European court halts 'terror' extraditions to US

The extradition of a British man held without trial for six years has been halted after European judges raised concerns about the harsh conditions of detention in America's high-security prisons. Babar Ahmad, a 36-year-old computer expert, is the longest serving prisoner held without charge or trial in the UK, refused bail since his arrest in August 2004 on a US extradition warrant.

In an interim ruling yesterday the court in Strasbourg said it wanted more time to examine possible human rights breaches if Mr Ahmad was transferred on charges which could mean life sentences without parole.

The case also affects the extradition of the radical preacher Abu Hamza and two other British men held on US extradition warrants in the UK.

All four men were described by the European Court of Human Rights as "alleged international terrorists", indicted on various charges.

Judges dismissed claims that US trial procedures would amount to a denial of justice, or that any of the four would be designated as "enemy combatants" and therefore exposed to a possible death penalty if convicted.

However, they said there was a real risk that, in the case of "post-trial detention", Mr Ahmad would be held at a "supermax" jail – the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, Florence, Colorado, known for short as "ADX Florence".

That raised concerns about breaches of Article 3 of the Human Rights Code on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment: "Their complaints under Article 3 concerning the stringency of conditions there for what could be the rest of their lives [raise] serious questions of fact and law of such complexity that the Court [has] to examine them on their merits," said the judges.

In the case of Abu Hamza, however, the complaint about ADX Florence did not apply as he would at most risk spending a short period of time there and only until such time as his state of health was assessed.

Mr Ahmad's lawyer, Gareth Peirce, has made urgent fresh representations to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, asking the UK government to stop immediately Mr Ahmad's extradition and put him on trial in Britain so he has the chance to prove his innocence before a jury of his peers.

Ms Peirce said: "This decision is an extremely important commentary on practices that in America are taken for granted and used across the board, including the use of extreme solitary confinement, as is the case at ADX Florence, where Mr Ahmad would be expected to go if convicted."

She said: "The case raises the most serious of questions about UK extradition to America – issues such as life without parole, solitary confinement and the death penalty."

Mr Ahmad, whose extradition was approved by the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, in November 2005, was working as a computer expert at Imperial College London at the time of his arrest.

He made headlines last year when he won £60,000 in damages from Scotland Yard after police admitted "grave abuse tantamount to torture" during his first arrest in December 2003, when he was held for six days then released without charge.

His arrest on the US warrant came eight months later.

In September 2006 the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, said there was "insufficient evidence" to charge Mr Ahmad with any criminal offence under UK law – but the US extradition documents state that "at all times material to the indictment" Mr Ahmad was resident in London.