The long saga of the extradition of five Muslim men from Britain to the US, which is due to end today, has shown up the limits of the British, European and US legal systems’ commitment to human rights. The impact on our society will be profound.
Miscarriages of justice corrode trust in every layer of authority. And with each year they drag on, the loss of respect for courts, police and government gets worse, as with the notorious cases of the Birmingham Six, and the Guildford Four and the Cardiff Three. Much worse awaits each of these men now, in the US.
In recent days there has also been an unpleasant exhibition of Islamophobia in the distortion and simplification of these cases, by government and media rejoicing in imminent departures. Almost all media use the name and photograph of Abu Hamza as the headline in the extradition endgame – a shortcut stereotype to a justification of “getting rid of terrorists”. The highlighting of the others involved, such as a dignified Egyptian human rights lawyer imprisoned and tortured by the Mubarak regime, or a young British poet with Asperger’s syndrome, would not have provided the same simple narrative.
Once the European court of human rights lumped the men together for their appeals against extradition, the wide differences between the cases were lost. The ECHR also chose not to take account of the UN rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, or the 26 US legal and human rights groups and 120 academic lawyers who supported the men’s contention that they face inhuman prison conditions in the US.
Years in solitary confinement, food put through a slot in a soundproof door, exercise alone in a cage in a concrete pit: this is a regime that breaks men. The Centre for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First have seen the dire results of this on men’s minds. For Muslim men facing charges of “material support” to terrorism, like these five, years of pre-trial “special administrative measures” precede sentences in super-max prisons of 65 years, or life.
In the annals of miscarriages of justice, the charging of Adel Abdul Bary with more than 200 murders related to the 1998 east Africa US embassy bombings will rank high when the shabby evidence finally comes before a jury. This Egyptian lawyer has been in prison in the UK for 13 years when there was no case against him here. He is wanted in a massive al-Qaida case where Osama bin Laden was the first defendant, and the US government case rests largely on one witness who never met or mentioned Abdul Bary personally.
One other person has been tried in this landmark case of the war on terror. Ahmed Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was acquitted by a New York jury of 276 charges of murder. However, he was convicted of one charge of conspiring to damage US property, and sentenced to life in a super-max prison.
Abdul Bary, like the young British poet Talha Ahsan, in prison for six years, found ways to keep his humanity alive through art. Our society’s loss of humanity means that most people choose not to know about them.
Babar Ahmad, Ahsan’s co-defendant, is better known after eight years of campaigning from prison – including running for parliament, suing the Metropolitan police and winning an expensive case for assault by them, achieving an unprecedented BBC television interview from prison, and getting 140,000 people to sign a petition for a trial in the UK.
One legacy of Ahmad’s case, and Ahsan’s, is to show the limits of the illusory power of new social media against the establishment. No one could have used it more effectively than their two families. And, like the Egyptian lawyer and artist Abdul Bary, they are widely known now by sections of the community. The sense of justice denied is already palpable, and will only grow.
Meanwhile, these last frenzied days of government attempts to block the demarches by some of Britain’s finest lawyers against the extradition has amounted to a showdown of values that should shake the UK legal system.
Victoria Brittain is a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian.