AN INTERVIEW WITH ANN
Ann is a member of SACC and a friend of some of the men who were detained indefinitely without charge or trial in Belmarsh for over 3 years. She made their acquaintance through her friend, Rachid Ramda, who is awaiting a judicial review of his case after the Government agreed to an extradition request from France. In October, Rachid will have spent 10 years as a Category A prisoner in Belmarsh High Security prison without trial or charge. Ann corresponded with some of the detainees and visited two of them when they were transferred to Broadmoor Hospital by David Blunkett. She also became friends with some of the men’s wives and families. When the men were released under control orders, she kept in contact with them and was vetted to visit five of the men. She was not able to take advantage of the vetting though, as the Algerian men under control orders along with Abu Qatada, a Jordanian, were re-detained on 11th August by the Immigration Department on the orders of the Home Office. They lived under control orders for exactly five months. As part of Blair's new anti-terror measures, proposed in the shade of the tragic events of 7/7, they now languish in legal limbo, slowly being driven mad as they await deportation to their home countries, reputed for their terrible record on human rights. Ann, in her second interview with Cageprisoners, sheds light on the recent arrests, the impact of detention and control orders on the men and their families, and sends a strong message to all Muslims who have failed to act on their behalf.
CAGEPRISONERS: Can you describe the raids on the control order men and the effect on their families?
ANN: I received a call from my friend S at 7.30am on 11th August. She was completely distraught. She told me they had taken her husband, Detainee H. She said they had taken all the men. She kept repeating this. I immediately phoned the hospital where Detainee B was a patient and asked to speak to him. I was told that he wasn’t there. I said “Of course he’s there. He will still be asleep. Please go and look”. I think I was in shock too. The nurse repeated that he wasn’t there and could tell me nothing more. I learned more of the wives stories by the end of that day.
S told me that they were awakened by the noise of the door being broken down although H managed to open it before it was destroyed. The area was surrounded with police and there were around 10 people in their small flat. I understood later that the men were arrested by Immigration officials with the help of the police. One of these officials was a woman who video recorded the entire event. S begged her to send the police away before her neighbours were alerted and this woman replied “Your neighbours know everything”. Whether this was true or not, it has had the desired effect on S.
H asked to be allowed to dress but they refused and held him while they dressed him; putting his trousers on top of his pyjama bottoms. S only realized later that she was still in her night clothes too. She was so upset because she had forgotten to ensure that H had some money. S has become quite ill and is still recovering from this terrible experience with the help of her family and friends.
I also spoke to M, Detainee G’s wife, later in the day. She told an equally horrendous story. The door knocked and a man from the tagging agency claimed he was there to check Gs tag. G is in a wheelchair. Then, when the door was opened, the Immigration officials rushed in. M and G also live in a very small flat and M appealed to the only woman in attendance to please keep the bedroom door closed as her child was asleep and she did not want her awakened to this terrible sight. However, the door was opened; the child woke up and became hysterical. This was not the first time this child has witnessed a scene like this and the child is not even 5 years old! I was told later that the BBC had appealed for anyone who had videoed any of these arrests, to get in touch with their films!
CP: What was the impact on the men?
A: I cannot bear to imagine what B must have experienced when dragged from his hospital bed and when they came for P, my friend with no arms. Since 7/7, B had believed that he would pay the price for this terrible act, despite the fact that it was British Muslims who had carried out the bombings. He knew that he and the brothers under control orders would be used as scapegoats to appease the British public. His mental health had deteriorated so badly over that last month just when he was beginning to come back to life again.
CP: How was the rest of that day for you?
