Editorial | Beyond Kafka: this unjust detention and extradition of UK citizens must end
Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 0:00 - 8 Comments
By Hicham Yezza
“we are being slowly eased into a world where we are all potentially guilty until we can prove otherwise.”
In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K, the central character, is driven to paranoia and despair after finding himself charged with an unnamed offence about which no evidence is ever presented. Kafka wrote what he thought was a grotesquely exaggerated parable to show us what can go wrong – and how easily so – when societies lose their power to hold rulers accountable. Yet little did he know that, barely half a century on, his attempt at far-fetched dystopia would be rendered not just a banal plausibility but a hardened, crude reality for countless innocents across the world.
The idea that anyone could be detained on suspicion of a crime of whose nature they cannot be told, the evidence for which they cannot see, would have seemed preposterous to the 13th century drafters of the Magna Carta let alone to a notionally “civilised” modern society such as 21st century Britain. And yet, this is precisely the sort of moral quagmire we have sleepwalked into.
Last week, I took part in a discussion programme (“The World This Week“, presented by Phil Rees) that touched upon the subject of the detention without charge of UK citizens. In particular, the programme focused on the fact that many of the people affected, such as Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, are facing the serious prospect of being extradited to the United States, all for alleged crimes taking place in the UK.
It’s important to note that we are not talking here about someone being detained for a few hours, or even days, while urgent investigations are being carried out – which would have had at least some semblance of logic. In fact, most of these men have been held for years: five years in the case of Talha Ahsan, eight in the case of Babar Ahmad, and twelve for two others – all of whom, let us remember, have not been charged with any crime whatsoever.
The case of Talha Ahsan, a poet and first class SOAS graduate, who suffers from Asperger’s, is worth highlighting for being both representative of the others and indicative of the sheer senselessness of what passes for due process in this country.
Despite having spent half a decade in prison, Talha has, to this day, seen no charges being levelled againt him, nor has he ever been questioned by either UK or US police. Furthermore, his lawyers are yet to be granted the chance to see any evidence against their client, and have thus been left with the task of fighting shadows and spectres.
As if the Kafkaesque parallels couldn’t get any more poignant, fate has decreed that the last book Talha read before his arrest was… Franz Kafka’s The Trial. As his brother, Hamja, later pointed out, Talha “never finished it and I had to return the overdue copy to the Library”. (Poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad read a section to mark the 5th year of Talha’s detention without trial, available online here – from 5:57m in).
Predictably, Talha’s predicament, and that of the others, has met with almost total indifference by their own government. For all his rhetorical flexing of patriotic muscles, David Cameron (like Blair and Brown before him) has shown himself to be a meek and docile servant to US interests.
Instead, the coalition’s much vaunted civil liberties agenda – supposedly providing a corrective swerve to New Labour’s decade-long assault on our freedoms – has so far given us the brilliant prospect of seeing every text, email and phone-call we ever make being recorded and monitored by the State. In effect, we are being slowly eased into a world where we are all potentially guilty until we can prove otherwise.
These are not issues restricted to Muslim Britons either. Two prominent cases are those of Richard O’Dwyer and Gary McKinnon, whose planned extradition rests solely on the premise they represent a serious, existential threat to the United States. This is the same United States whose government (as I mention in the programme) was revealed as recently as two weeks ago to have been training, on U.S. soil, members of the MEK, an Iranian opposition organisation which figures on its own list of terrorist groups.
I recommend that readers watch the contributions by my co-guests, Hamja Ahsan (brother of Talha) and Makbool Javauid (human rights lawyer), who both provide an excellent summary of the cases and a bleak glimpse into the threats facing civil liberties in this country. As prominent lawyers, legal experts and civil liberties campaigners have pointed out, UK citizens, whatever their colour, creed or political persuasion, should be tried in their own country, based on evidence they can see and challenge. Anything less is simply not good enough.
Indeed, had this been a story from China or Russia, the obviousness of such a straightforward demand would have made any further commentary redundant. And yet, we allow for this to happen on our shores, and in our name. We pretend that defending these men is not our responsibility, that their persecution is not a seal of shame on our justice system, that their tragedy is someone else’s problem.
Indeed, that these men – who remain innocent until further notice – have been allowed to languish in prison for years without a public outcry is a sad indictment of how far we’ve slumped towards accepting an official line that tells us we’re facing an overwhelming, imminent “security threat” about to engulf us all, and that we must sell our freedoms – hard-earned over centuries of struggle against the powerful – on the cheap to keep this threat at bay. Alas, it seems most of us have bought into the idea that destroying these and other people’s lives is a price worth paying for a false sense of “peace” and “security”.
As such, we ought to keep in mind another, less mentioned, aspect of Kafka’s famous novel: the tragic essence of Joseph K’s predicament is not that he is facing a faceless, sadistic bureaucratic monster, against whom all resistance seems utterly futile, but that he is facing it alone.
Still, whereas we aren’t able to do much about the fictional Joseph K, there remains a lot we can do to help the real-life Joseph Ks suffering in the here and now: Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Richard O’Dwyer, Gary McKinnon and others. For instance, we can support initiatives such as the meeting due to be held tomorrow, on May 23rd in London, to raise awareness of Talha’s case and that of the others. You can also support Caroline Lucas MP’s Early Day Motion on the subject, or by simply getting informed, and helping inform others, about these issues.
This is possibly one of our very last opportunities to redress a colossal injustice and stand up for the civil liberties we claim as our own. We shouldn’t waste it.