War, Prisons, and Torture in the U.S. & UK

Richard Haley is based in Edinburgh, Scotland and has been active in Britain's anti-war movement since 2003. He is a member of the Stop the War Coalition and chair of Scotland Against Criminalizing Communities (SACC).


Last December, on Human Rights Day, SACC initiated a "Stop Isolation" campaign with an online statement arguing that solitary confinement is a form of torture that must be abolished. The petition states, "We call upon the countries of the world to enact legislation that prohibits long-term prisoner isolation, and prohibits the transfer of prisoners to countries where they would be at risk of such treatment. Dungeons should not be tolerated in the 21st century."


Angola 3 News: Can you tell us about your organization?


Richard Haley: SACC began as a group of Scottish-based anti-war activists who came together in the first months of 2003 after the arrest of seven Algerian men on terrorism charges. The arrests were accompanied by an intimidating police search for information throughout the Algerian community. The arrests got spectacular publicity, leading to a surge in racist incidents against Muslims. Our initial work was to counter this. We soon saw that there was no evidence against the Algerians. The charges were dropped at the end of the year, after the maximum delay permitted under Scottish law.


Since 9/11 the community most conspicuously criminalized in Scotland has been the Muslim community. At first the focus was on Muslim refugees and immigrants, but later it widened to include British citizens. Muslims are still the targets of official suspicion and are at risk of prosecution for activities that would once have been legitimate, but are now called "terrorism." Muslim institutions, such as mosques and various community groups, are subject to state supervision, surveillance, and interference.


The legal machinery for this is a series of anti-terrorism laws introduced over the last decade. Scotland has its own devolved Parliament, but anti-terrorism legislation is the responsibility of the British Parliament. Our group joined the London-based Campaign Against Criminalizing Communities in calling for the repeal of all of Britain's terrorism legislation. The Stop the War Coalition—the main group in Britain opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—also opposes the attack on civil liberties. We work with other groups to campaign for prisoners of the "war on terror" throughout Britain and, in some instances, around the world.


Others besides Muslims have been criminalized. Kurdish and Tamil communities have been particular targets. The Kurdish separatist group PKK and the Tamil separatist group LTTE ("Tamil Tigers") are both banned under anti-terrorism legislation, although neither has carried out armed actions outside their homeland. Both groups enjoy wide sympathy in their respective communities in Britain and community political and social activities reflect that. The banning of the groups has an effect on all that activity.


Along with focusing on prisons, the SACC website spotlights a range of issues, including the war being waged against Iraq. How do prisons and war relate to each other?


The arrests of the Algerians in Scotland occurred while the British government was getting ready to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Terrorism cases were being massaged or manufactured to create a heightened fear of terrorism and make people more receptive to the argument that the risk of a link between terrorists and Saddam Hussein's regime made the invasion of Iraq necessary. Besides these arrests, a number of other Algerians were arrested on suspicion of involvement in a plot to disseminate ricin, a toxalbumin that may be extracted from the castor bean. It is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, acting as a toxin by the inhibition of protein synthesis. The supposed discovery of ricin was announced by the Metropolitan Police in January 2003.


Prime Minister Tony Blair told a meeting of British ambassadors that the danger was "present and real" and that its potential was "huge." Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell included the discovery in his February 6 presentation to the UN Security Council in which he set out the U.S. case for war with Iraq. But by the time Blair and Powell made their statements, the British government's Porton Down laboratory had already established that no ricin had been found. This wasn't widely known until the ricin case came to trial in 2005. Four of the five accused were acquitted on all charges; one man was found guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. [The story of the ricin plot is told in the book Ricin! by Lawrence Archer and Fiona Bawdon.]


There are structural links between prisons and war. While the so-called war on terror is at the moment focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, whatever its location, it is a war for resources and power and necessarily involves the denial of human rights.


Looking at the "Stop Isolation" statement, why did SACC choose to focus on the issue of solitary confinement? As signatures collect, will you be submitting it to anyone in the form of a petition?


We call "Stop Isolation" a statement rather than a petition because it isn't particularly directed towards being handed in somewhere. It is available on the Internet for anyone, government or activist, to see. We may post a copy to the justice ministers of a selection of countries, but we intend the statement to stand as a rallying point for people who want to work together while putting pressure on their governments to end long-term prisoner isolation.


