Fighting ghosts: an interview with Husein Al-Samamara

July 1, 2010 — Interview

Written by Frances Webber

Below we publish an interview with Husein Al-Samamara, currently subjected to draconian immigration bail conditions in the UK as he fights against his deportation to Jordan, where he was imprisoned and tortured.

Husein Al-Samamara was interviewed by Frances Webber in October 2009, but legal issues prevented publication. He recently decided to ‘go public’ about his situation, and a filmed interview was shown on BBC’s Newsnight on 16 June 2010. He was facing revocation of his bail for that filmed interview. However, at a Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) hearing, the judge ruled that he could remain on bail – on the ground that he did not wish to make a martyr of Al-Samamara.

Husein Al-Samamara: My name is Husein Al-Samamara. I am a Palestinian. I was born in Jordan, and I was there until I was 23 years old. Before that I’d been in trouble with the Jordanian authorities for talking against them in the mosque … I arrived in this country in May 2001 and claimed asylum straight away, at Heathrow airport. I was so scared of being sent back to Jordan, I gave false details – false name, false story, everything false except for my date of birth – because I didn’t want to say anything which would send me back to Jordan.

Frances Webber: When did your problems here start?

Husein Al-Samamara: My problems started in this country in 2004, when I was arrested under the Terrorism Act. I went to work as usual, and my manager said there were people who needed to speak to me in the main manager’s office. I went to the office, and I found two men in civilian clothes, and they said, ‘We’re police, you’re under arrest under the Terrorism Act’. I was so shocked, I asked ‘What’s going on?’ They said, ‘We have to handcuff you’. I said, ‘Listen, you don’t need to, people are going to look at me.’ But then I looked through the window and there were about fifteen police cars in the car park. So I said ‘OK, my workmates already know’, so I let them put these cuffs on. They took me to Halesowen police station, and started questioning me. They asked if I knew bin Laden. I said ‘Yes, I know him, he’s on TV every day. He’s on the news all around the world’. They asked me about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He said al-Zarqawi came from the same city I came from. I said, ‘does that mean I had to know him?’ He said, ‘And he was in the same prison’. I said ‘I’d never seen him and he wasn’t in the same prison’.

[Mr Al-Samamara was questioned about a will and CDs found in his room in the house he shared with other asylum seekers.]

I was held in that police station for five days and released without any charge. Their questions showed that they knew who I was – they knew I wasn’t ‘Abdullah’, and they were asking about Jordan [not the West Bank, where Mr Al-Samamara had claimed to be from in his asylum claim]. So I realised that they must have got the information from the intelligence service in Jordan. What confirmed this was that a month after my release I went to sign on at the Home Office [as a refused asylum seeker] and found people waiting for me there. They said they need to speak to me. The older guy introduced himself as from MI5, and there was an Asian man and one woman from North Africa. They said, ‘Your name’s Husein, it’s not Abdullah’, I said ‘OK’, and the older guy started questioning me again about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He started showing me photographs of myself taken in the GDI (secret service) building in Jordan. He told me, ‘We work together with the GDI’. He continued showing me photos, some taken in the same GDI building, some in the police station and some in prison in Jordan. He said he was sorry I had had a hard time in Jordan. I told him that what I lived through in Jordan, I wanted to forget, it was in the past, and I didn’t want anybody to be sorry for me. He was saying things like, ‘We can help you, we’re not asking you to do anything, just be good, be nice to us and we can help you. We can help you stay in this country.’ I said that I didn’t need help from anyone. I wanted to be free of the whole situation I was in in Jordan. As I left the building, the Asian man said he needed to search the car. We went to the car park and he started searching the car. And the lady said, ‘Come on, just tell us, all the questions he asked you, is all that true?’ I said I hadn’t said anything to him and I wasn’t going to say anything to her, there in the car park just because she was a nice lady.

By this time you’d been in the UK three years?

Husein Al-Samamara: I’d made many friends. Apart from these problems, things were OK. After my release I had gone back to work, and that was OK, I stayed there until December 2005, when I decided to leave to start my own business, which I did in January 2006, buying damaged cars, breaking them down for parts and sending them abroad … I bought a fork lift and a recovery truck, I passed my UK driving test and then started doing the truck licence. Until July 2006 … I’d met my wife in 2005 and we married in October. After we got married she moved from London to Birmingham. She came into this country to do her Masters degree, in Business Administration … After we married she left her studies. We decided just to have a family life.

On 13 July 2006 our first baby, a daughter, was born. I was in the hospital during the birth. And then I had a call from a police station in Birmingham, telling me they needed me to go in and make a statement about an incident I had reported to them where someone sold me fake insurance for my car. So I said ‘OK, I’m in the hospital now, and my wife just gave birth. I’ll come tomorrow’, which was Friday. The officer went silent for a second, and then said, ‘You know what, just come in Monday [17 July].’

So Monday, I did a small party for my baby girl. She was just three days old at the time. The appointment with the officer was at 5pm. I called before I went, and asked if it was going to take long because we’re having a party. He said ‘just ten minutes maximum’. A friend drove me down and I said ‘stay in the car, I’m not going to be long, ten minutes’. I went inside the police station where the officer was waiting for me. He put me in a small room and said ‘Just give me two minutes, I’ll be back’. He went outside, then he came back with something like ten officers, all wearing like helmets, and he said to me ‘You are under arrest, your asylum claim has been refused and you’re going to be deported back to your home country’. That was it. They never asked me any questions. I asked if I could speak to my lawyer, they said ‘we will inform your lawyer’. I said ‘OK, can I speak to my wife?’ They said no, not now, later on. So they took me to a cell.

The next morning, they said if you want to speak to your wife you can, but only in English. I said, ‘But I speak Arabic, she speaks Arabic, why do I have to speak in English with her?’ They said ‘you have to, otherwise you don’t speak to her’. So I spoke to my wife. She gave birth by caesarean, she wasn’t really well. I told her ‘don’t worry, it’s just an immigration problem’.

They transferred me from the police station to Long Lartin high security prison. There I realised I was not in a detention centre. I’d never been in prison [in the UK], and I was aware that if you have immigration problems you go to detention, not a prison. There were eighteen detainees – I was told later the unit was just opened for us, after being closed for fifteen years. They started telling me about SIAC, secret evidence, and all that, and I didn’t believe them. I said ‘that’s rubbish, what secret’, and they said ‘Yeah, you’re going to be here for a long time, don’t worry’. They were laughing at me. So I called my solicitor, I remember the first time she explained to me about SIAC, and secret evidence, and she said ‘I’ll try to get you out, but …’ I was in shock. For the first six, seven months I was still having a hope that this was wrong, and I was going to be released. But after that, you know …

[Bail was refused by SIAC in December 2006 and July 2007, on the basis of ‘closed’ evidence, despite the judges accepting that Mr Al-Samamara’s imprisonment was severely affecting his wife and baby daughter.]

I spent two years in Long Lartin. After Abu Qatada won his case in the Court of Appeal, because he’s Jordanian, the same as me, the court contacted my solicitors and told them to apply for bail.

Were you released straight away?

Husein Al-Samamara: The Home Office said they didn’t need any surety. But the court said no, we need a surety. Mr Mitting [the chairman of SIAC] said he wanted my friend, who had offered before. My friend was in Pakistan. The judge said that’s fine, just send him a fax to sign. He was in a village, and he had to travel to a place where they had a fax. When he went there the electricity was down, so he had to go back again and he had to do the same again. It was very difficult. But in the end he got the statement, signed it and faxed it back.

Then the Home Office wouldn’t let me go back to the flat where I used to live. They said they were looking for a house for me. I waited [in prison] for nearly two months for the Home Office to come up with a place. [Mr Al-Samamara’s lawyers went to court over the Home Office’ continuing failure to find alternative accommodation for him to enable him to be released.] The judge gave them one week, and they came up with the house where I was rehoused.

That place was completely isolated. I’d lived in Birmingham for five years before I got arrested, but I never saw that area before. The Home Office lied, they said the house had got access to a halal butcher and a mosque. They pointed these two places out on a map. We went there. My solicitor went before me and she was looking for this mosque and this halal butcher and she couldn’t find either. She said probably I’m unfamiliar with the area, we’ll look again. So I got released and moved to that house, it was completely isolated. There were no Asian people at all in that area -which is fine, but it wasn’t that nice. There were so many racist incidents. My wife was attacked in that area.

[In one incident Mrs Al-Samamara took her daughter to the swings and white mothers immediately removed their children from the swings.]

Why did they do that?

