmad family has been organising for their son. It was their persistence which eventually resulted in the successful court case against the Metropolitan Police that was forced to pay him £60,000 in damages for the shocking verbal and physical abuse that he suffered during a raid at his home in 2003. Back in November 2011, they mounted another hugely successful campaign to secure almost 150,000 signatures calling for a full parliamentary debate on the one-sided US-UK extradition treaty, and specifically their son’s impending extradition. Despite exceeding the minimum of 100,000 signatures required of a petition to secure a parliamentary debate, and despite all other petitions within this range being granted one, the Ahmad petition was subjected to a lethargic response and was granted a more general debate on extradition in Westminster Hall.
Yet the family and their diverse supporters have remained undeterred and the campaigning has continued apace. In these crucial days in the run up to the European Court’s expected verdict on 10th April, there are now calls for a full public enquiry into the mishandling of evidence that was seized from Babar’s home. Evidence which it seems has been handed directly to the US, in a manner that leaves Britain looking like little more than a ‘vassal state’, according to some.
It is hard not to be affected by the pleas of Ashfaq Ahmad – a father who yearns to see justice done for his son. Nor is it difficult to empathise with the frustration of his sister when she says “We have a great, centuries old, legal system in this country so I don’t understand why he cannot be tried here?”
But if you think you are doing Babar a service by writing to your MP or the Attorney General, then think again. The fact is that we are all indebted to Babar and his family for the resilience that they have shown in the pursuit of justice, and this in spite of very real personal hardship. The case of Babar Ahmad has the potential to do for institutional Islamophobia what the Stephen Lawrence case did for institutional racism – shine a fierce spotlight on it and give society a chance to change for the better. Like the Lawrence family, the Ahmads have worked tirelessly, with remarkable faith and fortitude to keep their son’s case alive. It took six years for the Metropolitan Police to fully admit to the initial abuse he suffered at the hands of its officers. Undoubtedly, it will not be an easy road to a public inquiry either. But just as today’s Britain is indebted to the MacPherson Inquiry for producing a report that forced, not just the police, but the media to address a culture of racism, a public inquiry for the Ahmad family has the potential to trigger and impose some searching questions into the extent and nature of Islamophobia in our society. How is it possible that a British man, regardless of his guilt or innocence, is subjected by police officers to severe abuse and insult on the basis of his religion?
It is not just the future of one man or that of his long-suffering family that is at stake here, it is our shared future as a society which we have an opportunity to save. Michael Rosen, the renowned poet and author tweeted after the interview, ‘First they came for a Muslim and because I’m not a Muslim I didn’t speak out…#freeBabarAhmad’, alluding to the German pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous words, emphasising how we are all duty bound to protect those amongst us who are facing stigma and prejudice. Despite those words being more than 60 years old, they still ring true today. The Ahmad family, through their tireless campaign for justice, have shown that they appreciate this, and the least we can do to thank them is support their call for an inquiry, so that we can all move forward as a society which can, in the words of their campaign, guarantee ‘British Justice for British Citizens’.