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US Convinces European Court to Not Block Extradition of Terror Suspects

(photo: Screen shot from BBC News broadcast of Babar Ahmad’s interview)

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that five individuals facing terrorism charges, including the radical cleric Abu Hamza, can be extradited to the United States. The ruling by the court in Strasbourg, France, was part of a determination that the human rights of these individuals would not be violated if they were sent to the US for trial and ultimately imprisoned in a “supermax” prison.

The Guardian reports this “clears the last realistic obstacle,” to extraditing a cleric the US alleges was “in contact with Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists and aided the taking of 16 western tourists as hostages in Yemen in December 1998,” which ended in the death of three British citizens. He also is alleged to have helped set up a “training camp for ‘violent jihad’ in Oregon in 1999.”

The other individuals that this ruling helps “clear” the way for extraditing to the United States are: Babar Ahmad, Syed Talha Ahsan, Adel Abdel Bary and Khaled al-Fawwaz. (One individual, Harun Rashid Aswat, was not ruled on because the court needed more time to assess his mental condition.)

The US government claims Ahmad and Ahsan used a now-defunct website, Azzam Publications, to raise funds for Taliban and insurgents in Chechnya. Ahmad was arrested in August 2004 on a US extradition warrant and since his arrest has been denied bail. Ahsan was arrested at his home in 2006 and has been challenging extradition for six years in jail.

BBC News recently won a legal battle to interview Ahmad. On April 5, he said he had “never been properly questioned about the offenses he is alleged to have committed.” He urged the United Kingdom to put him on trial asserting, “All the offenses against me are alleged to have happened in this country. Had the police and (prosecutors) put me on trial in 2003 — which they could have done — I would have left prison years ago regardless of the outcome. I have been in this nightmare fighting extradition for the past eight years.” (However, because an American internet service provider was being used, prosecutors in Connecticut have pushed to try him in the US.)

Bary and Al-Fawaaz were arrested in September 1998. They are believed to have been involved in the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The US also believes Al-Fawwaz ran an Al Qaeda cell in Kenya before he fled in 1994 to Britain. While in Britain, the US says he created a committee with Bary that functioned as a “publicity machine for Al Qaeda.”

The key issue the ECHR was faced with was whether the men wanted on terrorism charges would be ill-treated in a “supermax” prison in America. Specifically, how would they be treated if transferred to the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, which currently is where a number of terrorists and murderers are in solitary confinement?

A new report out from the London-based human rights organization CagePrisoners, which seeks to raise awareness about the “plight” of Guantanamo prisoners and others held as part of the “war on terror,” highlights the treatment of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. He was put into a “special isolation unit” in ADX and forced to submit to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). He was “confined to a 75.5 square foot cell for 23 hours a day and had almost no contact with anyone except for his lawyers and his immediate family.” For one hour, he was allowed to engage in recreation but was kept from having contact with other inmates. He was deprived of “sensory stimulation” and, as one guard put it, subjected to a “dark abyss” that “breeds paranoia.” The sensory deprivation was not like what detainees experience at Guantanamo but the “next worst thing.”

The report notes Reid filed a civil lawsuit in Denver federal court in 2007 challenging the SAMs. He asserted that his right to freedom of religion was violated because he was “unable to pray in groups as required by Sunni Islam.” His suit also questioned why he was “barred from learning Arabic, ordering books or magazines, watching television, speaking with the media or having even minimum interaction with other inmates.” He went on a hunger strike in March 2009 and was subjected to “medical intervention” in April that included force feeding. Months later, the SAMs were lifted and a Justice Department review found he had not been “seeking to commit violence.” He was finally moved into general population.

The ECHR stayed the extradition of Hamza, Ahmed, Aswat and Ahsan in July 2010 finding that it was not clear their extradition wouldn’t violate the Human Rights Convention prohibiting torture and inhuman degrading treatment. This convention bars signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights from transferring anyone to a place where they would endure such treatment. The ECHR requested more details on conditions in the supermax prison, along with details on the “psychological impact of lifetime sentences on prisoners.”

So, what exactly led the EHCR to rule in favor of extraditing the men?

The Court found “the range of activities and services provided goes beyond what is provided in many prisons in Europe.” It decided, if convicted, “US authorities would be justified in considering them a significant security risk and in imposing strict limitations on their ability to communicate with the outside world.” Although it took Reid years to get moved out of isolation, it concluded “‘procedural safeguards’ were in place for prisoners and that they can bring claims to the attention of US authorities.”

The Justice Department also provided “letters” that helped the Court determine “conditions at ADX would not amount to ill-treatment.” The EHCR read the “letters” and accepted diplomatic assurances and decided the isolation the men could potentially experience if imprisoned in ADX would not be torture. But, that seems a bit surprising given the principles of the Court, which are founded upon humanitarian law that a passing observer might think would include ensuring individuals are not subjected to solitary confinement.

The result really seems to have come from bullying from the US government. Similar to the US pressuring the UK to not hear cases involving rendition and torture in open court, the Court decided to cave. They decided to issue a ruling that would help dispel any attitudes among US government officials that the Court intends to be an obstacle in the “war on terrorism.”

The Telegraph quoted Patrick Mercer, chairman of the House of Commons sub-committee on Counter-Terrorism, in their coverage of this story. He said “this morning Britain’s relationship with the US could be harmed if the extradition had been blocked.” And, “America wants these people, America wants them to face justice inside that country – here’s Britain, allegedly her closest ally, blocking that…Politicians have got to decide where the law of this country conflicts or does not conflict with the European Court of Human Rights, and that’s exactly the crux of this whole argument.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has called on all countries, including the United States, to ban solitary confinement. He contends whether countries call it “segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique.” He finds “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition,” as there can be “lasting mental damage after a few days of social isolation.” He has also said it can “amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment.”

The report from CagePrisoners clearly documents cases where Muslims, whether American or non-American, are subjected to a separate legal system that violates human and civil rights. The system allows secret arrest and imprisonment, imprisonment without trial, the misuse of material arrest warrants, arbitrary detention under the pretext of minor immigration violations, etc. It permits prison conditions that guards admit are only marginally better than Guantanamo Bay prison.

Executive Director of CagePrisoners, Asim Qureshi, said of the ruling:

The suggestion that those suspected of being involved in terrorism are able to receive fair treatment in a US supermax prison is an utterly preposterous notion. The extent of problems associated with confinement in American prisons has been well documented by leading NGOs around the world. Despite the ruling on treatment, there remain more important questions in relation to the manner of the extradition proceedings in the first place. Without the opportunity to challenge any evidence in a prima facie case here in the UK, those facing extradition will be brought before a legal system which has fundamental flaws in the way that it prosecutes national security cases.

The US may have given “written assurances that it will not impose the death penalty or place the suspects before Guantánamo Bay-style military tribunals,” but once they arrive stateside, they will still go through federal courts that are unlikely to be much better than a military commission.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."