War, Prisons, and Torture in the US & UK –An interview with Richard Haley

2:10 pm in Uncategorized by Angola 3 News

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War, Prisons, and Torture in the US & UK
–An interview with Richard Haley

By Angola 3 News

Richard Haley is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has been active in Britain’s anti-war movement since 2003. He is a member of the Stop the War Coalition and is currently Chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities.

Last December, on Human Rights Day, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities initiated a “Stop Isolation” campaign with an online statement arguing that solitary confinement is a form of torture that must be abolished. The petition states that “We call upon the countries of the world to enact legislation that prohibits long-term prisoner isolation, and prohibits the transfer of prisoners to countries where they would be at risk of such treatment. Dungeons should not be tolerated in the 21st century.”

Angola 3 News: Can you please tell us about your organization Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)? In Scotland, which communities are being criminalized?

Richard Haley: SACC began as a group of Scottish-based anti-war activists who came together in the first months of 2003 after the arrest of 7 Algerian men on terrorism charges. The arrests were accompanied by an intimidating police trawl for information throughout the Algerian community in Scotland. The arrests got spectacular publicity, leading to a surge in racist incidents against Muslims. So our initial work was to counter these things. We soon saw that there was no evidence against the Algerians. The charges were dropped at the end of the year, after the maximum delay permitted under Scottish law.

Since 9/11 the community most conspicuously criminalized in Scotland has been the Muslim community. At first the focus was on Muslim refugees and immigrants, but later it widened to include British citizens. Muslims are the targets of official suspicion and are at risk of prosecution for activities that would once have been legitimate but are now called “terrorism.” Muslim institutions – mosques and various community groups – are subject to state supervision, surveillance and interference.

The legal machinery for this is a series of anti-terrorism laws introduced over the last decade. Scotland has its own devolved Parliament, but anti-terrorism legislation is the responsibility of the British Parliament. Our group joined the London-based Campaign Against Criminalising Communities in calling for the repeal of all Britain’s terrorism legislation. The Stop the War Coalition–the main group in Britain opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–also shares our opposition to the attack on civil liberties. We work with other groups to campaign for prisoners of the “war on terror” throughout Britain and, in some instances, around the world.

Others besides Muslims have been criminalized. Kurdish and Tamil communities have been particular targets. The Kurdish separatist group PKK and the Tamil separatist group LTTE (“Tamil Tigers”) are both banned under anti-terrorism legislation, although neither has carried out armed actions outside its homeland. Both groups enjoy wide sympathy in their respective communities in Britain, and community political and social activities reflect that. The banning of the groups has an effect on all that activity.

A3N: Along with focusing on prisons, the SACC website spotlights a range of issues, including the war being waged against Iraq by the US and UK. How do these two issues (prisons and war) relate to each other?

RH: The arrests of the Algerian men in Scotland occurred while the British Government was getting ready to join the US in its invasion of Iraq. Terrorism cases were being massaged or manufactured to create a heightened fear of terrorism and make people more receptive to the argument that the risk of a link between terrorists and Saddam Hussein’s regime made the invasion of Iraq necessary.

Besides the arrests in Scotland, a number of Algerian men were arrested on suspicion of involvement in a plot to disseminate ricin poison. The supposed discovery of ricin was announced by the Metropolitan Police in January 2003. Prime Minister Tony Blair told a meeting of British ambassadors that the danger was “present and real” and that its potential was “huge.” US Secretary of State Colin Powell included the discovery in his 6 February presentation to the UN Security Council in which he set out the US case for war with Iraq. But by the time that Tony Blair and Colin Powell made their statements, the British Government’s Porton Down laboratory had already established that no ricin had been found. This wasn’t widely known until the ricin case came to trial in 2005. Four of the five accused were acquitted on all charges; one man was found guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. The story of the ricin plot is told in the book Ricin! by Lawrence Archer and Fiona Bawdon (Pluto Press, 2010).

The danger of terrorism, coupled with the hypothetical possibility of a link to the Iraqi regime, formed part of the British Government’s case to Parliament in the crucial March 2003 debate that authorized the invasion of Iraq. Terrorism couldn’t provide a legal justification for the war, but it went a long way towards persuading MPs to acquiesce in the flimsy legal justifications that were offered.