A: After I had spoken to Patti, Gareth Peirce’s PA, I phoned the lady from Hhugs. She was so shocked too but went straight in to action and provided support for the wives who needed it. I then alerted all the people who I knew would be concerned. Our main worry was that the men had been arrested with a view to deporting them back to Algeria and we thought that might happen that day. No one knew where they were – not even the solicitors were informed. I felt so impotent and by the afternoon, I felt I should try and do something positive so I called the hospital again to ask about B’s belongings. Every time he is moved, he loses some of his precious possessions, and I thought I could at least try and ensure that someone had them in safe keeping. However, the nurse would not give me any information about this but he did provide me with a name and phone number which had been left with him by the men who took B. I called this number and was told it was the Immigration Department. I explained that I was a friend of B and P and that I was concerned for their safety. No one knew where they were. I was told that this could not be discussed with me until I had explained my connection in writing – an email wasn’t sufficient. I was provided with an address and was told to send it for the attention of an Immigration officer. When I got off the phone, I realized that a letter would take days to reach them so I called them back and asked for a fax number. Meantime I provided Wendy (NB: Wendy Lisboa – another supporter of the detainees) with the address and asked her to write too. She had no access to a fax machine. I typed my letter and faxed it late in the afternoon. Meanwhile, I kept was updated by Patti who sent me press releases to forward on and I also watched the news on TV. By teatime, it seemed that there was still no news of where the men were. Around 6.30pm, a very well spoken gentleman called me – he said it was a courtesy call in reply to my fax but he could give me no information as to the men’s whereabouts. He suggested I ask their solicitors and I explained that they didn’t know where they were either. I spoke about my concern for the men and particularly B as I was worried that he would not get his medication. He assured me that B would be taken care of – “it is Britain, you know”. On reflection, there are so many things I wish I had replied to this statement but in my mind at that time was the fact that when B was in Belmarsh, he did not receive his proper medication. This man repeated that this was a courtesy call and that he could tell me no more. When I persisted, he said “Madam, these orders have come from the very highest level”. I suggested I would call him back for an update but he told me not to call again. It is interesting to note that Wendy finally received a reply to her letter. Although she had written it to the address I was provided with, her reply came from the Home Office and it informed her that if she was worried about her missing friends, who they named, that she should get in touch with the Salvation Army. They also helpfully listed other organizations which help to trace missing people. Wendy was offended. It made us wonder, if an English lady was treated this way about her concerns, how must the men’s wives be treated by the Home Office.
CP: When did you find out where the men were?
A: Throughout that day and evening, Patti sent me press releases from Gareth’s office to forward on and I gained my information that way. I discovered 5 of the men, all Algerians, were in Long Lartin in Worcestershire and the other 5, 4 Algerians and Abu Qatada, who is Jordanian, were in Full Sutton in York. They have been kept in total isolation. I discovered on the internet that this prison houses the most dangerous criminals in Britain. A unit which was condemned for human habitation was reopened in Full Sutton. It is very damp and running with cockroaches. The cell doors are so corroded that they barely opened. The cell windows look out on to a brick wall so there is no natural daylight at all. It is very dark. My friend H, A and Abu Qatada are held here with two other Algerians. The men in Long Lartin fare no better. They are in complete isolation and are only allowed out of their cells for 3 hours a day. One hour for exercise and two hours for association. B, G, and P are held here with two other Algerian men unknown to me. I cannot imagine what this must be like for them. I have been told since that G cannot even get his wheelchair out of his cell as there is no access. M did visit her husband on the Monday of that week with the assistance of a Mental Health Solicitor. She said she saw B and P in the visiting room. She said they looked sad – more than sad, she added. B’s mental health has deteriorated so fast. He will not take him medication and he has now not eaten for three weeks. I know less about P and can only imagine what he is going through considering his disabilities and mental state. I speak to M often to get news of G. His mental state has deteriorated very quickly too. I write to them and, through M, I know that the men are receiving all their mail but I have had no response from any of them. I am told that they are receiving many supportive letters.
CP: How are the wives coping?
A: The wives I know are in a constant state of anxiety. H told his wife that he had been informed that only one family could visit Full Sutton at a time as there are only facilities for one visit. This negates wives travelling together by train and having each other for support on the journey. York is a 5 hour journey from London and I believe the prison is 10 miles from York. Long Lartin is a three hour journey from London but it is even more difficult to get to as there is no direct train service. Of course, this makes it more difficult for their solicitors and mental health professionals too. The men appear to have been deliberately put out of easy reach of everyone. As far as I am aware, apart from one visit by M, none of the wives have seen their husbands and rely on their solicitors and telephone contact for news. I find it particularly sad that G’s child started school on Thursday and he wasn’t there for her big day. My own grandchild has just started school too and I know what a big occasion it is was for Mum and Dad. I can’t help but compare the happy situation of my family and the sadness of G’s family.
CP: What are the men likely to face if deported?
A: I am not an expert on this topic but when B was consumed with thoughts of deportation to torture in his last month in hospital, I sourced information about the current state of Algeria. There was information overload. The details were so horrific that I had to stop searching for my own state of mind. My French friend also sent me other articles written in French that she kindly translated for me. I forwarded all this information on to Gareth’s office. There were testimonies of men who had been deported back to Algeria from other countries. Some even had personal assurances from the President that they would not be harmed. However, they were eventually arrested and tortured in unimaginable ways. One man, Mohamed Sebbar, says during his torture in 2003 “that once, during an interrogation, Colonel Hassan took out his gun and said to me: “if you do not say the truth, I kill you and you will rejoin the list of "disappeared" and God knows that we entered a lot of people on this list”. “When I said to Colonel Hassan that I had received Aman of President Bouteflika, he answered me with insults against the President and said to me: “it is we who lead the country and nobody can do as it may without us”. I am certain that this statement could just as confidently be said by Colonel Hassan today as two years ago. I could fill many books with details but I leave it to others to enlighten themselves – there is so much information out there. I cannot even put in to words my horror that a Labour Government, in a country once renowned for its Human Rights, could try to get assurances from Algeria. This is a country well known for systematic torture and the “disappearances” of its people. Can the non Muslim and Muslim British public really be honestly be assured that my friends, labelled “terrorists” by this Government will not be harmed? I leave it up to their conscience to act immediately in any way they can. There is a demonstration against deportation outside Downing Street on 3rd September. I implore anyone who can attend this demonstration to be there and let the Government know that we are in solidarity against deportations to countries with torture chambers. It is important to be aware that none of my friends have ever been charged with any terrorist crimes. They have never been questioned by the police or security services. Jordan has already reached an agreement for the return of Abu Qatada. Please support them. They are relying on us.
CP: At least seven of the men now facing deportation were previously held under control orders. The British Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, says he intends to apply these order on far more individuals in future. For those who do not know, could you tell us what the control orders entail?
A : I wish I could answer this question with some authority, but I can’t. The control orders seem to change constantly. This caused great concern for the men and their wives. They were very uncertain on what they could and could not do so they were very careful about anything they did. The order is made by the Home Secretary. This is the information from the Home Office website.
* A restriction on the use of specific things (such as communications equipment or computers),
* Limitations on people with whom an individual could associate,
* A requirement to enable a suspect’s movements to be restricted and monitored,
* A requirement to report to a specified person at particular times.
* The list is not exhaustive and restrictions will be determined on a case by case basis.
From personal experience, I am aware that the men were tagged and had a curfew from 7pm to 7am. They were called at these times by the tagging people to check there were at home. The tagging people could enter their house at any time and they had to allow the police into their house at any time to search it. No one was allowed in their homes without being vetted. This included all family and friends. The vetting procedure takes months and it is very confusing. Photographs have to be sent to the men’s solicitors and they organise the paperwork. Many people are still waiting months later to pass the vetting and in particular personal friends of the men – that is the friends who are willing to go through rigorous vetting procedures. Not everyone wants to put themselves in the spotlight like this. Many Muslims are afraid. Some of the families are finally vetted. But the delay caused so many upsets and the Home Office rules are very petty. For example, one of the men has a 4 year old child so children under 5 could enter the house, but no child over the age of 4. They all had a Home Office hotline which supposedly they could phone to ask questions regarding what they could and could not do but this line was often just a recorded message so it was hopeless. They were also allowed a landline but no mobile phones. I have been speaking on the landline to G’s wife when the Home Office phone has rang, and it was someone trying to sell kitchens! This lady tells me this often happened.
CP: How did the control orders affect the detainees in terms of their mental and physical health?
A: All the men and their families that I know had a terrible existence. They lived half lives.
H is married. When his wife’s father came to visit from abroad, he could not even enter her house so she had to travel for two hours across London to see him. While H was in Belmarsh she relied on her sisters and friends for support. Her house was always full of children but once H was released none of them could visit the house. They eventually moved to another flat and they had no help with moving. S had to help her husband carry the heavy furniture down a flight of stairs, for example, as no one could enter their house to assist.
They had to be home by 7pm in the long summer evenings and they found this really hard. Anytime they were out, they were always so anxious to be home in time. It was really stressful. Breaking any of the control orders meant that the man could be convicted and serve up to 5 years in prison. H applied for a college course but that created so many difficulties too. His first entry date came and went without any permission from the Home Office. Then he got another entry date but the Home Office wanted assurances that he would not have access to a computer and they also wanted the names of everyone else in his class. This was so humiliating for him that he never took up the placement. Can you imagine what it would have been like for him with all the other students knowing his background? Once his wife was in a bad car accident and H could not even rush to the hospital like any other husband could and had to wait on permission from the Home Office before he could go to her bedside. This is just a taste of what they have endured. These incidents happened on a daily basis.
I do not know A but I have heard through friends that he had a terrible time too. He lives out with London and the tagging people and the police visited his house on almost a daily basis putting an intolerable strain on his wife and children. It is assumed that the police had little else to do and that is why he was bothered so much. His sister lived a few minutes from him but could not enter his house for months after he was released.
G’s story is particularly harrowing. He was released a year before the rest of the men when his conditions in Belmarsh drove him insane. He suffered polio as a child and his mobility was so restricted in Belmarsh, that he was eventually confined to a wheelchair. As there was no infrastructure in the main prison to accommodate this, he was admitted to Health Care (Hell Care). He was tagged and released under House Arrest. I believe he is the only person who has lived under house arrest in Britain. His tagging did not allow him to leave his house at all and his wife had to do everything for him. They have a small child and live in a one bed roomed flat. G was not allowed a phone in the house which caused them great anguish especially with a small child. They had their Home Office hotline though and plenty of unsolicited calls from kitchen salesmen! G’s wife, M, was doing an Open University course, but then was deprived of internet access, so she had to study at the library and leave her husband to look after their child. G’s tagging did not even allow him in to his own back garden so for a year he was deprived of any fresh air. After a year living this kind of existence, the control orders came as a reprieve to this family although so many of the same restrictions still remained, at least he could leave his house and get some fresh air. This did wonders for his mental health.
The experience of Mahmoud Abu Rideh is well documented. Mahmoud had spent so many years in Belmarsh and Broadmoor. He suffered depression and post traumatic stress disorder brought on by his lengthy incarceration. He is Palestinian and a victim of Israeli torture. Mahmoud was happy to draw media attention to his situation. He felt the injustice so keenly. He was released from Broadmoor under control orders but was soon hospitalized again very shortly after this. His mum came from abroad to visit him and had to stay with him at the hospital as she was not vetted to enter his house. The pressure on his wife and family must be intolerable. He has five children and they worry every time Mahmoud leaves the house, that he might be rearrested. The children have no internet access for their school work. I spoke to Mahmoud after 7/7 and he had not left his house for over a week for fear of reprisal.
P, who is unmarried, was allocated a flat but it needed a lot of work carried out and Gareth Peirce’s staff generously gave up their weekend to paint and decorate the flat for him as they were the only people allowed access. P has no arms below his elbows. Hhugs kindly bought him a phone he could use with his disabilities but the Home Office wanted to examine it first and he waited for 4 months to have it returned. He found life very difficult too due to the restrictions. He said that old acquaintances would cross the road when they saw him coming so not to draw attention to themselves.
These control orders truly criminalise communities. I spoke to P recently and he remarked that he was still surrounded by all his belongings as he had two flat packed wardrobes that he couldn’t put together. He said the Home Office claimed it was the social work’s job and they claimed it was up to the Home Office. I said I would try to assemble them for him when I next come to London. He also could not get an identity card as the Home Office said that without hands he could not provide fingerprints so he was refused. This means that he couldn’t even join his local library. It took 4 months but I am now vetted to visit P, H, G and B. P and G also had visits from a lady from the Peace and Justice Organisation. This shows how the letter campaign when the men were still in Belmarsh really worked. Support was there for them when they were released and they appreciated it so much.
B was taken from Broadmoor against his wishes. He knew it would be very difficult, as a single man, to be on his own so much of the time. The door of the flat allocated to him had to be forced open as they had forgotten the key. There was no food and no furniture. His mental condition at the time could not allow him to stay in this flat and he was hospitalized the same evening. In the interview B has done with Cageprisoners (NB: yet to be published) he explains his feelings on the control orders far better than I can.
CP: What has been the effect of the control orders on your mental and physical health?
