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Family of 'The Terrorist That Wasn't' Prepares for His Return from US

After a controversial extradition, UK citizen Talha Ahsan spent eight years in US prisons for terrorism charges. He's about to be freed.
July 31, 2014, 10:10pm
Photo by Sang Tan/AP

Hamja Ahsan doesn’t know exactly when his brother will walk through the gates of a London airport, but he’s preparing for it anyway. Today, he received a call from the UK’s Foreign Office and was told his brother Talha would return home in August.

“The date has been set,” Hamja told VICE News. “But we will not be told when he will return, for ‘security reasons.’”

Talha Ahsan, 34, has spent the last eight years of his life being shuttled from one prison to another under US federal charges of material support to terrorists. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement at Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Institution. Before Talha’s extradition to the US, he spent six years in a UK prison awaiting trial, despite widespread protests for his release.

But on July 16, Judge Janet Hall shocked a New Haven courtroom when she denied the government’s request for a 15-year sentence, sentenced Talha to time already served, and set him free.

“When I visited him in the Supermax prison, he had a beam of confidence,” Hamja told VICE News of his July trip to the US for his brother’s sentencing hearing. Hamja has tirelessly dedicated his life to trying to get his brother freed, and the work has now paid off.

Hamja said he felt “relieved” when the sentence was announced, but he also thought of the “thousands of people in the UK and worldwide that would be so elated at the news.”

Talha, currently in an immigration holding cell, has become a symbol of the US government’s overreaching power over foreign citizens — and of the ease with which young Muslim men are often painted as terrorists and al Qaeda operatives when they are actually neither.

“There’s nothing in Talha’s case that would amount to an actual criminal charge, that’s why he wasn’t tried in the UK,” Hamja Ahsan told VICE News. “He’s someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Talha’s innocence has been widely covered in the press, which has referred to him as “The Terrorist That Wasn’t.” A nerdy, gifted kid with Asperger’s Syndrome who translated medieval Arabic poetry for fun, Talha briefly worked as a mail clerk for Azzam Publications, a fundamentalist bookseller and family of websites, before 9/11.

Talha 'had no relationship with al Qaeda' and 'rejected every part of their ideology.'

One day a letter arrived from Hassan Abu-Jihaad, a US sailor later charged with espionage. Talha processed the document just like all the rest but according to the sentencing memorandum his attorneys submitted in June: "It was never, in any way, disseminated."

The memo states that Talha “had no relationship with al Qaeda… rejected every part of their ideology” and “expressed through his every action a dislike of violence.”

The document also details Talha's two trips to Afghanistan. On the first, to Taliban training camps, according to the memo, Talha was left "traumatized" and "simply did not fit in." The memo goes on: "He was a scholar, not a fighter, and a sensitive individual who was out of place."

On his second trip to Afghanistan as an Arabic student two years later, the memo states that he went to study the people of Central and East Asia he had seen in the training camps, but he became ill and left as soon as possible.

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But Talha was seen as a terrorist in the eyes of the US government and charged with "providing, and conspiring to provide, material support and resources to persons engaged in acts of terrorism in Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere."

As azzam.com had used a server in Connecticut, Talha and co-defendant Babar Ahmad could be extradited to the US. Ahmad was sentenced to more than 12 years in jail on July 16, but could be free in less than a year because of time he has already served.

Like Ahsan, British hacker Gary McKinnon spent eight years awaiting extradition to the US after being charged with breaking into military and NASA computers. White and Scottish by birth, McKinnon also suffers from Asperger syndrome, and his case was often compared to Ahsan’s. But while Ahsan spent years in prison and was extradited despite repeatedly asserting his innocence, McKinnon (who admitted to his crimes) was never even jailed.

McKinnon's extradition was blocked on October 16, 2012, just 11 days after Talha Ahsan's extradition was approved. Because UK Home Secretary Teresa May blocked McKinnon's extradition on grounds that his medical condition could cause him to harm himself if jailed, British critics cried foul and accused the government of treating Muslim citizens differently.

Ahsan was held for years without trial in conditions dangerous to anyone’s mental health. The middle class son of Bengali immigrants to the UK was desperate to get out of prison and out of the US. That’s probably why, in 2013, he took a plea bargain.

But why would anyone plead guilty to a crime they clearly didn’t do, when there’s no evidence against them?

“You have to understand the mechanics they’re up against,” Arun Kundnani, British author of The Muslims Are Coming, told VICE News, explaining that a not guilty plea would have kept Talha in prison for up to several more years while he waited for a jury trial.

“If he entered a guilty plea, he knew he’d be out sooner. The more time you’re in solitary confinement, the more likely it is you won’t come out sane,” said Kundnani.

In an August 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said that after only 15 days in solitary confinement, harmful psychological effects become irreversible.

'Why aren’t you arguing that he’s not guilty?'

The US court system is a confusing place even to a native-born citizen. But in Talha’s case, his mere extradition to the US — a country where he’d never set foot prior to criminal charges — perfectly symbolized what Al Jazeera called one of “Britain’s latest counterterrorism disasters” in an article that also decried Talha “pointless extradition.”

“If he didn’t plead it would drag on for years and years," said Hamja. "In Talha case he’s pretty much pled guilty to a made-up charge.”

But this case was different. Despite the fact that Ahsan will never get back the eight years he lost in prison, the judge’s sentencing decision is something of a sea change for US terrorism cases.

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“Right in the first 10 minutes of the government presentation on Tuesday, they’d started talking about how the defendants were guilty of propagating violent jihad,” said Kundnani. “But the judge asked, 'how do you define violent jihad?' They said, 'physical fighting,' and the judge asked 'well, physical fighting against whom?'”

Kundnani told VICE News the judge even asked Talha's attorney’s point blank: “Why aren’t you arguing that he’s not guilty?”

“It’s very unusual for a judge to question the government’s judgment in a terrorism case,” Kundnani said. “I can’t think of a case where what the government asked for has been rejected to this extent.”

Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara