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In Failed Extradition Attempt, A European Rebuke Of Solitary Confinement And U.S. ‘Supermax’ Prisons

Matt Stroud

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR, a fascinating system in its own right) has again turned down an attempt by the United Kingdon to extradite a terror suspect to the U.S. The court’s reasoning? U.S. prisons are too harsh.

From The Guardian:

[The ECHR] said that in the light of the medical evidence in the case [that Haroon Rashid Aswat is inflicted with paranoid schizophrenia] there was a real risk that the potentially more hostile prison environment would result in a significant deterioration in his mental and physical health. 

The US department of justice told the court that it could not say with certainty where Aswat would be detained pending his trial or for how long. Aswat has been indicted in the US as a co-conspirator with Abu Hamza in a plan to set up a jihadist training camp in Oregon. 

The latest medical reports in the case indicated that while Aswat’s condition was well controlled, his detention in hospital was required for his medical treatment. 

To simplify that a little: Aswat is mentally ill. If he were sent to the U.S., he’d be sent to a supermax prison, and likely incarcerated in solitary confinement. The European court is both aware and concerned -- as U.S. leaders seem not to be -- that confining someone with mental illness in a cell, alone, for 23 hours per day, is torture and can drive that person to suicide. Putting aside the fact that Aswat has not yet been convicted of any crime in any court, the ECHR thus seemed to conclude that sending Aswat to the U.S was tantamount to sentencing him to death. Here’s how it was explained in a press release:

Mr Aswat complained that his extradition to the USA would not be compatible with Article 3. He alleged in particular: that his [current] detention in Broadmoor Hospital in the United Kingdom was essential for his personal safety and treatment; that, if extradited, he could remain in pre-trial detention for a number of years and there was no information as to the conditions of that detention; and that it was likely that if convicted in the USA he would be detained in ADX Florence (a supermax” prison), where he could be placed alone in a cell and the conditions of isolation were likely to exacerbate his mental illness.


In light of the medical evidence before it, the Court found that there was a real risk that Mr Aswat’s extradition to the USA, a country to which he had no ties, and to a different, potentially more hostile prison environment, would result in a significant deterioration in his mental and physical health. 

There’s so much wrong here, it’s difficult to know where to begin. But let’s settle on the fact that a major court outside the U.S. has not only identified that this nation’s approach to prisoners facing terrorism charges is uncertain,” it has also concluded that our prison system is harsher than that of any other industrialized nation in the world, especially when it comes to incarcerating the mentally ill. On a day when we’re reminding ourselves to never forget,” perhaps we should remember those facts as well.

Win a trip for two to Cascais, Portugal!

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Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>
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