We are Talha Ahsan - London, October 2012
Photo: Riffy Powerz

Talha Ahsan has been “freed” by a US court after 20 months of solitary confinement awaiting trial in a US jail and years of group isolation in Britain, where he was held without charge pending his extradition.

But he still isn’t quite free. His British passport expired while he was in jail, so he is now in immigration custody in the US waiting for the British authorities to supply a new one.

Talha Ahsan and co-defendant Babar Ahmad were extradited to the US in October 2012 to face terrorism charges related to their involvement with a website that  published information about armed jihad in Muslim countries. Both men are British citizens. The US claimed jurisdiction solely because the website had, for a short time, been hosted on a server in Connecticut.

In a plea bargain with prosecutors, both men pled guilty to providing and conspiring to provide material support for terrorism. 97% of federal cases in the US end in this way. Anyone who chooses to go to trial is at risk of a vicious sentence if convicted. The ubiquity of long sentences under conditions of isolation that amount to torture makes the stakes too high for most people.

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Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture has contributed a Preface to the new Spanish edition of  Susan Shalev’s Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement. The views he sets out may be a step towards ending prolonged solitary confinement. But they raise some thorny problems.

In his Preface, Juan Méndez re-affirms his belief that there should be an absolute ban on solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days, and points out that in some circumstances confinement for shorter periods may amount to ill-treatment or torture. But he also says that he intends the 15-day limit to apply “in conditions of extreme confinement: 24 hours per day in a cell without natural light, without reading or writing material, furniture, with no radio, etc” and that: “In cases of confinement providing one or two hours of exercise outside one’s cell per day, access to mail, radio or television, a longer time limit may be acceptable. ”

Many existing solitary confinement regimes, though profoundly damaging to their victims, fail to meet all of Juan Méndez’s criteria for extreme confinement. For example, the isolation regime at ADX Florence in the USA allows prisoners little or no human contact but the cells provide electronic facilities for entertainment and recreation.

Continue reading “Solitary Confinement – how long is too long?” »

An interview with “accidental human rights activist” and “shy radical” Hamja Ahsan about art, solitary confinement, injustice and much else besides

Hamja is a former artist and curator. He was propelled into political activity when police raided his house in July 2006 and arrested his brother Talha. Talha was subsequently extradited to the US to face terrorism charges, after a long legal battle. He pleaded guilty last December, as part of a plea bargain.

“We don’t realise Guantánamo begins at home… You see systematically they have just wronged so many people.”

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Moazzam Begg
Moazzam Begg

Moazzam Begg, one of the first people to sign our statement against prisoner isolation, has been arrested by British police. The move appears to be part of an attempt to disrupt his work as a human rights activist and as Outreach Director of the campaigning group CAGE.

Moazzam Begg was illegally held by the US for 3 years at Bagram and then at Guantánamo Bay. He spent 20 months at  Guantánamo in solitary confinement. He was released in January 2005, without ever having been charged or tried.

On Tuesday 25 February he and three other people were arrested by West Midlands Police at their homes near Birmingham, supposedly on suspicion of “terrorism” linked to Syria. On Wednesday, under controversial anti-terrorism powers, police were given a further 5 days to hold him for questioning. At the end of this period police will have to either charge him, release him, or ask a court for permission to extend his detention again. Terrorism suspects in Britain can be held for up to 14 days without charge – longer than in any comparable democracy.

Moazzam Begg has over the last year or so suffered increasing levels of harassment in connection with his human rights work. Last December, after he had returned from a visit to South Africa, the authorities took his passport away, claiming “royal prerogative” as the legal basis for their action.

It is over a year since Moazzam visited Syria, where he was interviewing people in connection with the ongoing investigation by CAGE into British complicity in rendition and torture. It seems rather odd that it has taken British police until this week to decide that his activities in Syria were potentially illegal under UK law.

