“I hope Theresa May will one day say sorry to my mum for the needless agony she caused her.”
That is the impassioned plea of a Tooting man whose brother with Asperger’s was extradited to the US in 2012, after six years in a British prison without charge.
After 18 months of solitary confinement in a US death row prison without trial, including time in a cell still containing blood from an inmate’s self-mutilation, British citizen Talha Ahsan accepted a deal with US prosecutors to plead guilty to “providing material support to terrorism”, in exchange for a shorter sentence – a deal his lawyers recommended as the only way out.
The charges relate to Mr Ahsan’s brief admin work for a Muslim activist website. A British court has since failed to find evidence the site was a terrorist-supporting organisation.
Insisting on his innocence, Mr Ahsan’s lawyers and family point to the remarks of sentencing judge Janet C Hall, who spoke of him as “peaceful” and “tolerant” and denied the prosecution’s final demand for 15 years by sentencing him to time served.
They also point out that British politicians criticised the US plea bargain system as unjust and coercive, including Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, and Conservative MP David Davies.
Now in American immigration custody, Talha Ahsan will be home later this month. His family do not know exactly when, but are preparing to pick up the pieces of their family life, and rebuild it together.
His brother Hamja Ahsan was a 24-year-old art curator when he came downstairs one morning in 2006 to find his mother crying. “They’ve taken him away,” she said.
What followed was an eight-year nightmare of endless prison visits, time with lawyers, public campaigning, the agony of not knowing what would happen and the stress of constant worry.
In those eight years, Hamja’s life has changed beyond recognition.
Worrying that his parents were elderly and frail, he took on the responsibility of being a public advocate for his brother.
Teaching himself law, the complexities of the American judicial and prison systems and public speaking, he launched a tireless campaign to get justice for his brother, and was shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights Award 2013.
Hamja said: “I was a very shy and socially awkward person actually, and now I’m regarded as a public speaker on civil liberties and have been on every media station.”
Travelling across the UK, Hamja has organised protests, spoken at human rights events, performed the poetry his brother writes in prison, given countless media interviews and even sought out celebrities to tell them about the case.
His parents are immensely proud of what he was achieved.
His father, Abu Ahsan, 75, said: “Hamja has sacrificed his life, really.”
His efforts led to strong support from other campaigners, public figures, writers and musicians who have spoken at his events, expressed their support, written to Talha in prison, and promoted and published his poetry.
These include the Hillsborough campaigners, Tooting MP Sadiq Khan and Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, journalist Owen Jones, academic Noam Chomsky and novelist AL Kennedy.
Ordinary people have also followed the campaign, the family getting hundreds of congratulatory letters after the result, from as far afield as Venezuela and Australia.
A rally outside the Home Office on August 17 was attended by a diverse group of supporters, from CND campaigners to students, from musicians and writers to religious leaders and local politicians.
Speaking of his campaigning years, Hamja said: “I’ve had a total transformation of my personality – I’ve become a better person a 100 times over.”
However, despite these positive experiences, the uncertainty and strain of the past eight years has been extremely hard for the Ahsan family.
Hamja said: “The extradition nightmare has brought us to the verge of mental collapse. You live in a state of dread and uncertainty.
“Talha’s detention without trial seemed to go on forever and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
His mother, Farida Ahsan, 69, who is disabled by severe arthritis, has said she cannot rest until her elder son is back home.
Things became worse after his extradition in 2012. The family knew they had lost the appeal, but only found out his plane had left after seeing it on the news. They had booked a prison visit to see him that weekend.
This hurt even more when they saw Theresa May talking about the extradition of their son and other suspects at that year’s Conservative Party conference, saying: “Wasn’t it great to say goodbye?”
Hamja has experienced severe depression due to the desperation of the situation and the pressure of his responsibilities.
He said: “There were times when I felt like drinking myself to death, so it has been difficult.
“But I don’t cry or anything. My mum cries a lot, even when the BBC comes to the house, so I have to stay level-headed.”
What has pulled him through is the support and stories of other justice campaigners, such as the Hillsborough campaigners and the family of Gary McKinnon, the hacking suspect who also has Asperger’s, whose extradition to the US was blocked by Theresa May after a heavily-publicised campaign.
“All the extradition families are good friends now,” said Hamja. “There’s not like a therapy programme for people who have been abused by the state, so that was what we did.”
Mr McKinnon’s mother Janis has even written a poem for Talha, in which she says: “We are deeply saddened that you are alone/thousands of miles from home/and pray that we will soon be back in the UK where you belong.”
Now that this return is really happening, his family are looking to the future.
Mr Ahsan has several poetry readings scheduled, and has told his family he wants to get driving lessons. Both brothers are also eager to start PhDs.
Their father is keen to support their studies, but also harbours other parental hopes.”I hope both of them will get married,” he said.
Mr Ahsan before his detention
While Hamja is optimistic about both their futures, he does not feel he can relax yet. Not only because he wants to keep campaigning against injustices he feels are getting worse. He also despises the “extremist” caricature of his brother that he argues his own government promoted – and worries that his plea bargain conviction will cement that picture in people’s minds.
Born into a cosmopolitan Bengali family, Hamja, an atheist while growing up, remembers his brother as both a pious Muslim and a curious and open-minded young man with a love for feminist punk rock and the poetry of Ted Hughes.
An award-winning poet since he has been in prison, Mr Ahsan has also forged friendships with people around the world from his cell, some of whom, including AL Kennedy, felt so strongly they wrote to the sentencing judge about his good character.
The apology Hamja wants from the Home Secretary is about his mother’s pain. But it is also about recognising his brother’s humanity, acknowledging that he is more than a forgotten name on an extradition list, to be used as a political football and misleadingly associated with terrorism in the minds of the public.
For this family, an apology would be an acknowledgment from the government that the Talha Ahsan they condemned to solitary confinement on death row, without seeing any evidence is a son, a brother, a friend and a person.
“Imagine how it feels when the person you shared a bunk bed with is now in solitary confinement,” his brother said.