The case of Babar Ahmed

It might be surprising, but the BBC once challenged the government in the High Court for the right to interview a prisoner fighting extradition.

The prisoner was a UK citizen named Babar Ahmad who grew up in south London. He was imprisoned without trial in the UK between 2004 and 2012 and was eventually extradited to the US, where he was held a further 14 months pending trial. Like 97% of defendants in US state and federal criminal cases, he accepted a plea bargain and served a further 17 months of a 12-and-a-half-year sentence before release and return to the UK. The Guardian reported that “the judge described Ahmad as a “good person” who had been a model prisoner and who had never been interested in terrorism”. He had been imprisoned for 11 years, including 2 years in solitary confinement in a US Supermax prison – where according to the Guardian, his condition improved(!).

Ahmad was awarded substantial damages for mistreatment during his UK arrest which The Guardian described as “one of the most disturbing cases of police brutality in recent years”. The manifest injustice of his case gained widespread media coverage which stimulated public support, including an online petition with 150,000 signatures and two debates in Parliament.

In April 2012, the BBC’s Home Affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani told the story of The battle to prosecute Babar Ahmad, recounting Ahmad’s argument that if the evidence for the case against him had been presented by the Metropolitan Police to the Crown Prosecution Service instead of being “outsourced” to the US, he could – and should – have been tried in the UK instead of being extradited to the US.

The BBC article says that “these exceptionally unusual circumstances … made Babar Ahmad’s case so controversial”.

Ahmad’s comments to the BBC were obtained in an interview in Long Lartin Prison. The BBC accurately described Ahmad as “the man the government said the BBC couldn’t meet” because it had had to go to court to win the right to film the interview. The interview followed three months after the High Court rejected Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s argument that “an interview was not necessary to inform the public about Mr Ahmad’s story”. The court found instead that “due to the case’s exceptional nature” it would be in the public interest to broadcast an interview. The BBC report said that the Government would not appeal the decision, and would “begin negotiations with the BBC about how and when the interview would take place”.

Compare and Contrast

It is interesting to identify differences between how the BBC approached the case of Ahmad and how it, and the media more generally, approaches the case of Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange.

Assange has been in Belmarsh Prison for over three years pending extradition hearings in UK courts. The circumstances around the case are certainly “exceptionally unusual” and “controversial”. However, the media in general have shown essentially no interest in the compelling arguments that discredit the case against Assange.

Whereas Home Secretary Clarke negotiated access with the BBC to interview Babar Ahmad, Assange’s Belmarsh prison cell has proved a very effective way to render him invisible, to disappear him from public view. A December 2020 letter from 17 MPs across 4 parties requesting an online meeting with him was repeatedly ignored by the Prison Service and by the Ministry of Justice, and to this day it has not been possible for elected representatives to talk to him. Whereas Sadiq Khan visited Ahmad in prison during his extradition proceedings, the Ministry of Justice, MPs, the courts and the Prison service regularly deflect requests for access and information on Assange from one to the other. Even on his wedding day, two of the six guests – journalists Chris Hedges and Craig Murray, both powerful chroniclers of his case – were inexplicably barred from entering the prison. No photographs were permitted other than by a prison official, and two months later these have not been sent to his wife Stella.

How have the media, and the BBC in particular, covered the Assange case? The approach has been to trivialise and to give prominence to government talking points without challenging them, and to simply disregard essential aspects of the case. In a recent complaint to the BBC, I identified several examples of each of these tactics in a report by Dominic Casciani himself. The BBC first brushed the complaint aside, and went on to reject it point by point and referred me to Ofcom. An update will follow on

It appears that the BBC, which went to the High Court against the government to be able to interview Ahmad, hasn’t been curious at all about – let alone troubled by – the injustices and the suffering inflicted on Julian Assange. Not by evidence of the secret controlling role of Keir Starmer’s Crown Prosecution Service over the Swedish prosecution authorities some 10 years ago. Nor by accounts of spying on Mr Assange – even on meetings with his lawyers – on behalf of the prosecution side. Nor by the astonishing evidence presented in court day after day by the defence in his hearing in September 2020 (the BBC had a court correspondent right there and yet, like the rest of the media, reported none of it). Nor by the reported retraction of essential evidence by a prosecution witness. Nor by UN Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer’s detailed finding that Mr Assange suffered psychological torture, that his health was in grave danger, and that he had been repeatedly denied due process by a catalogue of procedural irregularities. Nor by US and British planning to kidnap or even assassinate Mr Assange. Nor by connections between members of the judiciary involved in the case and parties with reason to be hostile to Mr Assange (see DeclassifiedUK reports hereherehere, and here). Nor by Mr Assange being denied proper access to documents and to his lawyers, both in court and also beforehand to prepare his defence. Nor by reports of him being transported to court in “a vertical coffin”, handcuffed and repeatedly strip-searched, and appearing in court effectively incommunicado in a Perspex box. Nor by the many explicit concerns of lawyers, doctors, politicians, human rights organisations, a UN working group, a UN rapporteur, activists and press freedom groups around the world.

Of course, the Ahmad case isn’t the only one the Assange case differs from. Pending his extradition process over 20 years ago, Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet wasn’t in Belmarsh – he was confined to a mansion on the Wentworth estate in Surrey, where he received good friend Margaret Thatcher. He was eventually allowed to return home by Home Secretary Jack Straw on health grounds (the Guardian reported that on his arrival in Santiago “the man judged too unfit by doctors to undergo extradition proceedings to Spain on torture charges … then walked on his own, slowly but steadily”). Neither Gary McKinnon nor Lauri Love were detained during their extradition hearings, and US intelligence officer Anne Sacoolas was even allowed to leave the country immediately after causing the death of Harry Dunn by dangerous driving.

All of that was widely reported.

Julian Assange is treated differently because he enabled the exposure of state and corporate crimes and corruption, and he offered insightful interpretations and narratives developed from solid evidence. And because if truth, justice and human compassion demand it, he would do it again. These are standards that mainstream media don’t even aspire to, and it has much to do with why he was smeared, and why his brutal treatment is met by media silence.

Lord Chief Justice Burnett upheld Lauri Love’s appeal against extradition because his extradition would be “oppressive by reason of his physical and mental condition”, and yet he granted the US appeal against Assange on the grounds that meaningless US assurances on his treatment must be taken at face value. This kind of preposterous inconsistency doesn’t trouble the mainstream media when they choose to look away.

It is no surprise that incriminated powers would silence Julian Assange to stop him shining the light on them, and to make it clear that that’s how serious journalism can be dealt with. However, a properly functioning fourth estate would routinely speak truth to power. It would defend the right to tell the truth and it would inform the public of that truth. It would not stand by while 2 powerful states ferociously persecute a publisher for challenging power.

This applies not only to the BBC but to arguably the global spectrum of mainstream media, who are responsible for the silence that surrounds this case. They have made it possible for Julian Assange to edge closer and closer to extradition to the US, whose vengeance for exposing their war crimes, torture, rendition, and corruption will be brutal.

If he goes, he won’t be the only loser. We are all Julian Assange.

By jadcdavidm