Mark McGowan with Talha Ahsan's mother
Mark McGowan spends Eid withTalha Ahsan’s family in London

Talha Ahsan was “freed” by a US court on 16 July, 20 months after being extradited from Britain to face terrorism charges. But he still isn’t quite free. His UK passport has expired, so he is now in immigration custody in the US waiting for the British authorities to supply a new one.

The judge’s decision raises serious questions over the long persecution of Talha Ahsan and co-defendant Babar Ahmad by the British and US authorities.

Talha Ahsan has been in jail for 8 years, and Babar Ahmad for 10 years. For most of that time they have been held without charge in high security prisons in Britain. They were extradited to the US in October 2012, where they were finally charged with terrorism offences.

The charges arose from their involvement in a website that  published information about armed jihad in Muslim countries. Both men are British citizens. The US claimed jurisdiction solely because the website had, for a short time, been hosted on a server in Connecticut. Their supposed offences were committed in Britain and virtually all of the evidence against them was gathered in Britain. Talha Ahsan’s involvement in the website was marginal, and lasted only about 6 months.

While in the US the men were held in solitary confinement in a Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Facility – a “supermax” prison housing deathrow inmates.

In a deal with prosecutors, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan each pleaded guilty in December 2013 to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and one count of providing material support to terrorists.

97% of federal cases in the US end like this, with a plea bargain. Anyone who refuses a deal and is then found guilty at trial is likely to receive a long sentence. Long-term solitary confinement is widespread in the US prison system. It is torture and it drives people mad. These facts of life mean that for most people, a trial is a gamble they cannot afford.

Prosecutors asked for a 25-year sentence for Babar Ahmad and a 15 year sentence for Talha Ahsan. Judge Janet Hall found much of the prosecution presentation to be unreliable. She rejected prosecution claims that Babar Ahmad’s activities were linked to al Qaeda, and accepted that jihad does not necessarily mean terrorism.

In a hearing on 16 July, she handed a down a 12½ year sentence  to Babar Ahmad, with credit for the 10 years he served before trial. This means that he may be free in less than a year. He is expected to serve his sentence in Britain. And she sentenced Talha Ahsan to the 8 years he has already served. So he would now be free, but for his difficulty with the US immigration authorities.

Despite being manoeuvred, like so many other people in the US, out of their right to a trial, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan have managed to put the US and British security states in the dock. The result has been a welcome flowering of commentary calling for a greater understanding of the concept of jihad in Muslim culture.

But the persecution of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan was driven by something stronger than cultural misunderstanding. It’s a long story. Please read my article, The Ordeal of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan.