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.
The US claimed jurisdiction because one of the websites that the men were involved in operating, and that supposedly gave support to terrorism, was for a time hosted on a web server in Connecticut.
Prior to their extradition, their lawyers had argued that they would in various ways be subject to an abusive and unfair process in the US. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) agreed to consider their appeal against extradition over the length of the sentences they would face, and over prison conditions at ADX Florence, where it was expected that they would be held if convicted. The court’s decision in April 2012 to allow the extraditions to go ahead appeared to give a degree of endorsement to supermax-style prison conditions.
The ruling came at a time when the European Court of Human Rights was under intense pressure from both the US and British governments, having previously delivered a number of decisions unpopular with Westminster. It was undergoing a reform process and the British government was widely expected to press for “reforms” that would significantly reduce the power of the court. At an international conference held in Brighton shortly after the judgment on Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, the British government agreed instead to quite modest reforms. Britain’s Attorney-General Dominic Grieve told the Law Society Gazette that the European Court had begun showing “greater responsiveness” to the concerns of the UK’s national courts, parliament and public opinion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in these circumstance, the European Court of Human Rights rejected an application for Ahmad and Ahsan’s case to be referred to its Grand Chamber, a panel of 17 judges who can be asked to consider cases that affect the interpretation or application of the European Convention on Human Rights or raise other serious issues of general importance.
Shortly after the ECHR rejected the request for a Grand Chamber referral, a British court presided over by an almost comically hostile judge cleared the way for the men’s extradition. They were put on a plane within hours of the court’s decision, as if the authorities still feared a further legal intervention.
The unfair character of US plea bargains, though a corollary of the use of solitary confinement in US prisons, was not one of the issues that the ECHR considered. But it was always a central concern for British human rights campaigners. Plea bargains, coupled with extremely long prison sentences and routine long-term solitary confinement, amount to confessions under threat of torture.
According to the US Attorney’s office in Connecticut:
As part of their pleas, Ahmad and Ahsan specifically agreed, in writing, that they pleaded guilty freely and voluntarily, and without intimidation or coercion of any kind, because they are guilty of conspiring to provide and providing material support to terrorists.
Besides fears over the inhumane treatment of Ahmad and Ahsan, their extradition was controversial in Britain because of the way in which it seemed to subordinate law-enforcement and justice in Britain to the US.
Over 140,000 people signed a petition calling for Babar Ahmad to be tried in the UK, forcing a debate on the issue in the House of Commons in December 2011. MPs agreed a resolution calling on the government to “reform the UK’s extradition arrangements to strengthen the protection of British citizens.” A package of reforms was eventually announced by the government very shortly after Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan were sent to the US. It isn’t clear whether these measures will be sufficient to guarantee the protection of anyone else in a similar predicament.
John Sandweg, acting Director of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said last week (according to the US Attorney’s office) that Ahmad and Ahsan’s guilty plea “underscores Homeland Security Investigations’ vital role in the global law-enforcement community” and “further demonstrates law enforcement’s resolve to bring to justice anyone who supports those who would target American interests at home or abroad.”
Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan each pleaded guilty last week to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and one count of providing material support to terrorists.
Talha Ahsan now faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. His plea bargain – which the court accepted – did not reduce the sentence.
Babar Ahmad’s plea deal is based on a maximum sentence of 30 years, since his offences are said by the state attorney to have continued after 2001, when stiffer penalties were introduced under US law. The sentence would be reduced under the deal to 25 years. However, the court postponed a decision on whether to accept the arrangement, since it had not been established that Ahmad’s offences in fact continued after heavier sentences came into effect.
Prosecutors agreed in both cases not to object when the men apply for permission to serve their sentences in the UK and ask to be given credit for time they have already served.
At the sentencing hearing scheduled for 4 March 2014, [now scheduled for July 2014 - ed] the judge will most likely deliver a narrative of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan’s activities provided by prosecutors, and the US law-enforcement agencies and friendly terrorism experts will most probably provide a good deal of colourful background for any interested journalists. No part of the story will have been tested in court. It will have nothing to do with justice. And a little piece of the history of the so-called “war on terror” will end up beyond the reach of meaningful investigation.