There are structural links between prisons and war. The so-called “war on terror” is at the moment focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than Iraq. Whatever its location, it is a war for resources and power. It is imperialist and racist and necessarily involves the denial of human rights. Since Britain is a multi-ethnic country and our population has religious, cultural and family ties to the theatres of war, the denial of rights necessarily extends to Britain. Prison walls obstruct solidarity and promote fear.

A3N: Looking at the “Stop Isolation” statement published online last December, why did SACC choose to focus on the issue of solitary confinement at this present time? As signatures collect, will you be submitting it to anyone in the form of a petition?

RH: We call “Stop Isolation” a statement rather than a petition because it isn’t particularly directed towards being handed in somewhere. It is available on the internet for anyone – government or activist – to see. We may in due course post a copy to the justice ministers of a selection of countries. But we intend the statement to stand for as long as necessary as a rallying point for people who want to work together while putting pressure on their governments to end long-term prisoner isolation. “Stop Isolation” is independent of other campaigns that SACC supports. We hope to keep expanding the website to include more news and background from around the world.

We launched “Stop Isolation” because the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is considering the appeals of four British citizens–Babar Ahmad, Syed Tahla Ahsan, Haroon Rashid Aswat, and Abu Hamza–against extradition to the US to face terrorism charges. The court is considering whether the length of the sentences the men may face and the risk of long-term isolation at ADX Florence (for three of the men) 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.” The court’s long-delayed judgment is expected in the next few months. It will be a landmark in the development of human rights law.

The ECHR is the last legal recourse for human rights appeals by people in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe–a grouping that is wider and distinct from the European Union.

If the court blocks the men’s extradition it will send a signal to the US that the harshness of the US penal system is damaging its international relations. On the other hand, a ruling in favor of extradition could open the door to harsher prison conditions in Europe. In either case the challenge to human rights campaigners will be the same–we will need a vigorous international campaign against prisoner isolation.

The charges against the four men are different, but all the cases are marred by a range of worrying issues, in addition to the matters that the ECHR has agreed to consider. Some of the problems stem from Britain’s Extradition Act 2003, which allows people to be extradited to the US without any need for prima facie evidence to be presented. US lawmakers have wisely failed to ratify the treaty that would create reciprocal arrangements for extradition from the US to Britain. Some of the British opposition to the Extradition Act has stressed the loss of sovereignty that it entails and the lack of balance created by the US position. But sovereignty and balance aren’t the real issues. The real problem is that evidence-free extradition promotes injustice. For more background, see lawyer Gareth Peirce’s article in the London Review of Books.

A3N: Can you tell us more about these four British citizens?

RH: Two of the men – Babar Ahmad and Syed Tahla Ahsan – have become particular friends of SACC over the years that it has taken for their appeals to reach the ECHR. Their cases are closely linked to one another. They relate to the men’s alleged support – largely by means of the internet – for groups in Chechnya and Afghanistan over the period 1997-2004. The offences were all allegedly committed while the men were in Britain. Talha Ahsan has never visited the US. The evidence against the men has never been presented to a British court. Both men say that they should be tried in Britain. British prosecutors say they don’t have enough evidence to do so.

Babar Ahmad has become very widely known amongst Muslims in Britain. His arrest marked the moment when British Muslims, as well as refugees and immigrants, began to feel threatened by the state. Babar was subjected to a serious and unprovoked assault by police officers during and after his initial arrest at his London home in December 2003. Much later (while in jail) he won a lawsuit against the police over his ill-treatment. He was released without charge six days after his initial arrest, but was arrested again 8 months later on an extradition request from the US. He has been held in high-security jails ever since. There is more information on his case on the website www.freebabarahmad.com and on the SACC website.

Talha Ahsan was arrested in London in July 2006 following an extradition request from the US and has been held in high-security jails ever since. The cases against both Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan rely on evidence seized by British police during their violent raid on Babar Ahmad’s home, and then passed to the US.

A booklet entitled This be the Answer: Prison Poems by Talha Ahsan, has just been published and includes more background about his case. The Free Talha Ahsan website (www.freetalha.org) will be launched shortly.

If the four men are sent to the US, they are sure to be accompanied by damaging publicity. They will need all the support they can get if they are to stand a chance of a fair trial. Readers can find contact details for Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan on the SACC website. I’m sure that both men would be delighted to receive letters from the US.

We also need the support of US readers for our campaign against prisoner isolation. Spread the word about the “Stop Isolation” statement and website. Encourage people to add their names to the statement. Use it when campaigning for individual prisoners. Send “Stop Isolation” any news that might be of interest (contact details here). Tell your representatives on Capitol Hill about it. The statement is supported by senior legal and human rights figures around the world. Their support shows that the US is out of step with international best practice on this issue.

A3N: Why do you think that the use of solitary confinement is so widespread? Why do governments choose to use it as a form of punishment?

RH: Because they can.

Because prison authorities often believe that it is absolutely necessary to make prisoners conform, whatever the human cost.

Because solitary confinement is imposed on people who are in prison and lack easy access to legal remedy or public support.

Torturers often prefer methods that don’t leave obvious marks. Solitary confinement is one such method. It is often thought to be near the margin of the practices prohibited under human rights law. So governments can use it to flex their muscles and to stimulate reactionary sentiment without colliding with international law and its enforcement mechanisms. I hope the “Stop Isolation” statement will make that harder to do.

A3N: Why do you think torture itself is a tactic used by governments?

RH: Anti-torture campaigners often say that torture doesn’t work. They mean that torture doesn’t yield reliable information, and of course they are right. But torture has worked very well for thousands of years to help rulers dominate the ruled. The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt happened when torture stopped working. Our job is to stop torture working. Eradicating it will then be easy.

A3N: How often is solitary used in Europe? How does the European use of solitary contrast with how the US uses it?

RH: Prison Governors in Scotland may authorize segregation for a maximum of 72 hours. The period can be extended for a month at a time by Scottish Ministers or by officials to whom ministers delegate responsibility.

A lawsuit brought by a group of prisoners over their solitary confinement came to court in 2004. There were at that time 63 prisoners in segregation units in Scotland out of a prison population of a little under 7000. The litigants complained of episodes of segregation that had in some cases occurred some years previously. Several of them had been placed in segregation cells for periods of around five months. Another prisoner–not one of these bringing the lawsuit–was known at that time to have been in solitary for 18 months.

The Scottish Prison Service settled with the prisoners in 2009. Regrettably, the service insisted that it had settled “purely on economic grounds” and that it did not accept that the segregation of the prisoners had been unlawful. An inspection of Perth prison in 2009 found that 2 prisoners had been held in segregation for “more than a month.” A 2007 inspection of Kilmarnock Prison found that one prisoner had been in segregation for 5 months and another for 3 months. Inspections of some other Scottish prisons in recent years have reported that segregation cells were rarely used.

In England and Wales punitive solitary confinement can be imposed on adults for a maximum of 28 days. Prisoners can be segregated without time limit to preserve “good order and discipline” or for their own protection. Their segregation is subject to frequent review.

The use of solitary confinement varies across Europe. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has wide powers to visit and inspect prisons in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It says that “all forms of solitary confinement should be as short as possible.” Some European states have chosen not to publish the CPT’s reports on their country, as is their right. For example, no reports on CPT visits to the Russian Federation have ever been published.

Since 1999, Turkey has been holding PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in a specially built prison on the island of Imrali. For 10 years he was its sole inmate. The CPT visited the prison in 2007 and subsequently recommended that Öcalan should “be integrated into a setting where contacts with other inmates and a wider range of activities are possible.” In November 2009 the Turkish authorities transferred several other prisoners to Imrali to alleviate Öcalan’s isolation. Turkey has a very poor human rights record and Öcalan is its most notorious prisoner; it nevertheless felt unable to maintain his isolation.

Solitary confinement for periods of several years or more is very rare in Europe. Solitary confinement for periods of many months is generally unusual. Supermax-style conditions are almost certainly very rare or absent.

The use of solitary confinement is much more restricted by judicial process and legally-empowered monitoring in Europe than in the US. But I know of no Europe-wide survey of solitary confinement, so the picture of European practice is a very tentative and provisional one.

A3N: What strategies are European activists using to influence policy, that might be useful in the US?

RH: I think that European activists may have more to learn from US activists than vice versa. From here, it looks as if prison activism in the US is much wider, deeper and more politicized in the US than in Britain.

Excellent work is being done here by Paddy Hill and John McManus at Miscarriages of Justice Organisation Scotland. Paddy Hill is one of the Birmingham 6. He spent 16 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of the 1974 Irish Republican bombings in Birmingham.

Excellent work is also being done by Cage Prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg is one of its directors.

