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Britain's Own Guantanamo

Yvonne Ridley | 22.08.2007 22:44 | Repression | Terror War | World

Politicians across the world are more open in their condemnation of Guantanamo Bay these days and a old friends of America have even said it should be closed down.

Criticism and calls for closure are being made quite openly by British government ministers now that Tony Blair's influence has gone.

But they are more reluctant to acknowledge the existence of another Guantanamo - one in their own backyard ... it is called HMP Long Lartin in England's leafy county of Wiltshire.

I was reminded recently of its existence, where men are being held without trial and without charge, when I tuned in to BBC Radio Four news.

I listened to a so-called news story which so stretched the bounds of credibility that I waited another hour for the bulletin to be repeated for confirmation.

The thrust of the story was that the Prison Officers Association, whose members act as wardens, has become concerned about Arabic-speaking imams secretly influencing other prison inmates.

Steve Gough, vice-chairman of the POA opined: "The type of people that we're now putting into prison, who have the ability to radicalise and have got a proven track record to radicalise, need a new type of control that we're not ready for and the Government doesn't appear to have put any thought into.

"It is the case that Abu Qatada, and there maybe others, I don't really know, are using prayer in a context that we don't understand.

"The reality is that most of the staff don't know what he's doing."

That’s because they don’t understand Arabic – but neither do the majority of inmates in Long Lartin prison where Abu Qatada is being held.

And let’s face it, if you don’t understand Arabic and are not Muslim, the likelihood of you trotting along to Friday prayers is remote.

So how often does Abu Qatada lead Friday prayers – the truth is very rarely, according to the Prison Service which confirmed that inmates at Long Lartin did pray as a group but were only allowed to read prayers on "rare" occasions.

"The small number of detainees in the specialist unit at Long Lartin prison pray as a group three times a day and individually in their cells twice a day," said a spokeswoman.

"The communal prayers are led by the prison's Imam who visits the unit on a daily basis. On the rare occasions when an Imam is unable to attend then a prisoner is chosen to read out the prayer of the day."

Exactly what was the motivation behind Steve Gough's very public outburst?

Could it have been one of those backdoor attempts to ignite a call to make all Muslims pray in English in the UK? Or is it simply an attempt to deflect attention from POA members who never seem to be around when Muslim prisoners are being attacked and on occasions even killed?

It is hard to believe that so-called high category prisoners can have boiling fat poured over them, and sustain other horrific injuries when they are supposed to be under the scrutiny of prison officers as was the case recently in HMP Frankland in Durham.

And I would also like to know who made Steve Gough judge and jury over the Long Lartin inmates he identified.

They should really be categorised as political detainees because these men have simply been interned and forgotten about by a government no longer interested in justice for all.

Let’s examine the case of the Long Lartin inmates – the so-called radicals that Steve Gough is talking about.

They are a group of Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Algerians. like the Guantanmo detainees, they are being held without trial and without charge – one has been inside since 1999 and his name is Abdul Bary.

Most of them are being held on flimsy immigration laws. Evidence against them is even more flimsy, often extracted under torture overseas. And they are not even allowed to see the evidence against them.

Long Lartin is really Britain’s own Guantanamo Bay without the orange suits.

If there is any real evidence against these men then why not put them on trial here and now? All of them would welcome a fair hearing where they are given exactly the same rights as any other defendant appearing before British courts.

Let’s examine the case of Abu Qatada – he is fighting extradition to Jordan, a country with an appalling human rights record. We know from Amnesty International reports that torture is in regular usage in the prisons.

Abu Qatada’s legal team say the only evidence against him was extracted under torture. Also known as Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, he is being denied justice.

The Jordanian national is fighting extradition to his home country where he has been convicted in his absence for terror attacks and yes, the evidence was supplied under torture.

The British Government is prepared to deport him to Jordan where we know he will be tortured. Yet this same Government has plenty to say abut the way Guantanamo Bay operates and says it should be closed down. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy here.

His lawyer Gareth Peirce said: "We understand that this decision is being monitored and watched by a number of other countries who are considering deporting individuals to regimes where they know they will be tortured."

"We abhor the thought of evidence in Guantanamo obtained by torture. We say what is the difference to sending someone to a military court to face evidence obtained from torture?"

Amnesty International UK campaigns director Tim Hancock said the group was "profoundly concerned" Siac had discounted evidence showing the risk of torture if Qatada was returned to Jordan.

This included material documenting the "routine infliction of torture on 'security suspects' in Jordan...a practice which continues with impunity".

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett once described him as the most significant extremist Islamic preacher in the UK.

Irresponsible journalists call him al-Qaida’s spiritual leader in Europe … without supplying any factual detail at all. They and Blunkett offered no proof to support the outrageous and defamatory statements.

