Do US Prisons Violate European Human Rights Law?

On April 10, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued judgement in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom, thereby making a landmark ruling on the legitimacy of solitary confinement, extreme isolation and life without parole in US supermax prisons (view ECHR press release and ruling). The ECHR denied the appeal filed jointly by six appellants, consisting of four British nationals (Babar Ahmad, Haroon Rashid Aswat, Syed Talha Ahsan, and Mustafa Kamal Mustafa—aka Abu Hamza), an Egyptian national (Adel Abdul Bary) and a Saudi Arabian national (Khaled Al-Fawwaz) who have been imprisoned in the United Kingdom, pending extradition to the United States for alleged terrorism-related activities.


This judgement is now being appealed to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber, with a decision expected in September regarding whether or not the appeal will be heard. Arguing against their extradition to the US, the six appellants have asserted that the risk of imprisonment in the United States (with specific citation of long-term isolation at the notorious federal prison in Colorado, ADX Florence—also the subject of both a June Senate Hearing and a recent civil rights lawsuit initiated by prisoners alleging human rights violations there) would breach their right under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights not to "be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Ruling against the appellants, the ECHR argued in their April 10 ruling that isolation in a US Supermax prison is “relative” and will become a violation of Article 3 ECHR (which prohibits torture), only if it extends indefinitely.


A third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in this case was jointly submitted in 2010 by INTERIGHTS, Reprieve, the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School National Litigation Project, arguing that “U.S. legal protections against ill-treatment in imprisonment fall short of those provided under Article 3 ECHR.” Furthermore, “it is submitted that any protection the applicants will receive under U.S. law is speculative at best. The past two decades have seen a strong trend of limiting prisoner access to courts overall and restricting judicial oversight, particularly in the absence of overt physical harm. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution affords little in the way of real protections against the documented harms of prolonged sensory and social deprivation…To the extent the United States suggests that Petitioners will be adequately protected by administrative review, the record in cases involving ADX Florence is that such procedures are largely illusory.”


In this interview we speak with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl–two London-based activists working around this case. Aviva Stahl works as the United States researcher for, a London-based human rights organization that is committed to defending the due process rights of detainees of the War on Terror. Her current work focuses on the criminalization of Muslim communities on American soil, and draws on the parallel past experiences of other communities of color. She also helps run a pen pal program in Britain that links folks across prison walls, with the aim of building relationships based on solidarity and mutual support.


An artist and curator by profession, Hamja Ahsan is the younger brother of appellant Syed Talha Ahsan, and leader of the Free Talha Ahsan Campaign. Declaring that Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and writer with Asperger syndrome imprisoned since 2006 “deserves freedom or a fair trial in the UK," details how “Talha Ahsan was arrested at his home on 19 July 2006 in response to a request from the USA under the Extradition Act 2003 which does not require the presentation of any prima facie evidence. He is accused in the US of terrorism-related offences arising out of an alleged involvement over the period of 1997-2004 with the Azzam series of websites, one of which happened to be located on a server in America. He has never been arrested or questioned by British police, despite a number of men being so from his local area in December 2003 for similar allegations. All of them were released without charge. One of them, Babar Ahmad, was later compensated £60,000 by the Metropolitan police after a civil case in March 2009 for the violent physical abuse during his arrest. It was evidence from this incident which formed the basis of Talha’s arrest two and a half years later."


In this interview, Ahsan and Stahl discuss the extreme importance of the upcoming Grand Chamber ruling on a personal level for the six appellants fighting their extradition, as well as the ruling’s broader significance for all US prisoners and the communities around the world targeted by the US’ so-called “War on Terror.” Among the many prominent human rights activists speaking out is US author Noam Chomsky, who asserts that “with the sharp deterioration of protection of elementary civil rights in the US, no one should be extradited to the country on charges related to alleged terrorism…the prisons and the incarceration system in the United States are an international scandal,” and “the shallow and evasive charges” in Ahsan’s case “strongly reinforce that conclusion.”


Robert H. King of the Angola 3, released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary, recently met up with Ahsan and Stahl (read Stahl’s interview here) while touring the UK with Amnesty International, as part of their campaign demanding the immediate release of the Angola 3's Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace from solitary confinement, where they have now been for over 40 years (sign Amnesty’s petition here).


Angola 3 News: Hamja, how has Talha’s arrest affected you and your family?


Hamja Ahsan: The case is extremely disturbing and upsetting. In February of 2006 the police came and raided our family home at the behest of the United States. Neither I, nor my brother, nor my elderly mother or father, have ever been to the United States. How could a foreign country come and invade my house like that? 


The police took everything – my diary, my mobile phone, my CD collection, my nephew’s cartoons, my camera, my university artwork and ridiculously, they even took my PlayStation 2 memory card. Six years later, other than our computers (which were returned the next day with all the content intact), we haven’t gotten anything back, despite a vocal assurance that we would. If there was anything dangerous or incriminating on those computers, why would they be returned intact? We still use those computers to this day.


My parents are average, middle class Asian parents–often excessively concerned about school grades, and stereotypically displaying little emotion. Now they regularly break down crying in public and on media. Julia O’Dwyer, the mother of British student Richard O’Dwyer, who is also fighting his extradition to the US, says it’s a punishment for the whole family, and you’re punished before you’re even found guilty.


During these last six years we’ve lived in uncertainty and fear. I didn’t think that being detained without charge, trial or evidence would last this long.


A3N: Can you please tell us about who your brother, Talha Ahsan, is as a human being and a member of your family?


HA: Talha had a job interview to be a librarian the day of his arrest in July. That’s the type of person he is, an academic type of librarian. He is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, much like in the film My Name is Khan, which has become part of our campaign work, and the cause celebre for hacker Gary McKinnon. Talha is a published poet who has drawn the sympathy and acclaim of many other distinguished novelists, poets, and musicians, including Michael Rosen, Shailja Patel, Tariq Mahmood, Zita Holbourne, Avaez Mohammad and Riz Ahmed. The two most beautiful pieces written in support of Talha were by novelist A.L. Kennedy in the Guardian (1,2).


Talha is as much a threat to the American and British public as an average librarian is. His published book of poetry in prison was launched by A.L. Kennedy in Edinburgh in 2011, and it keeps selling out and having to be reprinted. Many people are touched by his words and a young filmmaker made a documentary based around his prison poetry called “Extradition.” Like so many others who write to him, Amrit Wilson, winner of the Martin Luther King award, said that despite her differences in age, religion, and gender, she found through correspondence that he was a deeply caring person.


Despite the psychological anguish of being detained without trial, he manages to care about other British causes such as Black deaths in police custody and environmental issues.