B: Basically, the same. In some respects, there is more strain on one’s mental state because all these conditions, one keeps worrying about failing to keep the conditions. Especially coming back at 7pm; if he wants to go somewhere, he is in constant fear of breaching one of the conditions, which makes it, after a while a big strain. The biggest thing is that I cannot have a life; everything is about meeting, arranging, visiting, having a social life, doing things. If someone is not allowed to work, not allowed to study, not allowed to have a social life, then after a while - although its better than prison, in the beginning because one has relative freedom, it becomes difficult to have a life. Everyone has difficulties; a single person is on his own in a flat, especially the brother who does not have hands, has no one to help. It is very isolating. The second thing, the ones who are married, the sisters are not allowed to have their own mothers visiting, unless they are cleared by the Home Office which has not been done yet. They have been able to go out and just come back. Other than that, there’s nothing much else for them to do, other than going to the mosque, or outside, there’s nothing for them to do.
CP: What specifically was the psychological impact of the electronic tag on these men?
A: I think you would have to experience this first hand to understand how it feels. They all said that they felt that they were tagged like a dog.
CP: Could you elaborate on what you meant when you wrote that the "Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 is condemning your friends and their families to a 'half' life?"
A: No one could live a full life under these restrictions. Again B describes this far better than I could.
B: I am allowed to go out between 7am and 7 pm. The other restriction is that I am not allowed to use the internet, not allowed to use the phone outside my residence, not allowed to use a mobile phone, not allowed to have an arranged meeting, not allowed to have visitors admitted into my residence. But if one wanted to go on a course, he would have to, through the Home Office, make an application, like they did for one of the detainees. They asked him to provide a list of all the students in his classroom. They asked him ‘Are you using the internet for the course?’ So he was never able to go on a course. Sometimes the tagging machines they don’t work properly, so some of the brothers get a visit nearly every night from the police.
CP: Financially, what provisions did the ex-detainees get and to what extent did the control orders restrict them from finding work?
A: I have already explained how difficult was for the men to continue their education. They were totally restricted from finding work because of the control orders. I would not ask them about their financial circumstances but I know that they are limited to one bank account that can be scrutinized at any time. One of the single men told me that he is given £30 a week to survive on.
CP: To what extent would you agree with Mahmoud Abu Rideh's statement that "It is just as bad to be free with a control order as it is in Belmarsh prison or Broadmoor hospital"?
A: I don’t consider myself in a position to disagree with Mahmoud’s statement. He is the one who speaks from experience so I can only agree with him. After spending years in solitary confinement it is hard to get accustomed to being around people again. I know some of the men, at first, found it very difficult to go outside and get used to traffic noise, for example. They were still all recovering from their time in Belmarsh and Broadmoor and their thoughts were still with the men left behind there. Everyone who knew any of these men before they were imprisoned, say that they are totally different people now. Most have lost so much weight and their personalities have changed. They are much quieter and introspective. They also have trouble concentrating. I imagine it will take years to recover from what they have experienced – if ever! I’m certain that they will never be able to put the injustice of their treatment behind them
CP: Did the men receive many phone calls or letters after the control orders were enforced?
A: I think only personal friends would have access to their phone numbers but I know that they did receive many supportive letters which were sent to their solicitor’s office and forwarded on to them.
CP: Did the men receive any visits?
A: I think that some of the men’s families have now passed the vetting to visit but it took so long for the Home Office to organize it. There is so much bureaucracy. CAMPACC appealed for people to go through the vetting procedure to visit the men and their families and I know of people who visited the men (prior to their arrest). One lady visited G and his wife on Fridays and enjoyed a meal with them and they would sit out in the garden in the sunshine. The men are so hospitable and I am happy that people were finding out for themselves how nice these men and their families are. This lady also visited P – she planted flowers in his garden.
CP: Could you tell us about the vetting procedure? How would concerned individuals go about applying to visit individuals under control orders?
A: This procedure is so long and tedious with the rules changing at the whim of the Home Office so I can speak with no authority on it. It is difficult enough for the solicitors to keep up with the rules. Contacting them at their office at Binberg Peirce would be the first step towards vetting. I know that photographs have to be provided with a certification on the back as would be done for a passport photograph. I had already been vetted for Belmarsh and Broadmoor yet had to go through another vetting to visit the same men under control orders. I think this says everything about how small minded the Home Office is. I often wonder about the staff there. Do they go home in the evenings to wives and children? Do they ever think of these men’s families with any compassion at all?