Abu Qatada insists he has never met its leader, Usama Bin Ladin - a slightly odd fact if you're supposed to be running his European operations!

Articles on the BBC website proclaim: Abu Qatada, once described as Usama bin Ladin's right-hand man in Europe, is sometimes allowed to read prayers.

Where is the evidence? Who described him as Usama bin Ladin’s right-hand man? Why can’t they attribute their sources?

The Special Imigration Appeals Comission (SIAC) states in its summing up against Abu Qatada that he had "long-established connections with Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaida" and that he "held sway over extremists".

"He has given advice to many terrorist groups and individuals, whether formerly a spiritual adviser to them or not. His reach and the depth of his influence in that respect is formidable, even incalculable." SIAC said earlier this year.

Well where is the proof? Where is the evidence? We aren’t allowed to see it, more importantly Abu Qatada and his defence team are not allowed to see it – where is the justice in that?

Gordon Brown’s new home secretary has welcomed the latest court ruling against Abu qatada who recently lost his appeal against a Home Office move to deport him to Jordan.

The ruling is seen as the first test of a policy that seeks assurances deportees in terror cases will not be abused on return.


Abu Qatada’s legal team is to seek leave to appeal the deportation ruling. Gareth Peirce, his lawyer, has described the latest appeal as a "profoundly important” one that could have ramifications across the world.

Qatada, 45, has spent most of the past five years in prison in the UK under anti-terrorism and immigration laws. That’s five years away from his wife and five children.

The judgment by SIAC chairman Mr Justice Ouseley said members had concluded there was "no real risk of persecution of [Qatada]" on his return.

Well Mr Justice Ouseley proves one thing - the law most certainly is an ass!

But this case is significant because the government has been trying to secure deportations to countries accused of torture by securing special agreements that deportees will not be abused.

The agreement - called Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) - signed between the UK government and Jordan in 2005, aimed to guarantee that anyone deported to the country would not face torture or ill-treatment.

Most human rights organisations say the MoU is useless. It carries the same weight as the special understanding between the British and Algerian government. Six Algerian brothers got so fed up of the legal limbo in which they were held, that in the end they preferred to take a chance and go back home.

Two disappeared on arrival and have now turned up in prisons over there. Their letters to me have been soul-destroying. They other four must feel as though they are walking a daily tight-rope not knowing if they will be picked up and locked up.

Memorandum’s of Understanding are meaningless, with director of civil rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, saying "paper promises" were not enough.

"Dodgy little 'assurances' from regimes that practise torture convince few outside government," she said.

But a lawyer for the home secretary, Ian Burnett QC, had said it would be "extraordinary" if Jordan did not comply with its diplomatic assurances.

I'm not sure what cloud cuckoo land Ian Burnett lives in but he must be the legal version of a cross between Mary Poppins and Pollyanna.

Sadly, Abu Qatada is not the only one.

Let me briefly give you a run down of the other political detainees being held in Long Lartin.

The veteran of injustice is Abdul Bary, an Egyptian arrested in 1999 accused of the Kenyan Embassy bombing by US intelligence.

Evidence is flimsy, probably extracted under torture – he is still fighting extradition.

Moustafa Taleb, an Algerian, is fighting extradition to the country of his birth – although he was once given leave to stay in the UK. That was until the Ricin Plot came to the fore – and we all know about the Ricin Plot don’t we? It was laughed out of court and we would all still be laughing today if the consequences hadn't been so dire ... the loss of liberty for a group of Algerian men who had fled their own country to escape persecution from the brutal regime there.

Amer Makhlulif has been held since 2000 after the Americans wanted to extradite him on terror charges. The US actually dropped the case after three years when they admitted they had the wrong man.

So why couldn’t he walk free – ask the British Government. He is now fighting a deportation order to Algeria.

While he has been locked up all these years Makhlulif has utlisied his time to enhance his education, but now his Masters Degree through the Open University is under threat.

His source of funding has dried up and unless he can find money for the remaining five modules - £900 per module – his hard work will have been in vain.

If anyone can help sponsor a module please contact me at and put 'education fund' in the subject field.

Now let's get back to Steve Gough. Before he talks about the radicalisation of prisoners in Long Lartin he might want to check the facts first.

And if he really wants to know what Abu Qatada and the other Long Lartin Muslims say during Friday prayers in their isolation, he should contact me and I will send him an english translation.

In return he might actually ask the question: "Why are my officers being asked to run a Guantanamo-style regime?"

I wonder if we'll hear that story on a BBC Radio 4 bulletin.

Yvonne Ridley
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  1. minor correction — Pedant