Celebrating Talha Ahsan's poetry and freedom on National Poetry Day 2015
Shortly after Talha Ahsan's extradition to the United States in 2012, his brother Hamja reads Talha's prison poetry at the Stop the War Naming the Afghan Dead vigil in Trafalgar Square.
NATIONAL poetry day seems an apt time to remember the British poet Talha Ahsan who returned home to his family in London from the United States last year as a freeman.
When he was in a Supermax death row prison in Connecticut Northern Correctional Institution, I wrote to him expressing solidarity on 2 April 2013 and encouraging him to continue to write his poetry. He wrote back to me on 21 April in a neatly handwritten letter on lined paper.
In spite of the grave situation he was in with solitary confinement in a supermax prison, his letter was lucid and reflective. He showed deep appreciation of all those who had supported him during his incarceration over eight years.
This included many national and local branches of Stop the War coalition and MPs such as Caroline Lucas and Jeremy Corbyn.
I had asked him if I could send him my friend Mike Marqusee's poetry collection Street Music. He appreciated the gesture but felt that given the burden of his legal work, it was likely to remain unread.
It was in August, when Hamja his brother suggested to his supporters to send an Eid present. So I sent him the book anyway. I received a deeply appreciative reply on 24 of August. His last paragraph revealed his empathy for others and his endurance.
'It is tough here but there are others in far worse circumstances. At least I no longer have to wear leg irons for showers. During the lockdowns though, I am handcuffed behind my back and tethered to leg shackles. It is policy to undergo a strip-search (including squat and cough) every time an inmate leaves his cell: visits, recreation, phone call. But memory and imagination are great savannahs for the individual human being as your friend, Mr Marqusee, knows very well.'
Following that Mike also wrote to him and sent him books. When Mike passed away in January this year, Talha wrote a wonderful tribute to him, Je suis Mike Marqusee. He ended this by saying:
'That his books enriched the mind of a stranger reading on the other side of the world in solitary confinement is perhaps the greatest testimony to Mike's legacy.'
From the time of his arrest till his return back home, Talha had spent more than eight years in one prison or another. Six of these were without trial or charge, or prima-facie evidence in high security units in HMP Belmarsh and HMP Long Lartin. At the behest of the US government, this was one the longest detentions without trial in British legal history.
An e-petition petition that gathered 149,000 signatures, calling for Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad to have a trial in the UK, was not heeded.
The responsibility lay with the British state which denied him a fair trial. The extradition process itself was a travesty of justice.
Jeremy Corbyn and Moazzem Begg speaking against Talha's extradition on the final court day
Talha wrote to me that he hoped there would be a genuine reform of the extradition legislation to protect the sovereignty of British citizenship. This would be through the introduction of a robust forum bar, meaning a judge could simply say a domestic trail would be the fair option.
After all, Talha had never actually set foot on US soil prior to his extradition. Unfortunately, this has yet to happen. He was happy for the families of Gary McKinnon and Richard O'Dwyer who were spared extradition. There was no rancour or bitterness here. It was clear to anyone that there were double standards of justice at work here. Like Gary McKinnon, Talha has Aspergers but this did not spare him from extradition and tortuous solitary confinement. I would also argue that there is institutional racism at work here.
In extraditing him the United States, the British state has outsourced justice to the US criminal justice system where plea bargains rather than fair trial prevail in 97% of federal cases.The system was condemned widely as unacceptable -- from Fair Trials International to Conservative MPs like David Davis and even UKIP's Nigel Farage.
Even US judges like Jed Rakoff are now speaking out on US plea-bargain system.
There was never a case against Talha to begin with. As his UK lawyer Gareth Peirce, in a recent presentation on extradition and human rights, explained, Talha was totally innocent of any terrorist activity yet the plea-bargain system coupled with indefinite solitary confinement many thousands of miles away from home was effectively a gun to the head to give in to a plea-deal to return home.
The material support charge, which the plea-deals involved were later integrated into the US patriot act in even harsher measures.
The statute appears in most domestic prosecutions has been described as the "blackbox" of terrorism prosecution . The charge is overly vague and could be applied to any dissent, even activities such as charity-giving and translation. Indeed, the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU says that it effectively criminalises activity previously protected under basic constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. Talha never actually engaged in, or endorsed, threatening actions. As Gareth Peirce concludes, Talha simply should never has been in prison in the first place.
I often think how Talha coped with those eight years of incarceration. It indicates that he had faith and inner strength to withstand this onslaught on his life and freedom. To quote verses from his poem Extradition (2011)
To Florence prison I'll be sent away
It doesn't matter what will be my time.
No prison ever can be called my home,
However long they put me in a cell.
A higher power occupies me here
Who's closer to me even over there.
Avaes Mohammad reads Talha's poem Extradition
I always wonder why Talha and Babar Ahmad were targeted. One of the overriding reason could be that the government was determined to set an example by isolating two young Muslim activists who were concerned with injustices that Muslim communities suffered across the world globally.
In this case, it was the genocidal conflicts against muslim populations in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan that concerned them, expressed via a family of websites long obsolete many years before their arrest. Websites that now the US government admits, Talha did not even type a word, proof-read or even edit.
What was remarkable about Talha was the campaign to free him led over the years by his brother Hamja. Hamja often read Talha's poetry across the poetry and activity across the UK whilst his brother remained incarcerated.
Eminent writers such as Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay, even Mike Marqusee himself and A.L. Kennedy read Talha words at festivals and literary events.
Maintaining his sense of humour, Talha even wrote a satirical love sonnet to Home Secretary Theresa May on the eve of his extradition. The campaign's imaginative strategy using the social media, film, art, poetry and public meetings had a great impact in taking the campaign forward. This lead to Hamja Ahsan being shortlisted for a LIberty Human Rights Award. This family support was undoubtedly vital.
Talha has a gift that of his poetry. I want to end this by quoting a poem by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmat who spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. The poem is entitled My Poetry written in 1935.
I don't have a mount with a saddle worked in silver,
I have no private means, no property, no land.
All I have is a pot of honey.
Its colour redder than fire a pot of honey!
My honey is all I have...
I keep my property and land, my pot of honey,
I mean- safe from vermin.
But wait, friend, wait...
While I have honey in my pot
the bees will come
from as far away as Baghdad...
Talha has his 'pot of honey' - his poetry. May he long continue to write it and share it with us.
Saleh Mamon is part of CAMPACC - a UK civil liberties group.
- To find out more on Talha Ahsan case visit the campaign website.
- Talha Ahsan prison poetry booklet can be purchased here
- A further anthology of writing featuring poetry, speeches and short stories written for the Free Talha campaign is planned.
Source: Stop the War Coalition