CP: How had the control order detainees reacted to the events of 7/7?
A: They were horrified and distressed, as were the Muslim men I know in Belmarsh. They understand the horrendous effects of bombings more than most. They come from a country where bombings are a daily occurrence.
CP: How has the new climate affected them?
A: They knew that they could be used as scapegoats to appease the British public. They were already aware that the Government intended bringing in new terrorism legislation but after 7/7, this legislation was speeded up. The Government decided to get “assurances” from countries like Algeria to allow the men to be deported. They worry so much about the repercussions for their families there. My friend B is consumed with thoughts of torture. Algeria tortures systematically and people disappear there without trace. I had no words to console him. I shared his fear. They were also so despondent that Britain would resort to diplomatic assurances from their country which is renowned for its human rights abuses. This made them feel hopeless.
CP: What are your concerns about the new legislation the Government has proposed in response to these events?
A: I am concerned for everyone in Britain. I think that arguing against this legislation could be construed as supporting terrorism – we could all fall in to the net. All Muslims and non Muslim human rights activists will be affected.
CP: In April of this year, the Home Office ruled to extradite Rachid Ramda to France, what was your reaction to this news?
A: I cannot find words for my feelings when Rachid told me the news. I had lived in hope that he would be released from Belmarsh and everyone would get the opportunity to find out what an exceptional man he is. I feel that he has been held hostage there. I know a little about his case and was aware that the evidence against him was extracted through torture. It has to be noted that Parliament approved recently that evidence extracted through torture, as long as Britain was not complicit in this torture, was acceptable. Even writing this fills me with horror. Imagine living in a country where the majority of our members of Parliament voted for this! Torture even seems acceptable to a large part of the media now too. They speak about it so lightly. Coincidentally, on the day the decision was made by the Home Office to agree to France’s request to extradite Rachid, Amnesty International released a report on the abuses of North African Muslims in police custody.
CP: What are your fears if he were to be extradited?
A: I try not to dwell on this and try to stay positive. I think it is understandable that the families of the victims of the bombings want justice for the people killed and maimed in these terrible attacks, but I don’t think Rachid would be treated fairly in France. He is demonized there. They have already written the judgement on Rachid, I think. However, many people in France, particularly the Muslim community are aware that the Algerian junta was implicated in the bombings that Rachid is accused of financing. Rachid has such a love for his fellowmen that I find it inconceivable that he would be involved in this.
CP: What is the status now of Rachid's case?
A: Rachid is waiting on a judicial review of his case and we expect a date for this very soon.
CP: Could you comment on the coverage of Rachid's case in the international media?
A: The French media are so prejudicial to Rachid’s case. For example, it was claimed in a television news report there that he had written his tsunami poem, which is on the Cageprisoners website, about 9/11! The media seem to be totally unrestricted on what they write about Rachid. His trial would be a political show trial – a kangaroo court, I think.
CP: What treatment would Rachid expect to receive in France?
A: Rachid could be held for over a year before he is sent to trial. After 10 years spent in Belmarsh, it is unbearable to think that his ordeal isn’t over. In fact, it is continuing relentlessly. It is a miracle to me that he is still sane after what he has endured in Belmarsh. It shows his strength of faith. Yet, being aware of his proposed extradition, has not affected him as much as the pain he feels for the men who were held under the Anti-Terrorism 2001 Act. He is more concerned for them. It is a big worry to me that Rachid could eventually be deported from France to Algeria.
CP: Can you tell us about your last visit to see Rachid?
A: This visit was the twelfth time I have met Rachid. He is always one of the last to be allowed in to the visiting room and sometimes our 2 hour visit only lasts for an hour and twenty minutes. Everyone is aware of him as soon as he walks in to the visitor’s room. He has such a presence. He always has a big smile on his face and wants all the news of what is happening in the “unreal” world. If he is low in spirits, he never shows it to me. With Rachid, I forget my surroundings as he is such good company and always so animated. He greets me in a Scottish accent to make me laugh. He gets lessons from the many Scottish inmates in Belmarsh. He says he has met men now from over 70 countries in this prison. Lots of Muslim visitors pile our table high with drinks and chocolate although all Rachid wants is a fruit juice. He is not allowed to take anything back to his cell. Sometimes one of my other friends in Belmarsh is sitting quite close to us, and if I get the opportunity, I always have a quick word with him too. It is so nice to put a face to the men I write to. They never look at all like I imagine them. They are always so much younger than I expect. On my last visit to Rachid I told him all about the demonstration that we had for him and the men threatened with extradition. He wanted every detail. When he gets back to his block the other men are waiting to hear all the news through him of the world outside the prison.
I don’t look at the clock. The only sad part is when the time is up and I have to leave. You feel sadness all around you at this point. We all wave to each other until we are out of sight. The men are then all stripped searched before they are taken back to their block and I expect this must hang heavy on their minds through the entire visit.
It takes a long time to get through the security checks to leave Belmarsh and when I finally get outside, I take a big breath of fresh air. The rest of my day is spent telling everyone about my visit. This is really so hard for us all. Here am I – a non Muslim Scottish woman who can spend precious time with Rachid and his dear friends can only have news of him through me. They all treat me so kindly but I feel their pain. I also write to Rachid’s mum and tell her all about my visits to Rachid. I hope she sees him soon as this is the most important thing in life to both Rachid and his mum.
CP: How is Rachid at present, what is his physical and psychological state?
A: Physically, Rachid suffers pain constantly in most of his joints and particularly his ankles. This is due to the six and a half years he spent in the Special Secure Unit, where his mobility was restricted. His eyesight is affected too by the constant use of artificial light. Psychologically, he has lost concentration and he is very forgetful. He says he survives by ignoring the chaos around him. I am amazed that he can study for an Open University course. He does the call to prayer and sometimes takes the service on a Friday. He has a melodious voice. He must be so conditioned to prison life and so institutionalized that he will take years to recover. His one wish is to hold his mum in his arms. I think if Rachid could get his wish, he could survive anything. His family is now trying for the thirteenth time, to get a visa to visit Rachid, but this is taking so long but at least this time, they have not been refused so far. They have to arrange passports first and bureaucracy in Algeria is holding this up.
CP: In January of this year, Cageprisoners.com published Mustapha Labsi's story, what updates have there been on this tragic case?
A: Mustapha is still waiting on the documentation to allow Abdullah to come back to Britain. It is all so confusing. I try to help him find out what is holding this up and I have spoken to many departments involved. Each blame the other for the delays. One problem was getting Abdullah a passport and having his maternal grandmother certified as his next of kin. This involved a lot of bureaucracy in the country he now lives in. What I find hard to understand is how they managed to get Abdullah out of the country with no obvious problems yet arrangements to return him has lasted years. Mustapha worries that he does not even speak the same language as his son now and their telephone conversations are made difficult because of this. Mustapha is constantly told to have patience and he seems to have no choice than this. He remains optimistic and is always so cheerful when I speak to him. I remain hopeful too that Mustapha and his wee boy will be reunited before the end of the year.
CP: What can concerned members of the public do to assist the detainees facing deportation or those still incarcerated in Belmarsh?
A: All these men need our support. Writing to them will keep their spirits high and they appreciate every letter they receive even although they sometimes find it difficult to concentrate to reply. Often their letters do not reach their destination. Sometime the letters people write to them never reach them either. One man I know wrote to some of the men for the first time on 17 June. They only received his letters in the middle of August! So often the men don’t know someone has written to them and if their correspondents don’t receive their replies, communication stops. The letter writer thinks that the man is unwilling to carry on the correspondence. I am certain this is a deliberate move to stop any support for these men. The men under control orders would have received all their mail though unless the Royal Mail let them down. Also Hhugs helps the men and their families in so many different ways and I am sure they will always appreciate extra funds.
I think writing to our MPs is very important too. When I write to my MP, he writes on my behalf to the Home Secretary. At least this action allows the Home Secretary to know that there is opposition to his policies and there are people who oppose his proposed legislation. Writing letters to newspapers regarding the treatment of the men will also highlight their situation to a wider audience. I know all this is time consuming but it is really important to help these Muslim men. They have no families in this country to start campaigns for them and their solicitors are too busy with the legal side to be of any use in this regard. It must be remembered that none of these men have been charged with terrorist offences. Some of them have spent years in Belmarsh with only a few hours out of their cells every day. Can you imagine their sense of injustice? Can you imagine how much they are relying on people like us to help them – they have no one else. So I implore everyone to consider this, especially the Muslim community. These men are treated in this manner because they are Muslims and I find it so sad that their plight is being ignored by leading Muslim organizations. I often wonder why this is. I hope one day to get the chance to ask their leaders personally.
