London, Asharq Al-Awsat- It was only by chance that Asharq al-Awsat and Palestinian Islamist Mahmud Abu-Ridah, alias Abu-Rasmi, who had been electronically tagged by Scotland Yard by the order of the British Home Office for some 13 months, met near Holborn underground station in London one early morning last week as I was on my way to the Arab Press House.
Asharq al-Awsat met Mahmud Abu-Ridah for the first time approximately a year ago, when he was wearing the electronic tag on his ankle, which monitored his every move. It was taken off a few months ago at the order of the British courts. This time, Abu-Ridah appeared more psychologically stable, but he was angry and agitated when he talked about the lack of freedom that he has due to the ” restrictions” imposed upon him by the British Home Office.
Abu-Ridah carries on his shoulder a rucksack full of the press interviews conducted with him, including cuttings from the British press, and copies of the minutes of the detention and arrest reports in Belmarsh high-security prison and Broadmoor psychiatric hospital in England.
Abu-Ridah, who was placed in detention in London four years ago because of alleged suspicions of links to international terrorism, said: “I was moved between Belmarsh prison and Broadmoor hospital according to secret evidence that was not revealed to anyone. They did not put me on trial, or charge me. Then they released me subject to house arrest and ‘electronic tagging’ that was fitted to my ankle. Today I suffer on both accounts.”
Abu-Ridah questions, “What freedom do I enjoy now? I am banned from using the telephone, the Internet, or meeting anybody, and no one can visit me in my house without obtaining permission in advance from the British home secretary.”
Abu-Rasmi, who adopted the name after his brother who was killed in the Palestinian Intifada in 1989, said that he was afraid to go near the house phone or even answer telephone calls from his mother who would enquire about him through his wife as to answer the phone would be breaking the house-arrest restrictions. Abu-Ridah seemed annoyed and upset during the interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in a cafe near Holborn underground station when he talked about the police officers knocking on his door after midnight, waking up his children because Scotland Yard’s officers came to ensure that he was home and had not broken the restrictions of his temporary release.
Abu-Rasmi said, “I am like a person walking on the edge,” because he is afraid of making a mistake, being arrested and sent back to the high-security prison. He explained that the British Home Office recently renewed his house-arrest order for another year, but he felt that his family was exposed to huge injustice. Abu-Ridah pointed out that the house-arrest restrictions were imposed simultaneously upon his family, his five children, and his wife, because he was not able to welcome even his mother, brother, or any relative to his home without prior permission from the home secretary through an application with a photograph of the visitor. He said that obtaining the permission, which he described as a “difficult to achieve” dream, could take several months.
Abu-Rasmi said that the removal of the plastic electronic tag, which monitored his movement around the clock, from his ankle, did not change the reality of his situation, because he still felt under surveillance, and that his freedom was curtailed. He pointed out that he wanted to feel like any normal person in London; he wanted to go to his favorite mosque, which is near his house, whenever he wishes. He wants to receive whomever he wants of his family and friends to his house whenever he wishes.”
Abu-Ridah said that every now and then, he felt that he was being followed by British intelligence officers in the streets of London. He said, “It is a curtailed freedom; even the high-security hospital, or Belmarsh prison were better than my current situation.” Abu-Ridah added that his lawyer sought to change his mind about many of his ideas such as to stage a sit-in in front of the High Court, Big Ben, or the British Parliament until he has gained complete freedom. He argued, “No one loses a right as long as he keeps demanding it.”
Abu-Ridah said that he submitted an urgent application last Ramadan to the British home secretary to be allowed to perform the night prayers of Ramadan in the mosque near his house, and so far, he has not received an answer. He said that after being released from Broadmoor hospital, his 70-year old mother has not been able to visit his home, has only met him in the streets where they have even prayed together.
Abu-Ridah said that because of these oppressive measures, his family and friends have distanced themselves from him. Even his children’s school friends are afraid of visiting the family home. He asks, “Do you think that anyone would want to have his photograph and name sent to the British Home Office just to visit me or see my children? Now, everybody fears for himself.”
