Today, I received disturbing news from the British human rights organization Cageprisoners, which announced that, on July 18, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, the stateless Palestinian who has been imprisoned without charge or trial or held under a control order for seven and a half years, “was taken to hospital having severely self-harmed.” The press release continued, “The repeated, horrific slashing of his left arm with a razor this weekend demonstrates the desperation this man feels at having been detained for so long on the basis of secret evidence and being denied the ability to leave the United Kingdom. Cageprisoners urges the Home Office to immediately grant Mr. Abu Rideh with a travel document which will allow him to finally find solace abroad and be reunited with his family after years of suffering.” Note: The Cageprisoners report contains disturbing images.
In a statement, Moazzam Begg, the Director of Cageprisoners, said, “Mahmoud Abu Rideh has been driven to attempting suicide several times over the past eight agonising years. Two days ago he nearly succeeded. He’s been barred from contact with ordinary human beings — except for the two or three cleared by the Home Office. He is man who is not permitted to communicate with me because I told his story on the Cageprisoners website. But, if I am not allowed to give him words of comfort and prevent him from further self-harm, then I urge everyone who can, to request clearance from the authorities to go and visit this poor, stateless, Palestinian Muslim, who has never been charged with a crime — here or abroad — and visit him before it’s too late.”
Just hours after the press release was issued, Cageprisoners was notified that Mahmoud Abu Rideh had just received the travel document from the Home Office that was promised him two weeks ago, and added that it was “clearly issued on Friday, but despite telephone calls requesting notification, his solicitors were not informed on Friday nor on Monday until the Treasury Solicitors were pressed.” In the meantime, as the Muslim Prisoner Support Group explained, Mr. Abu Rideh’s despair at what he regarded as his betrayal by the Home Office led to his suicide attempt at the weekend. The MPSG noted that he said he felt the room spinning and heard voices saying, “The Home Office will never let you leave; they are just going to keep you driving around in circles.”
Mr. Abu Rideh is now in a position to attempt to obtain a visa to leave the country, and, he hopes, to be reunited with his British wife and children, who could not cope any longer with the stress, and left the country in May to live with his wife’s family in Jordan.
Supporters are attempting to stay with Mr. Abu Rideh until his departure from the UK is assured, and I hope, given the fragility of his mental state, that this will be the case. I must add, however, that, although the death of Mr. Abu Rideh would have been the most appalling condemnation of the effects of the government’s novel and cruel experiment in detaining supposed “terror suspects” without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence, in defiance of all the established norms of British law, even if he manages to depart these shores safely the reputation of the British government for fairness and justice will be forever tainted by its treatment of Mr. Abu Rideh.
Perhaps some readers believe that Mahmoud Abu Rideh somehow “deserved” this treatment, and if this is so then I can only suggest that those interested in his supposed “crimes,” for which he could not be charged, according to the British government, should read “Suspicion of Terrorism,” written by Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, who has represented Mr. Abu Rideh. Scott-Moncrieff is a solicitor who represents patients detained under the Mental Health Act, and the article, which she wrote for the London Review of Books in August 2004, is available here.
In a devastating analysis of Mahmoud Abu Rideh’s case, the article peers behind the veil of secrecy that obscures the government’s general ignorance about Mr. Abu Rideh and about his mental health. As Scott-Moncrieff noted at one point, “If it had known about his mental illness it might have known, too, that he’s an unlikely terrorist because he finds it impossible not to talk about what is on his mind.”
The article also tackled the government’s spurious reliance on guilt by association, and its inability to recognize that Mr. Abu Rideh’s fundraising was not for terrorism but “to build and run orphanages in Afghanistan; to build and run schools (for girls as well as boys) in Afghanistan; to dig wells in remote villages; to provide sewing machines for widows to make a living; and to provide livestock and food.”
I urge you to read the whole article, but found the following passage, from a session of the Special Immigration Appeal Court (SIAC) — in which much of the evidence takes place in closed sessions, with the defendants represented by special advocates who are prevented from discussing any of the closed evidence with their clients — to be particularly revealing (and bear in mind that the session in discussion took place six years ago, but appears to have made no difference whatsoever to the government, which seems to regard its initial suspicions as something akin to an immutable truth).
The exchange was between Witness B, for the government, and Mr. Abu Rideh’s barrister, Ben Emmerson QC. Scott-Moncrieff introduced the exchange by explaining, “The Home Office argued that ‘some of the work in which Abu Rideh was engaged (including fundraising) may have been legitimate,’ but ‘the secretary of state assesses (from the totality of the open and closed evidence) that some of Abu Rideh’s activities were for terrorist purposes.’ We know nothing about the closed evidence, and the defence lawyers didn’t manage to find out much in the open sessions.” She added, “Witness B appeared to invoke the closed sessions as a way to avoid answering questions, or admitting that he didn’t know the answers to them.”
Emmerson: You accept, do you, that the account he gives of the various activities he was involved with and the various projects for which he was raising money is a truthful account?
Witness B: We are obviously not in a position to confirm everything he says. We accept that the — I say, some of the work that he was engaged in was for charitable purposes and some of the money he collected may have been for charitable purposes. There is another comment that I could make there specifically to answer that question in closed [session], which I can’t make here.
Emmerson: Did you know about these activities before he was certified?
Witness B: I am afraid, again, that’s a question which I can only answer in the closed session, but obviously we formed our assessments on the basis of all the information that we had available and maintain our assessment that he was at least in part fund-raising for terrorist purposes.
Emmerson: That is not the way in which it was put in the original witness statement, Witness B … As it was originally drafted that statement read: “Abu Rideh is actively involved in fund-raising” — yes?
Witness B: Yes.
Emmerson: “The security service assesses that the funds are used to finance terrorist training.” Is that right? Is that how it originally read?
Mr. Justice Collins: I have got in my bundle the deleted original. Paragraph 20 reads as follows: “Abu Rideh is actively involved in raising funds which the security services assess are used to finance terrorist training operations, procurement in countries such as Afghanistan and Chechnya.” That is what it originally read.
Emmerson: The original form of the allegation makes no mention of the possibility that he is raising funds for charitable or other purposes and describes the funds that he has raised as being, in the assessment of the security services, funds that are intended for training operations and procurement for terrorism.
Witness B: Yes.
Emmerson: All I want to know is this: At the time that the assessment was originally made, were the security services aware that Mr. Abu Rideh was engaged in projects, for example, the funding of wells and schools in Afghanistan?
Witness B: Well, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be awkward, but that is a question that I can answer in closed; I can’t answer it here.
Lucy Scott Moncrieff added, “It seems that the commissioners were not very happy with Witness B’s evasiveness, because after going into closed session, Witness B came back to the open session to answer Emmerson’s question and to confirm that the final assessment offered in the second statement to the effect that we accept that some of the money which Abu Rideh raised may have been for charitable purposes, was at least in part the result of a reassessment based on a range of information, including all the information that was available to us, which is in the closed evidence but also including his own statement.”
She also explained, “I think Witness B is saying that the security services did not know about Abu Rideh’s charitable activities, or considered them insignificant, until evidence of them was provided by Abu Rideh’s lawyers.”
And that, I believe, demonstrates succinctly why claims made by the security services, regarding the fate of men imprisoned or held under control orders or deportation bail on the basis of secret evidence, need to be able to be challenged. Otherwise, it is all too easy for well-meaning public servants to succumb to one particular viewpoint, without being obliged to take on board any other information that may undermine it.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.