In recent months, politics in the UK has been dominated by debate over how long the authorities should be allowed to hold suspected terrorist before they are charged or released. Fahad Ansari points out that in fact many Muslims are already held for years in British jails without trial.
The number 42 has dominated the British political scene in recent weeks while the government, not satisfied that Britain already has the longest pre-charge detention period in any liberal democracy, tried to extend that period to 42 days. So abhorrent is this concept to the rule of law that even China, no bastion of civil liberties or human rights, does not allow such a long detention without charge.
Observing the debate, I could not help but recall Leo Tolstoy’s words about hypocrisy “Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognises it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.” For if one were to view this debate in isolation from the brutal reality of detention without charge in Britain, one could be forgiven for thinking that in trying extend the pre-charge detention period to 42 days, the government is engaged in a struggle with its conscience. The reality of the matter is that many Muslims continue to be subjected to indefinite detention in Britain. One recent example is that of Abu Qatadah, released last month after having spent almost six years in prison without being charged: the equivalent of a twelve-year custodial sentence.
Some detainees have been incarcerated for almost a decade without charge. Others have been imprisoned in their homes and subjected to cruelly restrictive control orders, eerily reminiscent of the banning orders that used tobe used against anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. Several now suffer from mental illness and have been sectioned in psychiatric hospitals. All of these men and their families have been buried alive by the state. For them to exist in the public domain is for Britain’s reputation as a defender of human rights to be severely tarnished. Consequently, very few people, even Muslims, are aware of the plight of those languishing in Britain’s twenty-first-century dungeons.
This month Cageprisoners, an Islamic human-rights group, organised an exhibition of detainees’ writings, poetry, art and craftwork, called Captivated: The Art of the Interned, to do just this. From an Andalusian mosque built from matchsticks and a painting made from date seeds, to works of pottery and artwork, and heart-breaking poetry, the exhibition drew tears from many of the 150 people who attended the launch on June 16 in London. Many of the poems and artwork on display reflected the detainees’ anger and frustration. The poignant cards and gifts designed for their families helped the exhibition succeed in its objective of “humanising” the detainees, for, as former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Beg commented, society seems to regard these men as animals simply because they are locked up. The sad reality is that if animals were dealt a fraction of the treatment meted out to these men by the British authorities, there would be widespread condemnation and outrage. These men are not animals but Muslims, and so they continue suffer in silence.
On 19 December 2001, in a series of pre-dawn raids around the country, a dozen foreigners were arrested and interned in maximum-security prisons because the government considered them a threat to national security. Despite the vastness of the anti-terrorism legislation, the authorities were unable to charge the men with any crime. Nor did international law permit the men’s deportation to their home countries because they would inevitably face torture and ill-treatment there. Consequently, the detainees were given the “choice” of either “voluntarily” leaving Britain for their home countries or of remaining locked up indefinitely without charge.
Rather than being brought before an ordinary court of law, these detainees’ cases were heard by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), the body at the centre of an almost parallel shadowy system of ‘justice’. None of the dozen men interned were told why they were being detained, nor were they or their lawyers allowed see the evidence against them. Only a specially vetted lawyer appointed by the attorney general could see the evidence, although once he had seen the evidence he could not see the detainees. Moreover, none of the detainees had ever been approached by the police or the security services in the past, despite now being considered serious threats to national security. Nevertheless, the detainees were subjected to 23-hour lock-up with one hour of exercise in solitude. During this entire time not one detainee was questioned or interviewed by police officers, and at no point did the Crown Prosecution Service consider bringing charges against them.
After three years of internment, the House of Lords ruled these detainees’ detention unlawful and ordered their release. Not to be outwitted by the courts, the government immediately set about drafting new emergency legislation, introducing a regime of “control-orders” that was imposed on the men immediately upon their release. Unlike internment, control-orders are applicable to British nationals and foreigners alike. These are restrictions whose breach constitutes a criminal offence carrying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment. Such restrictions include curfews, electronic tagging, prohibitions on using mobile phones and computers, the restriction of visitors (including children) and meetings to persons approved in advance by the Home Office, a requirement to allow police officers to enter and search one’s home at any time, and restrictions of movement to within a defined area. Two detainees were immediately readmitted to psychiatric hospitals as a result of this new form of imprisonment.
Probably the cruelest element of this regime is the effect it has on the families of these detainees. Children are unable to do essential schoolwork because to have the internet at home is to breach the control order. Their friends do not visit because no parent wishes their children to be screened by the Home Office. Things ordinarily taken for granted, such as getting a plumber in or attending a school parents’ evening, become potential breaches of the orders.
Take for example, the case of Mahmoud Abu-Rideh, a Palestinian refugee who was one of the men arrested in December 2001. Having already been subjected to torture while imprisoned in Israel, the effects of three years of internment took their toll, causing Abu-Rideh’s mental state to deteriorate and his being repeatedly hospitalised. Upon release, he was subjected to control orders, effectively making him and his family prisoners in their home. One condition requires a telephone call be made to the police between 3 and 4 a.m. every night. His wife and children worry continuously that he will not wake up and make this call. His wife has two alarms in the room and the children wake up at night asking if it is time for their father to call.
Abu-Rideh is currently in hospital, where he has been for several weeks after attempting suicide by slashing his wrists and taking an overdose in a police station. He has been on hunger strike for more than forty days and takes water only by sucking ice-cubes. He is now coughing and excreting blood. Preferring death to such humiliation, he says that he will continue his strike until he is allowed to leave Britain.
Another case in point is that of detainee DD, a Libyan who fled to Britain after a death sentence was passed on him. Arrested in October 2005 pending deportation to Libya for unknown charges, DD was released in May 2007 under restrictive bail conditions which require even his wife and children, aged 3 and 6, to wear electronic tags on their wrists. Neither DD nor his wife is allowed to work, nor to study any course that involves the use of computers. Neither he nor his family are allowed to use computers, mobile phones, internet facilities or telephones except the special landline phone installed in their home. DD now suffers from insomnia and nightmares; his wife has become chronically depressed.
Jordanian Abu Qatadah, accused of being “Osama Bin Laden’s European ambassador”, has been ‘released’ on some of the severest bail conditions to date. He must remain in his home for 22 hours a day, he is not allowed use a mobile phone or a have a computer in his home, and only his wife, his children and his lawyer may be present in his home. Most distressing for someone like Abu Qatadah, and indeed for any Muslim, is the blanket ban on his going to any mosque. That this clear and blatant violation of the right to freedom of religious practice has not even raised an eyebrow indicates the acceptability of such measures against Muslims in Britain today.
In the months after the 7/7 attacks in London (July 2005), the authorities rounded up detainees from their homes and imprisoned them, intending to deport them to their home countries – Algeria, Jordan, Libya – on the basis that their presence in Britain was “not conducive to the public good.” Farcical diplomatic assurances were obtained that the men would not be subjected to torture upon return. Two Libyans, who had been acquitted in a court of law by a jury of their peers after two years’ detention for the much-discredited “ricin plot”, were also rearrested and imprisoned. Numerous other foreign nationals, considered a threat to Britain, have since been detained for deportation.
Detainee G is a wheelchair-bound Algerian refugee who became acutely mentally ill as a result of three years’ internment. Upon release in 2004, G was subjected to 24-hour house arrest. Re-arrested after 7/7 and facing deportation to Algeria, G attempted suicide, whereupon he was released again and fully-tagged to his flat under 24-hour house arrest. He is allowed no visitors, phone or internet connection while his deportation is being considered. Even when his wife was ill and pregnant, G was not allowed to take her to hospital or to help with shopping or the school run.
Hussain al-Samamra, who has constructed a giant boat and mosque solely out of matchsticks for the exhibition, is a Jordanian national who was imprisoned and tortured in Jordan for two years before claiming political asylum in Britain in 2001. In 2004, Samamra was arrested on the day his wife gave birth. With the government failing to clear his family for an entire year, he only saw his daughter when she was a year old. Samamra was finally tried by a SIAC court using secret evidence three years after his arrest, and is still in prison fighting his deportation to Jordan.
Comparing their cases in the SIAC courts to “fighting ghosts”, nine detainees have chosen to return voluntarily to their home countries and run the risk of being tortured rather than linger in legal limbo in Britain. As they have said in an open letter to the Guardian, “we are choosing the alternative of a quick death in Algeria to a slow death here.”
Of the eight who returned to Algeria, six were detained initially but released without charge after some weeks of interrogation and torture. Two, Bena Eissa Taleb and Reda Dendani, were detained and interrogated for twelve days by the notorious DRS (secret police) during which time they were threatened and subjected to physical abuse. They were then charged, tried and convicted on the basis of ‘confessions’ forced from them during this time. Dendani and Taleb were sentenced to eight years and three years imprisonment respectively. Sources in Algeriastate that both are being tortured in prison there.
Seventeen foreign nationals are currently fighting deportation to these countries. Most have been released from prison but subjected to bail orders and control orders, designed to imprison them within their homes. None have been charged with any offence. They have still not seen the ‘evidence’ against them. Each is an indictment of twenty-first-century Britain.
The longest-detained-without-trial political prisoners, however, are not those facing deportation to Algeria but those facing extradition to the US, such as Saudi dissident Khalid al-Fawwaz, who has been detained without charge since September 1998, when he was arrested on an extradition warrant from the US. Also facing extradition with Fawwaz is Adel Abdel-Bary, an Egyptian human-rights lawyer, who has been held without charge since July 1999. The longest-detained-without-charge British citizen held anywhere as part of the “war on terror” is Babar Ahmad, who has been in custody since August 2004, also fighting extradition to the US. Fawwaz, Abdel-Bary and Ahmad were all originally arrested under British anti-terror laws but released without charge because of lack of evidence.
As is the case with all the other detainees, if these men are accused of involvement in terrorism the British anti-terrorism laws, which are so broad as to even criminalise the possession of an A-Z roadmap, can be used to prosecute them. To punish these men gratuitously is both legally and morally wrong. As Amar Makhlulif, an Algerian refugee who recently met his mother for the first time in eighteen years, has commented: “I have been treated in prison in ways that even Algerian authorities would be ashamed to consider. In Algeria, they kill you physically [along] with verbal insults. In Britain, they kill you psychologically, with a smile.….I am only seeking…the right to a fair, open trial. If I have done something wrong, I should be put on trial and punished. If not, then I should be released and allowed to get on with my life. Is this too much to ask?”
In light of all this, it is clear that the 42-day debate is only a smokescreen to conceal the government’s murkier deeds. The least wide-awake of children can recognise this and be revolted by it.