In the first interview with a detainee under the government’s emergency powers, Martin Bright reveals the life of a father trapped in legal limbo
Sunday August 29, 2004
An Algerian in his late thirties walks nervously into a prison chapel at Woodhill high-security jail in Milton Keynes. For some reason, the authorities have decided that a Christian place of worship is the best place for this devout Muslim to tell his story.
But the venue is the least of the problems for Mr A, who has been certified by Home Secretary David Blunkett as a terrorist: an Islamist extremist with links to Chechen rebels, Algerian armed groups and at least one known al-Qaeda suspect held in Britain.
We cannot name Mr A because his anonymity is protected by a court order to guarantee the safety of his family in Britain and Algeria. Along with 11 other foreign detainees incarcerated under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, he exists in a penal no-man’s-land and can be kept in jail indefinitely.
He is charged with no offence by a British police officer, convicted of no crime by a jury, but judged such a risk to the public by MI5, the security service, that he can be detained until Blunkett judges the ‘war on terror’ is over. No hard evidence has to be produced to back the intelligence service claims.
‘Just imagine a British man held indefinitely in Algeria,’ he says. ‘This is a slow death and they are destroying my mind.’
Dressed in a green T-shirt, beige chinos and trainers, Mr A looks tidy and well groomed. Close-cropped beard and neat, curly black hair also suggest he is keeping body and soul together. But throughout the two-hour interview one leg jigs unconsciously with nervous ten sion, a sign of the well-documented trauma which comes from indefinite detention.
Unlike convicted terrorists, who leave prison at the end of their sentences, this father of five could be in jail for ever.
After two-and-a-half years in custody, Mr A has finally been authorised to talk to the press after a long legal battle by The Observer and the Guardian; he is the first detainee held in a high-security prison to do so. He has not been interrogated by police or the intelligence services about his activities. Neither has he been told what evidence they possess for his alleged links to international terrorists.
The paradoxes of his situation are multiple. He has been detained without trial precisely because there is not enough evidence against him to bring before the courts. He cannot be deported because the UK authorities judge he would be at risk of torture or death if he returned to Algeria, yet can choose to return voluntarily to his home country whenever he wishes. He is a certified international terrorist, but he can choose to leave for a country other than Algeria if one will accept him.
The case against Mr A was discussed in May in open sessions of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), the tribunal that deals with deportation cases involving national security issues. At its heart was the allegation that he supported the Chechen struggle against the Russian government, a claim Mr A does not deny.
According to witnesses, Mr A provided boots, a sleeping bag and satellite phone equipment to the rebels in the breakaway Caucasus republic. It was even admitted that such support would not have been classed as terrorism before the suicide attacks in America. Intelligence officers pointed out that, had the equipment been provided to Chechen separatists themselves, then Mr A would not have been committing a crime. But they claimed that, as the boots and sleeping bag were destined for a small group of Arab fighters with known links to al-Qaeda, his actions do constitute international terrorism.
Mr A remains proud of the work he did for the Chechen cause: ‘Because of the conflict, people are driven from their homes. It is our duty to help them. We sent many things, not just boots – clothing for the poor and needy.’
The government claims Mr A also associated with known Islamist extremists and supports militant groups in Algeria, which he violently denies.
Last October, SIAC decided that Mr A had procured material for Arab Islamists fighting in Chechnya and was a supporter of an extremist faction in Algeria and concluded: ‘We have reasonable grounds for believing that A is an international terrorist as defined by the 2001 Act and for believing that his presence in the United Kingdom is a risk to national security.’
Mr A says: ‘I am not a terrorist, but I am a member of a group: five kids and a wife.’
He just wants to talk about his family. He has not seen his teenage daughters for two years and does not like his wife and younger children visiting him in prison.
‘Imagine this environment for anyone who has not done any crime. I was scared even to bring [my family] to prison. It will have a great impact seeing all the officers and dogs.’
Mr A’s wife, a European convert to Islam, has been diagnosed as clinically depressed. His children have become desperate. In a letter to their ‘Abee’ (Daddy) this month, they wrote: ‘It is unfair for you to be there, and we wish you were here to look after us. We dream about you a lot and you’ve been there for too long and we need you here so much. Inshallah, you’ll arrive home soon and our family will be complete again.’
Mr A says his children have told him that almost every night they dream of seeing him walking through the door. He claims they are still traumatised by the dawn raid in December 2001, when they were woken to see their father dragged off to prison. His wife was eight months pregnant and, despite begging that he be allowed to stay until she gave birth, he was taken to the Belmarsh high-security prison in London and has been in jail ever since.
He finds it particularly difficult not to see his youngest son, born while he was in custody, and finds the child’s rare visits with his mother deeply upsetting: ‘My son doesn’t know me. He screams when he sees me. I can’t hold him and can’t hug him because he is screaming all the time.’
Mr A himself, in common with many other detainees, is on antidepressants. Already Abu Rideh, a Palestinian prisoner, has been transferred to Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital, and three other detainees at Belmarsh are said to be in a state of serious psychiatric collapse.
Belmarsh and Woodhill have been described as ‘Britain’s Guantanamo’, but Mr A says the everyday living conditions are not the problem: ‘They look after you, give you a cell on your own. But is it me or my family who is punished? They have driven my wife mad.’
The problem for Mr A is the unknowns. How long will he be held? What is happening to his family? As a certified terrorist, will anyone who tries to help him be labelled an extremist in their turn? ‘If they cannot try me in a court of law, give me other options. Just let me be somewhere with my family.’
In his desperation, Mr A has decided that he may even now risk torture or death to return to Algeria if he fails to get bail at his next attempt. He says his fellow detainees have been shocked by his decision because of the danger he and his family will face on their return. But he can no longer bear being separated from his family.
He comes from near the eastern Algerian coastal city of Annaba, close to the Tunisian border, hard hit by the civil war between the government and Islamists which has cost more than 100,000 lives. ‘It’s a beautiful town by the sea,’ he says. ‘I can’t wait.’
Incredibly, his family in Algeria does not know he is in prison. He still speaks to them regularly over the phone from Woodhill and tells them everything is all right. When relatives ask to speak to the children, he says he is calling from the office.
He knows that he will be questioned by the authorities when he arrives in Algeria, but says anything will be preferable to not knowing his fate: ‘In Algeria there is a proper legal system. All these political games are not for me. I want to find a way of being with my family. I want to leave this civilisation.’
Blunkett has argued that 11 September 2001 necessitated a new approach to the threat of international terrorism and that the legislation which followed was a response to the exceptional circumstances now faced in the war against terror.
Yet supporters of the detainees point out that in their 30 months of detention no attempt was made to debrief any of them about what they might know, despite allegedly being some of the most dangerous international terrorists in Britain.
Two months ago each man received a letter from the Home Office asking if he would be prepared to co-operate with MI5. The letter, dated 3 June, states: ‘The security service would welcome the opportunity to discuss any knowledge you may have of international terrorism in the United Kingdom or overseas.’
So far, no one has agreed to co-operate because no one admits to being a terrorist.
Mr A says he is grateful to the British people who have campaigned for the detainees and was particularly touched by a Nottingham priest who spoke against indefinite imprisonment in a service.
Asked what he would like the British people to know about the detainees, whose names they are not even allowed to know, Mr A says: ‘The government you vote for is a democratic government, but is abusing its power. It holds people without trial and without sentence for an indefinite period. They have damaged our children and wives.’
He says he would still like to see his children grow up in Britain, but knows that the chance is fading by the day.
‘I cannot see my family destroyed under my eyes. I divorce you, Britain,’ he says, before leaving the chapel for his cell.