Since it has been discovered that the 7/7 bombings were carried out by British Muslims, I hope these organizations will take note that my friends are the second wave of victims for the horrendous crimes of men born and bred in British Muslim communities. Although many Muslims say to me that these men are in their prayers, personally, I don’t think this is sufficient. They need more than prayers. These innocent men need action before it is too late for them.
CP: Can you sum up your feelings?
A: I feel that B, who was interviewed for Cageprisoners less than six weeks ago, can sum up my feelings far more eloquently than me. This interview breaks my heart as B is now in such a bad mental state he has lost touch with reality. I know that even if the men are released, they will never recover. They and their families will live with the constant fear of the next dawn raid. Please empathise with them – can you imagine trying to survive in a life dictated by fear?
It keeps my spirits raised to have such strong support from SACC, CAMPACC, Hhugs and Islamic websites and organizations like Cageprisoners, Stop Political Terror and the Islamic Human Rights Commission. But to be honest - and I apologise if I cause offence - I am told constantly about the Ummah (the Islamic nation), yet I don’t recognize it apart from the support from these groups and thankfully the many individual people of the Islamic faith who work tirelessly on their brothers and sisters behalf. My friends have had little support from the Muslim community and in particular the leading Islamic organizations. I speak from experience. I notice many British Muslims only woke up when Babar Ahmad was taken – even Babar himself has said since that he did not take any notice when the men were detained indefinitely in 2001. He just assumed they were all terrorists. Hopefully recent events have made the Ummah more self-aware. I live in hope that they will shout from the rooftops about the unrelenting cruelty suffered by my friends. They are being used as “whipping boys” to appease the British public. They abhorred the horrendous acts of 7/7 and 21/7 as much as us and with more first hand experience. They are Algerians and understand better than most the effect on the population of a country where bombings are a daily occurrence. The Muslim men incarcerated in Belmarsh awaiting extradition were deeply distressed by these events too and they should not be forgotten. My dear friend, Rachid Ramda, is awaiting a decision on an extradition request from France, after 10 years in Belmarsh without charge or trial, on evidence extracted through torture. Time is fast running out for Rachid but I live with hope that sanity will prevail and all the men awaiting deportation and extradition will be comforted with the knowledge that we are united in our fight against these injustices.
When I read media reports referring to these men as “preachers of hate” and that are a threat to national security, I don’t recognize this description of the men awaiting deportation and extradition. The men I know are full of love and compassion for their fellow men. They have never once preached to me and I am full of respect and gratitude that my knowledge of Islam comes through my friendship with these men and their families and the example they set. I recognize the Ummah here in their lives.
I leave the last words to my dear friend, B, a victim of a civilised Britain 2005.
CP: What message do you have for our readers – the Muslims and non-Muslims alike?
B: I say that, please inform yourself and inform everybody that you know about what is facing the Muslims in this country. Let’s have more of this Unity March and let’s invite non Muslims. Stop targeting the Muslim the community - this should be the title of the marches and also the campaign that one should go for in the future – ‘Stop Targeting Us.’ Let’s hear from our brothers and sisters and the non Muslims around us. This new legislation that is coming, there is more injustice. The ones that went before, everyone could see the injustice because it was indefinite detention without trial, control orders without trial or charge. Basically, it was punishment without trial. The ones that are coming now are about trials, are about convictions but will be false convictions. Because their charges or the allegations will be so broad, that anyone will fall into it. So I think we need more of this Unity March, saying to the Government - the politicians that, ‘We know what you are doing. Stop telling us that you are targeting only the terrorists or the minority who want to fight our values” and all this nonsense that we hear every time the politicians come on the TV’. We say to them, ‘We believe that you are trying to target us all, not just a few people, not the so-called terrorists’. We want the Muslims and the non-Muslims to be aware of it and come to this Unity March. Do it again, even if necessary, many times during the year, with families attending too.
CP: Ann, thank you for speaking to us.