A poet imprisoned

Peter Stäuber reports on the shocking case of Talha Ahsan – the young British man unjustly extradited and jailed in a US ‘supermax’ prison

October 16, 2014 · 8 min read

Talha-AhsanIt was a welcome-home party for someone who is yet to return. Poets, activists, politicians and dozens of supporters gathered in front of the Home Office to celebrate the release of Talha Ahsan from US imprisonment. But a big white banner behind the stage asked the question that was on everybody’s mind: ‘Where is Talha? Bring him home!’

It’s been over eight years since the Metropolitan police arrested Ahsan at his home in Tooting, south London, and his family still have no idea when they will see him. The British authorities have not given a date for his arrival, supposedly for security reasons, despite the US judge who had sentenced him stating that he wasn’t a threat to anybody.

Talha Ahsan’s ordeal was supposed to have come to an end in mid July, when US judge Janet C Hall sentenced him to the time he had already served. He should have been released immediately. When Talha’s brother Hamja heard the news, he was immensely relieved, but not surprised. ‘The prosecution’s case was shoddy. The more you learn about what he [Talha] had done, the more absurd the whole thing becomes,’ he said shortly after his brother’s release, sitting on a sofa in the room in which Talha was arrested. ‘The prosecution kept coming back to this one letter that my brother wrote during a time of depression. They even got into things like his handwriting. I was thinking: if that’s all you’ve got, is there really that much of a case against him?’

It should have been clear from the beginning that there was not. Talha Ahsan is a British citizen of Bengali descent. He is an award-winning poet and a scholar who translates medieval Arabic. The prosecution charged him with a number of terrorism‑related offences, among them providing ‘material support’ to terrorists. The basis for the charge was his involvement, over a period of six months in 2001, with a website that disseminated information on Muslim issues and the defensive struggles in Bosnia and Chechnya. The wars in the Balkans generated a lot of interest among British Muslims at the time, and supporting the resistance against the Serb and Russian oppressors was seen as entirely legitimate.

Wrong place at the wrong time

Ahsan’s involvement with the website was marginal: he picked up letters addressed to the website and stored them electronically. On one occasion, the PO box contained an unsolicited letter containing information on two battleships in the Persian Gulf. Ahsan, who was 21 at the time, typed up the contents of the letter and saved it. It was never disseminated, never used, possibly not even read by anybody else. ‘That’s the sum total of it,’ says Hamja. ‘He was basically at the wrong place at the wrong time.’ But in the heated atmosphere of the war on terror, fraught with panic and prejudice, his actions would cost him eight years of his life.

The first decisive event happened in 2003. In that year, the British government passed the US-UK extradition treaty, which got rid of the prima facie requirement. That means that it is no longer necessary to produce any evidence as to the guilt of the accused for them to be extradited. The treaty was heavily criticised by the home affairs committee in 2012. It urged the government to renegotiate the treaty, as ‘extradition should not take place without some case being made against the requested person.’ The MPs wrote that extradition imposes ‘a significant burden’ on the accused, and that ‘it would be fundamentally unjust to submit an innocent person to such an ordeal, even if they were subsequently acquitted at trial.’

In February 2006, the police seized a large amount of random material from Talha Ahsan’s house and sent it as evidence to the US. The ‘evidence’ included his brother Hamja’s PlayStation2 memory card and his nephew’s cartoons and college work. Five months later, he was arrested on request by the US. He spent the next six years in a UK prison, waiting to be extradited. During this time, Ahsan and his co-defendant Babar Ahmad kept asking to be charged by the Crown Prosecution Service. It would have made sense: the alleged offence was committed in Britain, and both defendants were British citizens and had never set foot in the US. The only connection across the Atlantic was the fact that the website in question was briefly hosted on a server in Connecticut.

But the CPS refused to charge him. As Richard Haley, chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, wrote, these circumstances ‘gave rise to the suspicion that the British and US authorities shared a belief that their evidence was less than solid and that it would be easier to convict Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan in the US than in Britain.’

