Babar Ahmad and Others v the United Kingdom

Forum: European Court of Human Rights
INTERIGHTS role: Third party interveners
Keywords: Extradition, non-refoulement, solitary confinement, inhuman and degrading treatment

On 10 April 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) delivered its judgment in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom. The Court found that there would be no violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the European Convention”) if the United Kingdom extradited the applicants to the United States.

The case concerns the pending extradition of six persons from the United Kingdom to the United States where they are alleged to have committed terrorism-related offences. If convicted, the applicants risk being imprisoned at the Florence, Colorado “supermax” prison (“ADX Florence”) and subjected to “special administrative measures”, which include prolonged solitary confinement and arbitrary strip-searches which may have harmful mental effects. If convicted, the applicants would also face in effect mandatory life sentences. The applicants argued that if they are transferred to the U.S. and imprisoned at ADX Florence they would face a real risk of ill-treatment in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on account of the detention conditions, and of the disproportionately lengthy sentences they may face.

INTERIGHTS, Reprieve, the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School National Litigation Project jointly submitted a third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in the case. The joint intervention provided a comparative law analysis of the protections afforded under Article 3 of the European Convention and the Eighth Amendment as applied to specific measures that the applicants argued they would be likely to face at ADX Florence. We argued that the U.S. legal protections against ill-treatment in prison fall substantially short of those provided under Article 3 of the European Convention and that any protection which the applicants will receive under U.S. law is speculative at best, due to procedural limitations on their ability to assert their rights to substantive protections. For the full text of our joint amicus brief, please click here.

In its judgment the Court reaffirmed its principles that solitary confinement will violate the European Convention, where it involves complete sensory deprivation and total social isolation, and that even in cases of relative isolation, solitary confinement cannot be imposed indefinitely. It should not be applied to prisoners who are not dangerous or disorderly or do not continue to pose a security risk. In addition, the court laid out the requisite procedural guarantees that must be in place to ensure against arbitrary application of this extreme measure, including in particular access to an independent judicial authority to review the merits of and reasons for a prolonged measure of solitary confinement. The Court further outlined the importance of access to recreation and outdoor exercise in prison, and access to adequate medical assistance to prisoners with mental health conditions.

Nevertheless, in the context of the specific facts of this case and despite our intervention, the Court found that conditions at ADX Florence would not amount to ill-treatment. First, it found that not all persons convicted of international terrorism were placed at ADX Florence, and that there are sufficient procedural guarantees in place for deciding on such transfers. The Court also held that if the applicants were convicted under the present charges, there would be justification for considering them a security risk and imposing restrictions on their contacts with the outside world. It further found that the conditions at ADX Florence were adequate and that psychiatric services would be available there. As regards the risk of mandatory sentences of life imprisonment, the Court, having regard to the seriousness of the offences, did not consider them to amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.

The Court indicated that the judgment can be appealed within three months before the Grand Chamber, and that pending the time limits for such an appeal, the applicants should not be extradited to the U.S.. The Court adjourned its examination of the case of one of the applicants, Mr Aswat, for more information from the parties regarding the claim that Mr Aswat’s schizophrenia should prevent his extradition.

For further information on the case please contact Vesi Vandova, Senior Lawyer, Security and Rule of Law at INTERIGHTS.

For the European Court of Human Rights judgment, please click here.

For a press release from the European Court of Human Rights, please click here.