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.
They were sentenced on 16 July 2014 by a US federal court in Newhaven, Connecticut. Prosecutors had requested a sentence of 25 years for Babar Ahmad and 15 years for Talha Ahsan, whose involvement with the website was minimal and lasted for only about 6 months. But Judge Janet Hall found much of the material presented by prosecutors to be unreliable. She handed down a 12½ year sentence to Babar Ahmad, with credit for the 10 years he served before trial. This means that he may be free in less than a year. He is expected to serve his sentence in Britain. And she sentenced Talha Ahsan to the 8 years he has already served. So he would now be free, but for his difficulty with the US immigration authorities.
Judge Janet Hall’s decision amounts to a motion of no confidence in the approach taken by US prosecutors in these cases, and perhaps in others too. It should raise awkward questions about the conduct of the British and US authorities, and especially about their dogged determination to ensure that Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan were tried in the US rather than Britain, even though the men’s supposedly criminal conduct took place in Britain and virtually all of the evidence against them was gathered in Britain.