Terrible farce

Ahsan and Ahmad were extradited in October 2012. Only eleven days later, the home secretary Theresa May blocked the extradition of computer hacker Gary McKinnon on the grounds that as a sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome, his human rights would be breached. No such compunction was shown in the case of Ahsan, who suffers from the same disorder. Theresa May crowed after the extradition, ‘Wasn’t it great to say goodbye – at long last – to Abu Hamza and those four other terror suspects on Friday?’ – lumping Ahsan together with the noxious cleric.

As the campaign against the extradition treaty gained momentum, there was a remarkable unity and cooperation between those who had been affected by it, from the family of Christopher Tappin, convicted of selling weapons to Iran, to the ‘NatWest Three’ bankers, sentenced to prison terms for fraud. ‘There is a feeling that we’re all in this together, that all our human rights are affected,’ says Hamja Ahsan. ‘We work together as a united front.’

Janis Sharp, Gary McKinnon’s mother, spoke next to Talha’s father outside Downing Street and wrote a poem for Talha. The Free Talha Ahsan campaign supported British soldier David McIntyre, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and was extradited to the US this summer. And one of the NatWest Three bankers gave the proceeds from his book, Gang of One, to Hamja’s campaign.

Conditions were horrific in the ‘supermax’ prison where Talha Ahsan was kept, says his brother. He spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. ‘To begin with he was shackled even during his showers. He experienced life through a slot in the prison door.’

A sensible US judge finally put a stop to the terrible farce. In December last year, Ahsan pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism. All other charges were dropped. A plea bargain is by no means an admission of guilt: in exchange for a shorter sentence and to avoid a lengthy trial, the defendant admits to some of the charges. Plea bargains are customary in the US justice system and happen in more than 90 per cent of all cases, including those of the NatWest Three and Christopher Tappin.

The one charge that Ahsan was left with, ‘material support’, is highly problematic. US academic Jeanna Theoharis describes material support laws as ‘the black box of domestic terrorism prosecutions, a shape‑shifting space into which all sorts of constitutionally protected activities can be thrown and classified as suspect, if not criminal.’ The charge did not hold up to scrutiny in the court room. ‘There is no way to rationalise the sentences’ that the prosecution had recommended, Judge Hall said.

Ahsan, now 34, will return to the same Britain that imprisoned him eight years earlier. ‘Talha is a red light warning of worse things to come,’ Hamja told the crowd of supporters in front of the Home Office. ‘We live in a liberal democracy, but we are having citizenship stripping, we are having secret trials, and we are having our own Guantanamos at home, where people are detained for long periods without charge.’

Hamja will continue to fight against injustice – he hopes he will be fighting alongside his brother.

Scratched on a wall

You cannot cut your hand on edges that
are blunt,
or rather a knife to your skull than a rock
for the heart?

The dirt will choke out your lungs
if you cannot clean yourself with your tongue.

A person who believes the sun will never
rise again,
and a person who believes it will,
do not live on the same island.

In prison, I have matured double my age,
like a piece of paper, folded and folded
over again,
I am stronger, less easy to tear.

Words are written
not to remember but to forget
as memories for others
to pick up and skim across a deafening sea.

Pixels and mortar: The politics of video game worldbuilding

With the worlds of architecture and video games becoming increasingly intertwined, Gerry Hart examines how video games communicate through their design

Revolutionary threads in feminist art

Siobhán McGuirk reports on textile arts used by feminist activists worldwide, from 1800 Paris factory workers to anti-capitalist 'yarnbombers' today

Solidarity, sit-ins, and samosa packets: one artist activist’s journey

Sofia Karim recalls how her uncle's arrest led her to create an online platform for artist activists to campaign against authoritarianism

Collage including photos of Seferis and Theodorakis

A poet, a composer and an unlikely Greek protest song

Mikis Theodorakis died in September last year, half a century after one of his most illustrious collaborators, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Giorgos Seferis. Eugenia Russell looks at the unlikely protest song that unites them

A choir in colourful outfits with arms outstretched

Revitalising artistic activism in the age of art-wash

We must be looking to artistic interventions that are inclusive, transformative and embody true solidarity, writes Chris Garrard

A brush with revolution: art and organising

Artist Sarbjit Johal reflects on the role of visual art in protest, movement-building and giving a voice to marginalised people

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...