A new kind of torture?

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1999

Earlier this week, the European Court of Human Rights sanctioned the extradition of five terror suspects to the US, with one individual remaining under review. The suspects include Babar Ahmed, the longest detained British national without a trial since the CPS decided that he could not be prosecuted: he awaits extradition on charges of providing material support to terrorists, forming plots with US citizens and money laundering. Syed Ahsan faces the same charges, whilst Adel Abdul Bray and Khaled Al-Fawn, past aides to Osama bin Laden, are accused of promoting violent Jihad. The most infamous, however, is Abu Hamza, the radical Muslim cleric convicted and jailed in the UK for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder.

These guys are a pretty nasty bunch. The ‘gay cure’ scandal that broke this week revealed a troubling streak of contempt for liberal values, but that shrinks to the level of schoolyard name-calling compared to these five; they told people to go out and kill others for enjoying freedoms that we take for granted. For students who have grown up surrounded by tolerant debate, it’s hard to picture the kind of mentality in which it makes sense to go out and kill people for some moral infraction: it’s a terrifying mindset that certainly does warrant a judicial response.

Yet the decision in Strasbourg to turn down the appeal of these men against their extradition is unsettling. Their destination will likely be the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, also known as the “Supermax” prison. Home to 360 inmates, the prison holds those criminals deemed the most dangerous in the US: convicted terrorists; gangsters; militant anti-government extremists.

The actions of these suspects were appalling, whether potential or realised, but the prison to which they are being sent is enough to make one uncomfortable. Inmates are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, with an hour to exercise, and are observed for a full 24. Each cell is 7ft x 12ft, with a partially blocked window, and contains a shower, toilet, writing desk and a mirror. Compared with some prisons, these living conditions seem comfortable: inmates even have limited access to television. But what marks the Supermax out is the isolation of the prisoners – solitary confinement so prolonged that it often leaves inmates with severe mental health problems, as criminologist Dr Sharon Shahev at the LSE found. Everything is done inside the cell, with contact with other human beings largely restricted to staff members. The long sentences which these men face in Supermax arguably amount to torture.

It goes without saying that punishment, ultimately the bedrock of our judicial system, is never going to be pleasant. That said, the decision of the European Court of Human Rights is misguided. These men once extradited to the US will there face a punishment more extreme than anywhere in Europe, and we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere to safeguard our civil liberties, even for those who claim to reject them. Abu Hamza is guilty of provoking terrible racial hatred and is clearly a threat to British society, but he and the other convicted men deserve more than to spend the rest of their lives in a hell that will drive at least a few of them to insanity. If even the ECHR, long derided by the right as a bunch of watery liberals, is willing to make us accessories to a whole new kind of judicial torture, then these are dark times indeed.

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