Martin Bright, home affairs editor
Disturbing new details have emerged about the treatment of 14 foreign terrorist suspects held without trial in British high-security jails.
At least half of them are showing signs of serious mental illness. Their lawyers say they have been pushed ‘beyond the limits of human endurance’. One detainee is a polio victim, another has lost two limbs and a third has attempted suicide.
The men and their families fear some may not survive their indefinite imprisonment at Belmarsh prison in south-east London, which has been described as ‘Britain’s Guantanamo Bay’ or ‘Camp Delta UK’, and Woodhill prison near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.
The Home Office has said that none will be granted bail unless they are terminally ill.
The men, who cannot be named for legal reasons, have been described as a serious threat to national security. But the Observer has discovered that two are seriously disabled and most have been on anti-depressant drugs for more than a year.
There are particular concerns about a North African in his thirties, who has suffered from polio since childhood. His mental health has deteriorated so much that he can no longer recognise or communicate with fellow inmates.
His condition worsened after he was confined to his cell by his illness. The prison authorities refused him a wheelchair, and inmates’ offers to carry him to classes and prayers were rejected.
A second North African has no arms and has to be helped by fellow prisoners to carry out everyday tasks. A Palestinian detainee Abu Rideh was transferred to Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital after trying to kill himself over a year ago and has been there ever since.
The men’s morale was seriously hit by the failure of 10 appeals against the internments. The men’s lawyers fear those who have kept their sanity have become exhausted by acting as full-time carers for the others.
The suspects are being held under emergency anti-terrorist legislation introduced two years ago this week. A Home Office spokesman said they had regular access to mental health services and any special needs of disabled prisoners was taken into account. Belmarsh also had a team of mental health specialists including three psychiatrists and three psychiatric nurses.
The highest-profile prisoner is Abu Qatada, a British-based Palestinian cleric whose demands for a holy war are alleged to have inspired al-Qaeda. Videos of his sermons were found in the flat of the leader of the 11 September attacks, Mohamed Atta.
The detainees have been charged with no crime; are unable to see the intelligence evidence against them; and are confined to their cells for up to 22 hours a day. The Government used emergency legislation against them because it had insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution.
Gareth Peirce of law firm Birnberg Peirce, which represents most of the men, said: ‘They have now been pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. All these men are refugees and a number are torture victims. It is well-established that victims of torture should not be confined, because this can trigger former trauma.’
Peirce will raise her concerns tomorrow in a lecture for the human rights organisation Liberty at the London School of Economics to mark the second anniversary of the detainees’ arrests.
Natalia Garcia, a solicitor with two internee clients in Woodhill prison, said: ‘They have a feeling of total despair. One has told me that he feels he has been buried alive. It is as if the whole weight of the state is against you and there is nothing you can do.’
A report from Amnesty International last week condemned the emergency legislation saying it created a ‘shadow criminal justice system’ for foreign nationals which permitted indefinite detention using evidence from foreign intelligence services extracted under torture.
Matthias Kelly QC, chairman of the Bar Council said: ‘I am completely opposed to the use of internment. If the Government has the evidence, why does it not have the confidence to put it up in court?’
Documents seen by The Observer reveal that several of the men are in prison because they were suspected of fundraising for the war against Russia in Chechnya. One man was arrested because he was thought to be ‘working to procure items… for extremists fighting in Chechnya’. These included boots and sleeping bags.
The document shows that the Home Office believes the suspects, mostly Algerians, are members of extremist Islamic groups or associates of individuals connected with terrorism. Six Algerians are accused of membership of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, which have been blamed for for massacring of woman and children.
Others are believed to be members of a second Algerian extremist group, the GSPC, or Salafist Group for Call and Combat, the Tunisian Fighting Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Several detainees are said to have recruited for terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.