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The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax - on the anniversary of the declaration of Talha Ahsan’s freedom

On the one-year anniversary of the declaration of Talha Ahsan’s freedom, his brother Hamja publishes for the first time a letter to the House of Lords committee on extradition and an accompanying film.

The Free Talha Ahsan campaign hopes they provide insights into the abusive Supermax prison conditions that Talha endured, following his unjust extradition.

“I swear, years from now people will look back at places like Northern and marvel at how we could have ever been so heartless as to house human beings in such a place.” - Terence Ward, US attorney for Babar Ahmad, court transcript

To members of the Extradition Committee,

I am the brother of Talha Ahsan. I write out of concern at the long-term trauma and damage caused to British citizens and their families by the kind of treatment he experienced. I hope the committee gives due consideration to the severe distress that this has caused. I was shortlisted for a Liberty human rights award in 2012 for my national campaign on US-UK extradition.

Film illuminating pre-trial detention of Babar Ahmad & Talha Ahsan

The case of my brother Talha Ahsan and his co-defendant Babar Ahmad have appeared on a number of oral and written submissions as a matter of grave public concern. These include submissions from prominent organisations such as Liberty, the Center for Constitutional Rights and, indirectly, Amnesty International’s condemnation of Supermax prisons. Other high-profile extradition campaigns run by Julia O'Dwyer and David Bermingham expressed concern for the pair in their written and oral submissions.

The family-run campaigns of Talha and Babar have drawn widespread nationwide support, with 149,000 UK citizens signing an e-petition calling for Babar Ahmad to be prosecuted domestically rather than outsourcing his case to the USA. Professor Jeanne Theoharis described them as “emblems of the injustices and excesses of the war on terror at home”.1 Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, Chair of the British Institute of Human Rights, cited his case to demonstrate that our current extradition laws are “muddled, unjust, in desperate need of reform.”2

The questions of pre-trial prison conditions have been brought up several times by the committee. Yale University Law school produced a short documentary, The Worst of the Worst, on Northern Correctional Institution, where Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmad were housed for the entire duration of their pre-trial detention. It was made and published in the year of their arrival. For the first time, video access was granted to its interiors, administrators, human rights litigators, and former inmates. I urge all member of the Lords committee and public to watch this short documentary. It gives a balanced account of the Supermax conditions to which we sent British citizens Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan.

The full 30 minute documentary has been put online here

Supplementary notes to the film:

A staff member of Northern Correctional Institution is reported to have said the film is “a very accurate portrayal of their experience, in a way that no other media outlet has done.” (Yale Daily News - Lavinia Borza, 18th November, 2013)

These harsh conditions are inextricably linked to the other concerns the committee has raised, including the pressure to plea bargain. As Talha notes in his own submission, he witnessed a number of suicide attempts and extreme self-harm in the prison. Inmates were also clearly suffering from severe mentally illnesses. Suicide rates are 600% higher in US solitary confinement and self-harm is 700% higher.3 As US Senator Dick Durbin notes, 50% of all prison suicides in the US occur among those in solitary confinement, who are less than 5% of the total prison population.

The film’s director Valarie Kaur, a noted Sikh human rights advocate and interfaith activist, had earlier visited Guantanamo Bay on a delegation with the National Institute of Military Justice. Significantly, the similarities she noticed between Guantanamo and the Supermax prison near her university provided one of the prime motivations to make the film.

In phone calls and letters to me, Talha Ahsan reported that he has witnessed a number of disturbing practices which are reminiscent of those in Guantanamo which have attracted media interest and the public’s attention .

This includes the practice of “forced cell extraction” in which inmates are removed from their cell by gassing. He could hear inmates being forcibly choked.

It was reported in recent published correspondence by an inmate, DJ Taylor, and can be independently verified that the practice of forced-feeding also occurred in the Northern Correctional Institute. US Law Professor John Foreman Jr. has described how the degrading and shocking procedures and operations at Guantanamo are exports from the domestic prison system.

The UK premier of this documentary was organised by Free Talha Ahsan campaign in partnership with the International State Crime Initiative research centre at Kings College, University of London, on 16th May 2013.

Caroline Lucas MP, Amnesty International expert on US prisons Tessa Murphy, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella (two investigative journalists who run the New York-based campaign project Solitary Watch highlighting prison abuses in solitary confinement in the US) were tabled as speakers for this event, with Q & A.

The event was chaired by Dr. Ian Patel, a staff member at the International State Crime Initiative who has published investigative journalism on Talha Ahsan’s ECtHR judgement in the New Statesman. This event can be viewed here... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sEFwt822OI

For more information on the Free Talha Ahsan campaign, please visit: www.freetalha.org

If you would like Hamja Ahsan to speak about these issues at your local Stop the War group, student union, mosque, community group, please email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

[1] The Guardian online: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/23/outsourcing-terror-cases-us-trial-uk-government-talha-ahsan-babar-ahmad
[2] Open Democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/geoffrey-bindman/extradition-muddled-unjust-in-desperate-need-of-reform
[3] Evidence in document: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301742