Talha Ahsan: Behind bars for six years without charge and a family losing faith in the rule of law


The police came for Talha Ahsan six years ago. Hamja, his younger brother, was upstairs in the family’s terraced house in Tooting, south London, when officers stormed through the back door.

“By the time I came down both my parents were in tears,” Hamja recalls, sitting in the same room where the police first smashed their way into his home. “They just told me that Talha had been taken away.”

When the initial shock wore off, his parents began to console themselves with the idea that, whatever their son may or may not have done, he would at least be able to go to a court of law and try to prove his innocence.

But Talha has never been charged. Instead he has been held in a British prison for the last six years following a request from the United States who want to prosecute him for allegedly running a pro-Islamist website.

Under the extradition agreement signed with Washington, American prosecutors are under no obligation to provide any prima facie evidence showing wrong doing before they submit an extradition request. The British police – who do have to provide evidence if it is the other way around – cannot refuse, nor can the accused challenge the extradition request in a British court.

The only allegations against Talha so far are contained within a remarkably evidence-light 14-page indictment filed at a court in Connecticut. But that has been enough to keep Talha behind bars ever since. If he is successfully extradited, the likelihood is that the 33-year-old will be sent to a so-called Supermax prison where inmates spend 23 hours of the day in solitary confinement. It is a regimen that many, including a senior UN rapporteur, have described as being tantamount to torture.

In recent years Britain’s extradition agreement with the United States has come in for heavy criticism, especially with the attempts to extradite suspected cyber criminals such as Gary McKinnon or Richard O’Dwyer.

But those accused of terrorism-related offences have elicited much less sympathy, both from the public and the media. It is not lost on the Ahsan family that while Gary McKinnon is confronting a sentence in the US that is even longer than Talha’s, he has at least been granted bail to fight his extradition.

“All these basic legal precedents have been trodden on,” says 31-year-old Hamja, who gave up hopes of becoming an art curator to run his brother’s campaign full time. “Habeas corpus, that’s chucked out the window. Presumption of innocence, access to family, protection from torture – out the window. And of course there’s the government’s very first duty, to protect its citizens. That’s been chucked out of the window too.”

Perception is clearly part of the problem. Talha Ahsan and his co-accused Babar Ahmed, have had their cases lumped in with some much more unsavoury figures. When lawyers took their case to the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year – to argue that Supermax prisons would be a breach of their human rights - his fellow defendants were the hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza and two men arrested before September 11 on allegations that they had a direct involvement in the 1998 US embassy bombings in east Africa. When that challenge was thrown out the popular press ran headlines labelling all five as Muslim fanatics.

“It’s obvious that the tabloid media, as is expected, doesn’t treat us the same,” concludes Hamja.

That is not to downplay the seriousness of the allegations against his brother. According to American prosecutors he and Babar Ahmed used online aliases to help run a series of pro-Islamist militant websites that worked under the banner of Azzam Publications. One of the site servers was based in Connecticut allowing prosecutors to file charges in an American court.

Azzam shut down shortly after the September 11 attacks – as much a hostage to timing as anything else. Prior the al-Qa’ida’s assault on New York it was one of many pro-violent jihad websites. It may have espoused a millenarian and unpleasant world view, but whether it was illegal or not is difficult to tell. Named after the famous jihadist theologian Abdullah Azzam, it publicly supported the Taliban and jihadists in Chechnya – neither of whom were deemed terrorist entities at the time (the leader of the anti-Russian Chechen movement still resides in London). But after 9/11 US prosecutors wanted to arrest anyone involved in it, even once it had shut down.

Talha’s family believe the evidence of his involvement in Azzam is flimsy at best. “Firstly it’s never been established in a court of law whether Talha was on that website or involved in any way,” explains Hamja. “We’ve seen no evidence. The website itself ran from 1997 to 2001.  What that basically means is that he’s been detained for a defunct website that was offline for five years at the time of his arrest.”

Their suspicions are compounded by the fact that Talha’s co-accused – Babar Ahmed – was viciously assaulted by police officers in custody. The Metropolitan police were forced to pay-out more than £60,000 in damages when Ahmed’s family brought a successful civil claim. Talha was arrested shortly after Ahmed and yet no British prosecutors opted to bring charges against two men who have supposedly committed crimes on UK soil.

But more importantly, Talha’s family say, is the fact that he had never shown any evidence of holding extremist beliefs. “He’s a devout Muslim, but that’s not a crime,” says Hamja.

The family describe him as a shy, academic man. He excelled in school and went to Dulwich College, a private school, where he taught himself Arabic at the age of 16. He went on to study the language at the School of Oriental and African Studies and spent a year in Syria.

“When he was a boy he used to eat and read at the same time,” recalls his 67-year-old mother Farida. “I would try to tell him to stop but he would just say ‘Mummy, I can’t time is precious’”.  America’s so-called War on Terror clearly upset him. He was a regular campaigner for those held without charge at Guantanamo and could often be seen at protests. But his family say he eschewed any form of violence.

“Talha isn’t like that,” insists Hamja. “He likes Radio 4, the Beatles and Ted Hughes. He listens to Absolute 90s radio and talks about all these indie bands from the 90s. When I went to see him the other day he was listening to the Happy Mondays and reading [Zadie Smith’s novel] White Teeth.”

In 2009 he was diagnosed with Aspergers, the same autistic spectrum syndrome that Gary McKinnon suffers from. Throughout his time in prison he has written some hauntingly beautiful poetry which is now being used to publicise his cause. On Saturday his family are holding a fundraiser evening which will feature much of his poetry.

Over time the camp of supporters surrounding Talha Ahsan has grown. Politicians, human rights groups, lawyers and artists have all flocked to his cause. Two of his most public supporters are the young actor Riz Ahmed and the Scottish poet AL Kennedy.

“The fact that detention without trial can happen at the behest of a foreign government and is then authorised by our own government without seeing any evidence against the person in question is particularly horrific to me,” says Ahmed, who often reads Talha’s poems in public. “The campaign isn’t saying release these men. It’s saying we want British justice for British citizens. If these people have committed crimes on UK soil they should be tried here. That’s not a huge ask.”

For Talha’s family there is little they can do but wait. A last appeal is now winding its way through the European Court of Human Rights. If that is lost his only hope rests with the Government and whether Ministers are willing to reform the current extradition agreement with the United States.

Talha’s mother Farida, whose family had to leave India during partition and flee to Bangladesh, is not optimistic. “I have no confidence, faith or respect for politicians wherever they are,” she says. “My husband wanted to settle here because it was safe. Britain was a disciplined place, there was rule of law. But look what has happened to the rule of law now. What has happened to Britain? If my son has done something wrong, fine, charge him here and put him in a British court.”

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam