Do US Prisons Violate European Human Rights Law?

Published o Dissident Voice, by Angola 3 News, August 23, 2012.

On April 10, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued judgment in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others vs 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 judgment 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 Cage, 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 … //

… A3N: The April 10 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights is now being appealed to the Grand Chamber of the Court and we are awaiting a decision about whether the appeal will be considered. In the meantime, how can our mostly-US-based readership best support the fight against extradition?

  • HA: We’re expecting to hear in September about whether or not the appeal will be considered by the Grand Chamber. In the meantime, it would be great if folks could write to Talha.
  • AS: The most important is to get involved with folks in the States campaigning against supermax prisons, solitary confinement and the prison industrial complex. Remember that Senate hearings about the legitimacy of solitary confinement happened just a few weeks ago. This is a crucial time for all of us to push back against the injustices happening on the inside. Please listen to some incredibly moving testimony here.  Whether it’s with Amnesty, the Angola 3, theStopMax campaign, or other prisoner solidarity work…. Get involved!

A3N: In an interview conducted prior to the April ruling, SACC activist Richard Haley argued that “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.” If affirmed by the Grand Chamber, what do you think is the significance of the Court ruling for the US, UK, and Europe?

  • AS: Well, of course if it stands, the ruling will give greater legitimacy to the practice of solitary confinement and the conditions inside supermax prisons. The Court has essentially ruled that these conditions “aren’t that bad”.
  • But I think it’s also important to recognize the broader context, which is that the ruling will simply strengthen ongoing trends on both sides of the ocean – of increased criminalization, imprisonment and privatization. As I’m sure your readership is aware, the prison industrial complex has reached epic proportions in the United States – over 2 million people and counting are now held on the inside. But the same things are happening here in the UK. The prison population in England and Wales has hit a record high. After the uprisings (“riots”) of last summer, we saw kids being imprisoned for long periods of time for very petty theft, and the importation of policies from the US, including gang injunctions. With regards to privatization, G4S already operates several prisons in England and is bidding to run many more. We need only look at the wealth of evidence from the Olympic security debacle that privatization is a bad idea.
  • On the other hand, I think it’s important to recognize that the ruling has given us the impetus to generate new kinds of alliances. This case represents just how important it is for different communities to work together in challenging the prison system, especially in its most pernicious incarnations. The ruling draws new links of potential solidarity across the globe – from Pelican Bay Prison, to ADX Florence, to the Communication Management Units of Terre Haute and Marion, to Guantanamo Bay, to Bagram, to HMP Long Lartin, where Talha and Babar are held.
  • HA: A lot of the British right wing media failed to grasp that the ruling was about prison conditions and used a lot of racist, Islamophobic language referring to Talha and Babar as “unwanted guests” and “Muslim fanatics”, despite not having been found guilty of anything. This was a very terrifying and painful time for the family. I didn’t sleep or eat properly for many days.

A3N: What is the ruling’s significance for the communities targeted by the so-called “war on terror,” led by the US?

  • AS: I think that for Muslims in the US and the UK, this ruling just legitimizes the human and civil rights abuses they already experience – surveillance in their homes, mosques, and schools, entrapment from undercover agents, harassment by cops and border police, even criminal convictions for activities that should be protected – like bookselling!  It’s to the point where Muslims’ very religious and political beliefs are being criminalized.
  • HA: The 2003 US-UK extradition treaty effectively gives a dangerous level of extraterritorial jurisdiction to the United States. If the websites in question did have a US server, it shows that most of us living outside the US can go home, check out emails (Google, Hotmail, Facebook, Twitter) and be on a US server. Most .com or .net addresses work the same way. Effectively most emails in the world pass through a US server. So people are no longer being picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but from their bedrooms and family homes, in our case, in South London. This is a frightening precedent for all of us. In Richard O’Dwyer’s case, the charges don’t even have to constitute a crime under British law. Entrapment and sting jobs which form part of Christopher Tappin and Nosratollah Tajik’s cases, are illegal and unacceptable under British law.
  • AS: Consider this: just before the ECHR released its decision, John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, said that a ECHR veto against extradition would call “into question the ability of Europe as a whole to be an effective partner in the war against terrorism.”  Given the amount of pressure the US can exert on the rest of the world, are we really that surprised that the Court ruled the way it did?
    The US has expanded its drone strikes into Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It’s passed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which essentially allows the US to detain anyone, anywhere, if the US alleges that they have links to Al Qaeda or associated organizations.  This is just more evidence of the US government and military’s broad reach, justified in the name of the War on Terror.

A3N:  Anything else to add?

  • HA and AS: There is an event in London on Saturday, September 8, entitled “Extradite Me I’m British.” It’s an evening of film, prison poetry, talks, drama, comedy, talks, nasheeds around the notorious 2003 US-UK extradition treaty currently affecting British citizens Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Richard O’Dwyer and Gary Mckinnon.

(full interview text).


U.S. Government Planned Indefinite Detention of Citizens – Suspension of Constitution, Spying on Americans and Other “Post-9/11 Realities” LONG BEFORE 9/11 – Published on Washington’s Blog, by , August 23, 2012;

First Nations Property Ownership Act just White Paper lite, on, by ÂPIHTAWIKOSISÂN, AUGUST 23, 2012;

Gaza versus the Warsaw Ghetto: Double Standards in Assessing Crimes against Humanity, on Global, by Felicity Arbuthnot, August 23, 2012;

Fixing the Mortgage Mess in America: The Game-changing Implications of Bain v. MERS, on Global, by Ellen Brown, August 22, 2012;

I Will Stand Up For You If You Stand Up For Me, on Wasgington’s Blog, August 22, 2012;

som sabadell: flash mob – ode to joy, on YouTube.

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