Abu-Ridah said that he wishes that the British authorities would deport him as soon as possible to Palestine, his homeland, together with his children, because at least in Gaza City (where is he from) he would be able to take part in congregational prayers in the mosque near his house. In addition, in Gaza City, he would not feel the injustice that he feels in London when the police stop him randomly to search his clothes. I asked him if that was because of his beard, to which he nodded and answered, “Yes.” Abu-Rasmi became annoyed when I asked him tentatively, “then why do you not shave your beard off?”
Abu-Rasmi stressed, “The police in London stopped and searched me seven times in one day after the London attacks of July 2005.” He added, “The entire process could take seconds or minutes, but I felt very embarrassed because of the looks of the passers-by as the police searched my clothes.” He said that in Gaza City, policeman would be speaking Arabic, his language and the language of his family and friends, and he would be able to talk to the police without being subjected to the racism he claims to suffer from by the London police.
Abu-Ridah, or Abu-Rasmi as he likes to be called, still remembers the time approximately four years when he was moving between Belmarsh high-security prison and Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. He pointed out, “These days are engraved in my head, and will not be forgotten easily. Abu-Ridah said, “In Belmarsh prison in southwest London, which is known as “Britain’s Guantanamo,” there are some 90 Islamists that suffer the worst types of torture, but people and the media only talk about Abu-Ghuraib prison in Iraq, and the Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.”
According to British emergency laws, Abu-Ridah is allowed to leave his house in Fulham in southwest London between 0700 and 1900 hours every day; any deviation from these times would make him liable to immediate arrest.
Abu-Rasmi talks about the fright and terror inflicted upon his children when a police officer comes to look for him during the late hours. He says, “Sometimes they knock on the door; at other times they break the door down without even waiting for anybody to open it.”
Abu-Ridah says that the British Government claims that he represents a danger to public security, and therefore puts him under surveillance, and imposes restrictions on him “according to the new Anti-Terrorism Law,” but it leaves him free to go out for 12 hours every day. He adds, “I am not a terrorist, but I am a Muslim Arab from Palestine, and I was collecting donations within the framework of charity work in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, and in Chechnya and Kashmir.” He adds, “All my charities are registered officially in Britain under the title of ‘Islamic Services Office,” and there are bank accounts in the name of this organization.” He points out, “The bank account of this charity has not been frozen yet.”
Abu-Ridah revealed that he went to Pakistan in 1994 with his wife, Umm-Khalid, who obtained a contract to work for the Al-Manar Institution, while he worked at that time for the Al-Birr Islamic Charity Organization before moving to the Islamic Services Office. Al-Birr Islamic Charity was managed by Muhammad Yusuf Abbas after the killing of Abdallah Azzam, the spiritual leader of the Arab-Afghans. After that, Abu-Ridah traveled to Bangkok in 1995 for three days, and from there to London, where he applied for political asylum. Abu-Ridah also revealed that in 2000, he went to Afghanistan for 40 days to become acquainted with charities that would be managing there.
Abu-Ridah said that the funds he collected in Britain were allocated for looking after orphans and widows in numerous Muslim countries. He explained that he was supervising 25 Islamic schools in Afghanistan, including the “Abu-Bakr al-Siddiq School for Boys,” and “Khadijah Umm-al-Muminin School for Girls,” which were dedicated to teaching the children of the Arab fighters during Taliban rule.
Last year, the British Home Office released Abu-Rasmi and nine other fundamentalists, including Abu Qatada, Umar Mahmud Uthman. Abu-Qatada has been described as “Al-Qaeda’s ambassador to Europe,” and was later arrested, and is currently detained in prison in northern England. Abu-Ridah was detained according to new laws issued after the 11 September attacks due to his alleged relations with the Taliban Movement.
Abu-Ridah arrived in Britain in January 1995, applied for political asylum, and was granted permanent residency in 1998. He was born in Gaza City and carried Egyptian travel documents. He was arrested by British Police on 19 December 2001.
Abu-Ridah talked about his suffering in Belmarsh prison, which he called “Britain’s Guantanamo.” He said that Belmarsh guards assaulted him on 27 January 2002: “For two weeks after that, I was kept naked as punishment because they claimed that I assaulted one of the officers; the prison warden was eventually convinced that the guards had fabricated that story.”