A3N: With recent revelations that Bradley Manning is also a citizen of the UK, SACC is calling for the British government to intervene. Can you please tell us more about this? Has there been a response yet from the British government?

RH: It turns out that Bradley Manning’s mother is Welsh, so he is a British citizen as well as a US citizen. Britain normally offers only informal help to dual nationals detained in the country of their other nationality, but it makes formal representations where there are human rights issues. There are obviously human rights concerns for Bradley Manning, but the British government has so far given no help. A number of Members of Parliament have told constituents that they are concerned over this, but they haven’t yet had a response from the Government. British Members of the European Parliament have also expressed an interest. So we’ll be trying to keep the pressure up. There is more information on the “UK Friends of Bradley Manning” website.

If the allegations against Bradley Manning are true, we are indebted to him for helping to reveal what the war in Iraq was really like. Whether the allegations are true or not, his isolation in Quantico Brig puts him under pressure to incriminate himself and Julian Assange.

Manning and Assange both need support; support for either of them will make both stronger. Assange is pinned down dealing with allegations of sex crimes in Sweden. The US authorities are meanwhile trying to find a formula that will let them charge him without threatening the traditional media. The worldwide media have helped the US government tremendously by distancing themselves from Assange. Journalists who collude in this should be ashamed of themselves.

Britain’s extradition court has unsurprisingly ducked the chance to see justice done over Sweden’s request for Assange to be extradited there. The Chief Magistrate, Howard Riddle, ruled on 24 February that the extradition can go ahead. To rule otherwise wouldn’t just have meant standing in the path of the juggernaut bearing down on Wikileaks. It would also have shone a spotlight on the operation of the already-controversial European Arrest Warrant. The warrants came into effect in August 2003 and allow extradition with minimal legal oversight between the various radically different jurisdictions within the European Union. Like the arrangements for extradition from Britain to the US, the system is an open invitation to injustice.

Riddle has accepted that Assange will be held incommunicado in prison in Sweden and will then be interrogated, held without bail and eventually tried in secret. But he held that these facts should not stand in the way of Assange’s extradition. Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens says that, though Sweden’s penal system has some progressive features, the country is a “human rights black spot in relation to solitary confinement.” Stephens argues that extradition proceedings should not be a rubber-stamp but should instead be a tool to “improve the quality of justice throughout Europe” and eliminate “human rights blind spots.” This is exactly the approach that SACC has long been advocating.

If the larger issues of Julian Assange’s case are to be dealt with, it will be in a more elevated forum than the extradition court. Assange will appeal to the High Court and, if unsuccessful, may then appeal to Britain’s Supreme Court and then to the European Court of Human Rights. Even these courts are only likely to stand up for justice and against state interests if public opinion demands it.

Riddle said in his 24 February ruling: “sometimes public comment damages the cause more than it helps.” He was referring to comments made on the steps of the court last year by Assange’s lawyer. Assange’s legal team may get a rough ride. If they do, it won’t be the first time that Britain’s legal establishment has tried to keep an inconvenient lawyer quiet. In 2006, Scottish lawyer Aamer Anwar was accused of contempt of court after speaking out against the conviction of his client Mohammed Atif Siddique on terrorism charges. Campaigners rallied in Anwar’s support, the contempt charges were thrown out by three high court judges and the appeal court in Edinburgh eventually ruled that Siddique had suffered a miscarriage of justice. People must be ready to give Julian Assange’s lawyers the same sort of robust support that we in Scotland gave to Aamer Anwar.

Amy Jeffress, the US justice department’s attaché to the American embassy in London, has dismissed concerns that Julian Assange could be at risk of detention at Guantánamo Bay if re-extradited from Sweden to the US. She told the BBC radio program Law in Action: “The President, of course, has decided to close Guantánamo Bay and so no one is going to Guantánamo Bay and that claim is baseless.”

But Obama’s deadline for closing Guantánamo expired over a year ago. His handling of the issue has shown the whole world that the White House has neither the will nor the authority to guarantee respect for human rights in the United States.

A3N: Anything else to add?

RH: The world is shrinking. Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world cooperate closely on matters they say are related to terrorism. They use extradition, rendition and the opportunistic torture of people who travel to countries whose governments can get away with it. Too often, the human rights standards that count are the lowest ones. We need to work together so that we all benefit instead from the highest standards.

–Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.