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Kevin Thakrar

This article will examine the treatment of prisoners held in Close Supervision Centres (“CSCs”) in UK prisons focusing on the interpretation of dignity within a Human Rights perspective. Dignity focuses on the specific practices of human rights abuse that should be prohibited and is particularly associated with protecting individuals from severe physical or mental suffering inflicted by the state. It has helped to achieve this by enabling all to agree that human rights are founded on dignity.

A basic minimum content of the meaning of human dignity can be discerned: every human being possesses an intrinsic worth, merely by being human. This intrinsic worth should be recognised and respect by others, and some forms of treatment by others are arguably inconsistent with, or require by, respect for this intrinsic worth and that the state exists for the individual not vice versa. The fault lines lie in disagreement on what that intrinsic worth consists in, what forms of treatment are inconsistent with that worth, and what the implications are for the role of the state.

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Luk Vervaet interviews former Belgian prisoner Jean-Marc Mahy, author of the  play A Man Standing based on his own experience of solitary confinement

Jean-Marc Mahy

Jean-Marc Mahy

Luk Vervaet

Luk Vervaet

Can a human being survive solitary confinement?

Can he overcome being locked-up in long term isolation, called by detainees, academics and activists for human rights around the world “white torture”, “a form of psychological warfare” inside cells that are “tombs of silence” ?

Prison is in itself part of a hidden world. This world is doubly hidden when it turns into supermax imprisonment or supermax sections inside normal prisons. Few outsiders know what life is like in these pits of oblivion. Whether they are the families of prisoners, the media, lawyers or academics: their contacts with supermax units are limited, reserved for selected locations, and human contacts go on behind glass. There are very few witnesses who have suffered this inhuman treatment who can, or want to, testify about it.

This is what makes the testimony of Jean-Marc Mahy particularly valuable and unique. A prisoner for 19 years, he had lived in 1987, at the age of 19, for 36 months in what he calls “the land of the dead.” It happened in a prison in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

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Outside the High Court, London, 2012

Outside the High Court, London, October 2012
Photo copyright © Aisha Maniar

Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in New Haven federal court (Connecticut, USA) on 10 December 2013. They will be sentenced on 4 March 2014. Their decision to change their previous not-guilty pleas was the result of a plea bargain with prosecutors. Both men are British citizens and had carried out their supposed crimes while in the UK.

They were extradited to the US in October 2012 after a long legal battle that raised a variety of issues, including the use of long-term solitary confinement in US prisons.

Babar Ahmad was arrested in Britain on August 5, 2004, and Talha Ahsan was arrested in Britain on July 19, 2006. Both men were then held in high-security prisons in Britain until their eventual extradition to the US. No charges were ever brought against them in Britain.

Continue reading “Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan in plea bargain” »

Prisoners in Pelican Bay state prisons, California, have announced the suspension of their hunger strike against widespread use of punitive long-term solitary confinement in the Security Housing Units (SHUs). The strike began on 8 July 2013. Its suspension was announced early in September.

Two years ago when the 2011 California prison hunger strikes mobilized over 12,000 people at their peak, the State agreed to improve  prison conditions; but in the end did nor carry out most  of the promised changes, particularly regarding use of long term and indefinite isolation.

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London Solidarity with California Hunger Strikers

Photo © Santino Pani

On 31 July demonstrators gathered outside the US Embassy in London to show solidarity with the hunger strikers in California prisons and Guantanamo Bay and political prisoners everywhere. The demonstrators also demanded justice for Trayvon Martin and for people everywhere killed by state and police violence.

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Take action for the Pelican Bay hunger strikers

Around 30,000 prisoners in California have begun an indefinite hunger strike and work stoppage. They say:

“We are grateful for your support of our peaceful protest against the state-sanctioned torture that happens not only here at Pelican Bay but in prisons everywhere. We have taken up this hunger strike and work stoppage, which has included 30,000 prisoners in California so far, not only to improve our own conditions but also an act of solidarity with all prisoners and oppressed people around the world.”

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