Is it justice to lock up Babar Ahmad for so long without trial?
Babar Ahmad has spent seven years behind bars fighting a US extradition warrant. Innocent or not, he deserves a fair hearing here
On 2 December 2003, in the middle of the night, anti-terror officers from the Metropolitan police’s notorious territorial support group burst into the home of a computer programmer named Babar Ahmad in Tooting, south London. Ahmad was punched, kicked and strangled. He arrived at Paddington police station with 73 injuries to his body. Yet, just six days later, he was released without charge (and subsequently offered £60,000 compensation by the Met, which conceded that he had been the victim of a “serious, gratuitous and prolonged attack”).
However, Ahmad’s “ordeal” – to quote Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC at a recent hearing – wasn’t over. It was only the beginning of his Orwellian nightmare. Nine months later, on 5 August 2004, Ahmad was rearrested by officers from Scotland Yard acting on a US extradition warrant. The Americans accused him of running a website to raise funds for Islamist terrorists and providing material support to the Taliban, the Chechen mujahideen and al-Qaida.
For seven long years, Ahmad has languished behind bars, fighting against his extradition – under the Labour government’s “lopsided” (Nick Clegg) and “rotten” (Shami Chakrabarti) Extradition Act 2003, which allows for British citizens to be removed from the UK without the need for a court to hear if there is any actual evidence against them – and appealing to the European court of human rights to block the move. He is believed to be the longest detained British citizen – held without conviction or even charge as a “category A”, high-security prisoner for 88 months.
But might this be about to change? In June, a report by parliament’s joint committee on human rights concluded that a “most appropriate forum” safeguard should be implemented, which would allow a British judge “to refuse extradition where the alleged offence took place wholly or largely in the UK”, and called for a “requirement for the requesting country to show a prima facie case”.
Then, this month, the “Put Babar Ahmad on trial in the UK” e-petition, secured its 100,000th signature, thereby crossing the mark required to trigger a parliamentary debate. Backed by a handful of celebrities, including comedian Mark Thomas and boxer Amir Khan, and a few dozen British mosques, the Ahmad e-petition is one of only five so far to have attracted more than 100,000 signatures (but little press coverage).
So will MPs, especially those Conservatives who have been so exercised by our perceived loss of sovereignty to the European Union, now use this opportunity to denounce the very real loss of sovereignty to the US on the issue of extradition and champion the cause of a British citizen on the floor of the Commons? I am told that the Tory leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, is planning to advise members of the backbench business committee, which schedules debates on e-petitions, to ignore the Ahmad one on the grounds that it is “sub judice”. In law, sub judice – Latin for “under judgment” – refers to a case currently under trial. Yet the whole point of this particular e-petition is to highlight the fact that Ahmad has been denied and deprived of a trial in his own country, and that he has been in legal limbo for more than seven years.
The whole episode smells of a miscarriage of justice. If Ahmad is a terrorist, or linked to terrorists, why has our own Crown Prosecution Service repeatedly refused to try him? Why did the British authorities choose to free him without charge after his first arrest in December 2003, despite having a panoply of anti-terror laws at their disposal? Could it be that the “evidence” against him is nonexistent? For instance, the US justice department extradition request in 2004 drew attention to a faded, four-page tourist brochure of the Empire State Building found in Ahmad’s home by TSG officers. In fact, the brochure was picked up by Ahmad’s father on a visit to New York in … 1973. (That didn’t, however, prevent unnamed “federal officials” from using it to brief the New York Daily News in October 2004 that “Al-Qaida thugs … may have considered taking down the Empire State Building”.)
Let me be clear: I don’t know Ahmad. I’ve never met him or spoken to him. Friends of his tell me he is a “good guy” and that he “isn’t a [religious] headbanger”. They remind me that his friend and cousin Sarah Ali was one of the 67 Britons killed by al-Qaida in the 9/11 attacks. His local MP, the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, has said he is “known locally in Tooting as a caring and helpful member of our community”.
Ahmad may or may not be guilty of terror-related offences. But that isn’t the point. What matters is that the only tried and trusted method we have of establishing guilt is a trial in open court – not unsourced and unproven US allegations behind the scenes.
Our former prime minister Gordon Brown once infamously called for “British jobs for British workers”. It is time for his successor, David Cameron – who attacked the one-sided Extradition Act in opposition, and whose coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats calls for an “evenhanded” extradition process – to demand British trials for British citizens. Ahmad, like every other citizen, has a right to see the evidence against him; he has a right to a fair trial, in his own country, in front of a jury of his peers. Anything else would be a travesty of British justice.