The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is the last legal recourse for human rights appeals by people in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe—a grouping that is wider and distinct from the European Union. We launched "Stop Isolation" because the ECHR is considering the appeals of four British citizens—Babar Ahmad, Syed Tahla Ahsan, Haroon Rashid Aswat, and AbuHamza—against extradition to the U.S. to face terrorism charges. The court is considering whether the length of the sentences the men may face and the risk of long-term isolation at ADX Florence (for three of the men) would breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights—i.e., the right not to "be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The court's long-delayed judgment is expected in the next few months. It could be a landmark in the development of human rights law.


If the court blocks the men's extradition, it will send a signal to the U.S. that the harshness of the U.S. penal system is damaging its international relations. On the other hand, a ruling in favor of extradition could open the door to harsher prison conditions in Europe. In either case, the challenge to human rights campaigners will be the same—we will need a vigorous international campaign against prisoner isolation.


The charges against the four are different, but all the cases are marred by a range of worrying issues in addition to the matters that the ECHR has agreed to consider. Some of the problems stem from Britain's Extradition Act of 2003, which allows people to be extradited to the U.S. without any need for prima facie evidence to be presented. U.S. lawmakers have wisely failed to ratify the treaty that would create reciprocal arrangements for extradition from the U.S. to Britain. Some of the British opposition to the Extradition Act has stressed the loss of sovereignty that it entails and the lack of balance created by the U.S. position. But sovereignty and balance aren't the real issues. The real problem is that evidence-free extradition promotes injustice.


Why do you think that the use of solitary confinement is so widespread?


Prison authorities often believe that it is absolutely necessary to make prisoners conform, whatever the human cost. Torturers often prefer methods that don't leave obvious marks and solitary confinement is one such method. It is often thought to be near the margin of the practices prohibited under human rights law. So governments can use it to flex their muscles and to stimulate reactionary sentiment without colliding with international law and its enforcement mechanisms.


Why do you think torture is a tactic used by governments?


Anti-torture campaigners often say that torture doesn't work. They mean that torture doesn't yield reliable information and they are right. But torture has worked very well for thousands of years to help rulers dominate the ruled. The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt happened when torture stopped working.


How often is isolation used in Europe and how does that contrast with how the U.S. uses it?


Prison governors in Scotland may authorize segregation for a maximum of 72 hours. The period can be extended for a month at a time by Scottish ministers or by officials to whom ministers delegate responsibility. A lawsuit brought by a group of prisoners over their solitary confinement came to court in 2004. There were at that time 63 prisoners in segregation units in Scotland out of a prison population of a little under 7,000. The litigants complained of episodes of segregation that occurred some years previously. Several of them had been placed in segregation cells for periods of around five months. Another prisoner had been in solitary for 18 months.


The Scottish Prison Service settled with the prisoners in 2009. Regrettably, the service insisted that it had settled "purely on economic grounds" and that it did not accept that the segregation of the prisoners had been unlawful. An inspection of Perth prison in 2009 found that two prisoners had been held in segregation for "more than a month." A 2007 inspection of Kilmarnock Prison found that one prisoner had been in segregation for five months and another for three. Recent inspections of some other Scottish prisons have reported that segregation cells were rarely used. In England and Wales punitive solitary confinement can be imposed on adults for a maximum of 28 days. Prisoners can be segregated without time limit to preserve "good order and discipline" or for their own protection. Their segregation is subject to frequent review.


The use of solitary confinement varies across Europe. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has wide powers to visit and inspect prisons in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It says that "all forms of solitary confinement should be as short as possible." Some European states have chosen not to publish the CPT's reports on their country, as is their right. For example, no reports on CPT visits to the Russian Federation have ever been published.


Since 1999, Turkey has been holding PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in a specially built prison on the island of Imrali. For ten years he was its sole inmate. The CPT visited the prison in 2007 and subsequently recommended that Öcalan "be integrated into a setting where contacts with other inmates and a wider range of activities are possible." In November 2009, the Turkish authorities transferred several other prisoners to Imrali to alleviate Öcalan's isolation.


