Talha Ahsan is suspected of being a terrorist. He has languished in British custody since 2006. He has Asperger’s syndrome and he is fighting extradition to the US, where he could be sentenced to 70 years’ solitary confinement. The extradition treaty says US authorities don’t need to give proof of their suspicions to get their suspect.
“My son did nothing.”
The phone line suddenly feels heavy, burdened with the weight of the conviction conveyed in those four words.
Seconds later, the sound of muffled tears is unmistakable.
I’m grateful for the distance of the morass of cables and wires that make up the phone line.
I fix my eyes to my notepad.
There, her words stare back at me, docile.
The line crackles and then clears again.
I look up from my notepad, ready.
She breathes in audibly, steadying herself, I guess.
I offer pithy words of comfort, urging her to be strong, willing her to tell the story of her son.
She is Farida Ahsan, a 67-year-old woman from Tooting in South London. She is also an aggrieved mother. Her son, Talha, the third of four children, is a British terror suspect.
Syed Talha Ahsan was arrested by British authorities on 19 July 2006. The authorities had received an extradition request from their American counterparts. He has been in prison ever since. He has never been questioned by British authorities, never charged with a crime. His culpability has never been established in a court of law. The controversial extradition agreement between the US and the UK does not require the Americans to hand over even prima facie evidence in their extradition requests.
“He is a very clever boy,” Farida tells me proudly. His record is certainly admirable. He was educated at Dulwich College, a leading private school in south London, and graduated with first-class honours from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is an accomplished poet, an aspiring writer. Last year he wrote to Guardian columnist AL Kennedy asking her advice on how best to transfer his skills to short fiction.
Later on, his brother, Hamja, tells me their growing-up years were spent bonding over computer games, Kurt Cobain and a love for books. “We liked things like books and poetry. Middle-class Asian, immigrant children are brought up to become professionals, doctors and lawyers. The working-class children work in restaurants and drive taxis,” Hamja says.
Hours earlier, Farida told me Talha would bring his books to the dinner table, refusing to pause even for dinner.
“We were misfits in out working-class Asian background,” Hamja concludes. But even their bond would have to make room for the quirks of their own personality. “Each of us increasingly preferred being alone the older we got. I like art. He liked writing,” Hamja says.
It was, religion, however that would drive the greatest wedge in the relationship between the two brothers. While Talha grew more religious, studying religious texts and eschewing the earthly pleasures of music, Hamja defines himself as “irreligious”.
“I think we both admire each other’s devotion to improve our knowledge of the world, and to help those less fortunate than us,” Hamja says.
The family visits Talha in prison every Sunday. He calls them almost daily. “My brother likes being updated not just on the plight of others but also on new books and events when I visit him in prison,” Hamja says.
Writing about his relationship with his brother from prison in an as-yet unpublished feature for Emel magazine, Talha says the brothers have been united by a fierce sense of justice.
“Over the years we have been deeply concerned by the extreme behaviour of the American government in its radical understanding of promoting freedom,” he says.
“Through campaigning against their injustices we have met the likes of Moazzam Begg, the Guantanamo survivor, and an inspiration to us both. It is perhaps ironic that the last rare joint activity [we had] was attending a demonstration for Babar Ahmad outside his High Court hearing. A week later I was arrested.”
Last Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain could extradite Talha as well as another five terrorism suspects to the United States.
“It is a disturbing judgment,” Hamja tells me matter-of-factly.
US authorities accuse Talha of operating a series of now-defunct websites between 1997 and 2004 –azzam.com, azzam.co.uk, qoqaz.net, and qoqaz.co.uk. These sites were allegedly used to recruit people to join Chechen and Afghan rebel fighters allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. US authorities also claimed that Talha helped to raise money for these groups by distributing books, videotapes, audio cassettes and CDs promoting jihad.
Talha is accused in the same case as Babar Ahmad, the man whose arrest he had been protesting just a week before he was detained. American prosecutors allege the pair ran a jihadi website from London but hosted it on American servers.
“We are living in the UK since 1964, we don’t know what it’s like in America,” Farida says. “The law is different there,” she points out. “We are very much afraid but we are definitely going to appeal.”
If convicted in the US, Talha could face more than 70 years in solitary confinement in the ADX Florence prison in Colorado, touted a “Supermax” facility.
In the three months leading up to the appeal, Hamja has resigned himself to placing his own life on hiatus. He’s now a buffer between Talha and his parents. When I tell him his mother told me Talha was in high spirits, despite the European court ruling, he says Talha is loath to tax his parents. They are aged and sickly.
“With me he is much more frank,” he says. Hamja also now serves as a conduit between his brother, the media, the lawyer and his family. His own life is now dedicated to fighting for his sibling’s rights.
Frances Webber, Vice-Chairman of the Institute of Race Relations says the Strasbourg court’s judgment comes as a bitter disappointment not only to the families and supporters of those involved but to all human rights activists.
“The conditions were described by a former warder as a ‘clean version of hell’, a sterile, concrete bunker where animal needs (food, clothing, shelter) are met but human needs for communication, activity and contact are scarcely acknowledged,” she says.
For Talha, the conditions awaiting him in the US may be especially damaging. In 2009 prison authorities diagnosed him with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. In a legal, medical report, Dr Quinton Deeley recommended Talha receive specialist care for his condition.
“It should be noted that by virtue of his Asperger’s syndrome and depressive disorder, (Talha) is an extremely vulnerable individual who, from a psychiatric perspective, would be more appropriately placed in a specialist service for adults with autistic disorders and co-morbid mental health problems, with a level of security dictated by his risk assessment,” he said.
Researchers say diagnoses of Asperger’s are increasing faster than those of any other developmental disorder. People with Asperger’s are often highly intelligent, and many have an accomplished grasp of complex systems, causing researchers to study a possible link between autism and engineering. Crucially, however, Asperger’s sufferers have severe difficulty reading social cues and grasping the impact of their often-obsessive behaviour.
Talha’s diagnosis makes him quite similar to the case of Gary McKinnon, who has been a cause célèbre for activists fighting Britain’s controversial extradition treaty with the US. McKinnon is accused of repeatedly hacking into the computer systems of the US military. American attorney Paul McNulty is reported to have called McKinnon’s campaign “The biggest military computer hack of all time.”
McKinnon claimed that UFOs were the reason for his hack. He was convinced the government was hiding alien anti-gravity devices and advanced energy technologies. He said he planned to find and release the information for the benefit of humanity. He claimed he was discovered just as he was downloading a photo from Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre of what he believed to be a UFO.
Like Talha, McKinnon now faces extradition to the US. Both men were diagnosed with Asperger’s after their arrest. McKinnon’s lawyers argue his criminal behaviour was a result of his disorder. They have asked courts to judge him with leniency as a result. Talha’s case, however, has not yet benefited from such appeals for special consideration.
“What we are saying is, let a British court decide whether he is innocent or guilty,” Hamja says. His brother’s case presents an acid test of the commitment of the state, including its courts to protect fundamental human rights – even in the name of fighting terrorism. As discontent with Britain’s extradition treaty grows, the Labour Party’s justice spokesman, who is incidentally also the MP for Tooting, is pressing the home secretary for both Talha and Babar Ahmad to be charged in Britain.
“My son is a very patient boy,” Farida says. Her voice chokes up again. DM