† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Do US Prisons Violate European Human Rights Law?
–An interview with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl
By Angola 3 News
On April 10, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued judgement in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom, thereby making a landmark ruling on the legitimacy of solitary confinement, extreme isolation and life without parole in US supermax prisons (view ECHR press release and ruling). The ECHR denied the appeal filed jointly by six appellants, consisting of four British nationals (Babar Ahmad, Haroon Rashid Aswat, Syed Talha Ahsan, and Mustafa Kamal Mustafa—aka Abu Hamza), an Egyptian national (Adel Abdul Bary) and a Saudi Arabian national (Khaled Al-Fawwaz) who have been imprisoned in the United Kingdom, pending extradition to the United States for alleged terrorism-related activities.
This judgement is now being appealed to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber, with a decision expected in September regarding whether or not the appeal will be heard. Arguing against their extradition to the US, the six appellants have asserted that the risk of imprisonment in the United States (with specific citation of long-term isolation at the notorious federal prison in Colorado, ADX Florence—also the subject of both a June Senate Hearing and a recent civil rights lawsuit initiated by prisoners alleging human rights violations there) would breach their right under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights not to “be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Ruling against the appellants, the ECHR argued in their April 10 ruling that isolation in a US Supermax prison is “relative” and will become a violation of Article 3 ECHR (which prohibits torture), only if it extends indefinitely.
A third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in this case was jointly submitted in 2010 by INTERIGHTS, Reprieve, the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School National Litigation Project, arguing that “U.S. legal protections against ill-treatment in imprisonment fall short of those provided under Article 3 ECHR.” Furthermore, “it is submitted that any protection the applicants will receive under U.S. law is speculative at best. The past two decades have seen a strong trend of limiting prisoner access to courts overall and restricting judicial oversight, particularly in the absence of overt physical harm. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution affords little in the way of real protections against the documented harms of prolonged sensory and social deprivation…To the extent the United States suggests that Petitioners will be adequately protected by administrative review, the record in cases involving ADX Florence is that such procedures are largely illusory.”
In this interview we speak with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl–two London-based activists working around this case. Aviva Stahl works as the United States researcher for CagePrisoners.com, a London-based human rights organization that is committed to defending the due process rights of detainees of the War on Terror. Her current work focuses on the criminalization of Muslim communities on American soil, and draws on the parallel past experiences of other communities of color. She also helps run a pen pal program in Britain that links folks across prison walls, with the aim of building relationships based on solidarity and mutual support.
An artist and curator by profession, Hamja Ahsan is the younger brother of appellant Syed Talha Ahsan, and leader of the Free Talha Ahsan Campaign. Declaring that Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and writer with Asperger syndrome imprisoned since 2006 “deserves freedom or a fair trial in the UK,” www.freetalha.org details how “Talha Ahsan was arrested at his home on 19 July 2006 in response to a request from the USA under the Extradition Act 2003 which does not require the presentation of any prima facie evidence. He is accused in the US of terrorism-related offences arising out of an alleged involvement over the period of 1997-2004 with the Azzam series of websites, one of which happened to be located on a server in America. He has never been arrested or questioned by British police, despite a number of men being so from his local area in December 2003 for similar allegations. All of them were released without charge. One of them, Babar Ahmad, was later compensated £60,000 by the Metropolitan police after a civil case in March 2009 for the violent physical abuse during his arrest. It was evidence from this incident which formed the basis of Talha’s arrest two and a half years later.”
In this interview, Ahsan and Stahl discuss the extreme importance of the upcoming Grand Chamber ruling on a personal level for the six appellants fighting their extradition, as well as the ruling’s broader significance for all US prisoners and the communities around the world targeted by the US’ so-called “War on Terror.” Among the many prominent human rights activists speaking out is US author Noam Chomsky, who asserts that “with the sharp deterioration of protection of elementary civil rights in the US, no one should be extradited to the country on charges related to alleged terrorism…the prisons and the incarceration system in the United States are an international scandal,” and “the shallow and evasive charges” in Ahsan’s case “strongly reinforce that conclusion.”
Robert H. King of the Angola 3, released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary, recently met up with Ahsan and Stahl (read Stahl’s interview here) while touring the UK with Amnesty International, as part of their campaign demanding the immediate release of the Angola 3′s Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace from solitary confinement, where they have now been for over 40 years (sign Amnesty’s petition here).