Solitary confinement for periods of many months is generally unusual while periods of several years or more are very rare in Europe. The use of solitary confinement is much more restricted by judicial process and legally-empowered monitoring in Europe than in the U.S. But I know of no Europe-wide survey of solitary confinement, so the picture of European practice is a very tentative and provisional one.


What strategies are European activists using to influence policy?


I think European activists may have more to learn from U.S. activists than vice versa. From here, it looks as if prison activism in the U.S. is much wider, deeper, and more politicized than in Britain, although excellent work is being done here by Paddy Hill and John McManus at Miscarriages of Justice Organization Scotland. Hill is one of the Birmingham 6. He spent 16 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of the 1974 Irish Republican bombings in Birmingham. Excellent work is also being done by Cage Prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg is one of its directors.


With recent revelations that Bradley Manning is a citizen of the UK, SACC is calling for the British government to intervene. Can you tell us more about this?


It turns out that Bradley Manning's mother is Welsh, so he is a British citizen as well as a U.S. citizen. Britain normally offers only informal help to dual nationals detained in the country of their other nationality, but it makes formal representations where there are human rights issues. There are obviously human rights concerns for Bradley Manning, but the British government has so far given no help. A number of Members of Parliament have told constituents they are concerned over this. British members of the European Parliament have also expressed interest, so we'll keep the pressure up.


If the allegations against Bradley Manning are true, we are indebted to him for helping to reveal what the war in Iraq was really like. In any case, his isolation in the Quantico brig puts him under pressure to incriminate himself and Julian Assange. Manning and Assange both need support. Assange is dealing with allegations of sex crimes in Sweden. The U.S. authorities are meanwhile trying to find a formula that will let them charge him without threatening the traditional media. The worldwide media have helped the U.S. government tremendously by distancing themselves from Assange. Journalists who collude in this should be ashamed of themselves.


Britain's extradition court has, unsurprisingly, ducked the chance to see justice done over Sweden's request for Assange to be extradited there. Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle ruled on February 24 that the extradition could go ahead. To rule otherwise would have shone a spotlight on the operation of the already-controversial European arrest warrant, which allows extradition with minimal legal oversight between the various radically different jurisdictions within the European Union. Like the arrangements for extradition from Britain to the U.S., the system is an open invitation to injustice.


Riddle has accepted that Assange will be held incommunicado in prison in Sweden and will then be interrogated, held without bail, and eventually tried in secret. But he held that these facts should not stand in the way of Assange's extradition. Assange's lawyer Mark Stephens said that, though Sweden's penal system has some progressive features, the country is a "human rights black spot in relation to solitary confinement." Stephens argues that extradition proceedings should not be a rubber stamp, but should instead be a tool to "improve the quality of justice throughout Europe" and eliminate such "blind spots." This is exactly the approach that SACC has long been advocating. If the larger issues of Julian Assange's case are to be dealt with, it will be in a more elevated forum than the extradition court. Assange will appeal to the High Court and, if unsuccessful, may then appeal to Britain's Supreme Court and then to the European Court of Human Rights. But these courts are only likely to stand for justice and against state interests if public opinion demands it.


Riddle said in his February ruling: "Sometimes public comment damages the cause more than it helps." He was referring to comments made on the steps of the court last year by Assange's lawyer. Assange's legal team may get a rough ride. If they do, it won't be the first time that Britain's legal establishment has tried to keep an inconvenient lawyer quiet. In 2006, Scottish lawyer Aamer Anwar was accused of contempt of court after speaking out against the conviction of his client Mohammed Atif Siddique on terrorism charges. Campaigners rallied in Anwar's support, the contempt charges were thrown out by three high court judges, and the appeals court in Edinburgh eventually ruled that Siddique had suffered a miscarriage of justice. People must be ready to give Assange's lawyers the same sort of support that we in Scotland gave to Aamer Anwar.


Anything else to add?


Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world cooperate closely on matters they say are related to terrorism. They use extradition, rendition, and the opportunistic torture of people who travel to countries whose governments can get away with it. Too often, the human rights standards that count are the lowest ones. We need to work together so that we all benefit instead from the highest standards.


Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. It provides the latest news about the Angola 3 on angola3news, particularly on issues of racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.