A man has been imprisoned for more than six years without being charged with any crime. His name is Talha Ahsan. He suffers from Asperger syndrome. Despite that he has become something of a celebrity as a recognised poet. The significance of this will soon be apparent. His imprisonment is all due to Tony Blair having removed a piece of English law that has formed one of the mainstays of our legal system for more than 300 years: habeas corpus. My layman's understanding of what habeas corpus means is that a person imprisoned should be brought before the court within a short or reasonable period of time after his, or her, arrest and charged with a crime, or released. It is protection against perpetual imprisonment. The last time habeas corpus was suspended was in the late eighteenth century, partly out of fear of the French Revolution spreading to England and partly in response to social unrest at home. The intellectual corresponding societies were targeted and, like today, many spies and agents provocateurs were deployed to try and trap people into saying or doing something for which they might be taken into custody. This included the interception of mail. The suspension of habeas corpus came on 7 May 1794.
Interestingly, like Talha Ahsan, many of the people targeted in what became known as the Treason Trials were poets and writers who belonged to corresponding societies, and as the name suggests, wrote to one another on radical issues of the day. However this was interpreted by the attorney general, Sir John Scott, as being seditious libel and treason, crimes which carried a rather horrific death penalty. Thomas Holcroft, one who was arrested and imprisoned, was well-known for his then popular plays and novels. Another was the poet and political writer, John Thelwall, and even the novelist William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley, was fortunate not to have been imprisoned under the suspension of this legal protection. Over thirty men were arrested and imprisoned and could have been held until February 1795 without being charged or brought before a court. As it happened all the cases were dropped before that time due to the defence of Thomas Erskine who argued that it was not a violent revolution these intellectuals sought but a revolution of ideas. Erskine was a powerful orator and had previously defended Thomas Paine over his Rights of Man publication in 1792. On that occasion the defence was unsuccessful, leading Paine to seek refuge abroad.
Reading the above it will be noticed that although habeas corpus had been suspended in 1794 these thirty men were not in prison for even a year, though they were still in prison for longer than they should have been. Today, in this enlightened age, the poet Talha Ahsan has been imprisoned for more than six years. Another person arrested under war-crime terrorist Tony Blair’s so-called anti-terrorism laws is Babar Ahmad whose case I blogged about earlier this year. Babar Ahmad has been in prison for more than eight years. This is disgusting. Even a High Court judge has said so.
Arguing the case of these neglected men, like Thomas Erskine, is a very talented defence lawyer, Gareth Peirce, a descendent of the Fabians, Beatrice and Sydney Webb. She puts a very strong case against the USA and in favour of those imprisoned without charge, and includes in her arguments the lack of balance in US and UK extradition laws. I quote from her extremely well-argued article for the London Review of Books entitled America’s Non-Compliance published two years ago, in which she asks two very pertinent questions about the country to which Theresa May wants to extradite UK citizens.
“We read, year after year, obscene details of executions in the US: most are successful, but there are also descriptions of frustrated attempts, hour after hour, to find a vein to inject. For a long time, the UK had no cause for complacency. Capital punishment was abolished here in 1965, but Britain continued to extradite to countries that retained the death penalty, and would have continued to do so had not the European Court determined in 1989 in the case of that the ‘death row’ phenomenon, in which a person might spend years awaiting execution while the legal process was exhausted, constituted inhuman and degrading treatment according to Article 3 of the Convention. Since then no European state has been permitted to extradite in the absence of an assurance that conviction would not bring the death penalty.
But what of extradition to a future of total isolation? Can we comfortably, and within the law, contemplate sending men to that fate? . .”
Following the attempt to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden on trumped up charges, from a Supreme Court decision presided over by another High Court judge on the point of retirement, my concern is that the legal system in this country has simply become an extension of central government which is in hock to big business party donors. I have therefore set up a Facebook group for poets, writers and artists to oppose extradition for UK citizens. Please show your support.