Husein Al-Samamara: Because her face is covered -she wears the veil. She used to get sworn at in the street, every single day. One time, I was in the hospital for an operation on my thigh, and she had to go out to get some bread and some stuff. She went with our daughter. On the way back, in the alleyway leading from the main street to where I live, a white man stopped her and was swearing at her and calling her names, and he was in a position to attack her, and she had a mobile in her pocket and she called the police. The man left.

Another time, we were physically assaulted. I went out with my wife and daughter, in the two hours I have, just to have a walk on a sunny nice day. Outside the Select and Save shop, which is the only shop we have in the area, there were three men and they started calling my wife names. To be perfectly honest, I ignored them as I didn’t want to get into trouble because of my situation. I went into the shop to get bread, but they were still calling my wife names, she was in the car with our daughter. So I said, ‘Just have some respect. What’s wrong with you, you’re calling a lady names?’ And then one of them just pushed me and swore at me. So I held him by the hand. Another man came from behind, and he punched me, and another one came at me, just attacked me with a stun gun. I fell onto the ground and my head hit the pavement. I just was stunned for a few seconds. I woke and my wife was screaming, crying, my daughter was crying.

[The racial abuse and attacks were so bad that the police told Mr Al-Samamara to carry a mobile phone on him at all times to report the incidents, unaware of the fact that he was not allowed one. Mr Al-Samamara’s lawyers went to court for an order for the Home Office to rehouse them, but it was refused.]

Before this attack happened, I had been reporting every single incident [of racist abuse] to the police and to the Home Office. We’d been trying, asking them, pressing them, saying ‘This is what we’ve been through.’ But the Home Office had refused to move me from that area. But straightaway after that last incident the police informed the Home Office that they had to move me immediately.

[Eventually Mr Al-Samamara was moved out of Birmingham. He currently lives in a multi-racial area of London with his wife, daughter and infant son.]

How do the bail conditions affect you?

Husein Al-Samamara: The conditions are so hard, to be honest, it’s not for a human being. I’m only allowed out for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Then, I’m not allowed to go anywhere I want. It’s only within a certain area the Home Office give me. I can’t cross the boundary, that would be a breach of bail. I have to wear a [electronic] tag twenty-four hours a day. I have to sleep with it, I have to live with it, I have to walk with it. I have to report [to the security company] when I leave the house and when I come back. And I’m not allowed to have a mobile phone, I’m not allowed to have a computer, I’m not allowed to have anything which can be called a storage device, anything you can record on, I’m not allowed to have in the house. I’m not allowed to have a camera, I’m not allowed to have visitors unless they apply for clearance from the Home Office – even doctors.

My wife got ill, she got really mentally ill, and the doctors and the nurses needed to come to see her regularly. But they were rejected by the Home Office unless they applied for clearance. And these people were shocked, to be asked to give their personal details. They said ‘but we are doctors’. Just today it happened again – my solicitor contacted me in the morning, because we asked the midwife to come, as my wife has just given birth recently, and again, the Home Office replied today saying no, they have to apply individually for clearance, and give their personal details. So these are the conditions I’ve lived under for nearly one and a half years, since my release, July 2008. The only visitors I’m allowed to have regularly, without clearance, are the police – and they come every couple of days and search the house, upside down, they go through everything.

Have you any idea how long this is going to go on?

Husein Al-Samamara: I have no idea, to be honest with you. The case I’m fighting, it’s like I’m fighting a ghost. I don’t know what I’m fighting. Everything is secret. I’m not allowed to see anything. The evidence they say they have against me is held in secret.

[The Home Office asserted that Mr Al-Samamara had undertaken terrorist training in Afghanistan, associated with Islamist extremists in the UK and overseas, and had links with al-Zarqawi, but refused to provide any particulars or evidence, and SIAC upheld the refusal.]

In your appeal against deportation which SIAC rejected, they were talking about material that was found in your 2004 arrest, weren’t they? They were talking about this will.

Husein Al-Samamara: This will I wrote when I was in prison in Jordan, and I wasn’t hiding that will anyway. I just had it on the shelf. When they raided my house in 2004 they found it. And they were also talking about the CD Roms which they said were in my room in the house [in 2004]. They said they were some al-Qaida manual. I never saw them but this is what they said was on them. I said these were not mine, I didn’t even have a computer then.

But, you were questioned about both items in 2004 and released without charge.

Husein Al-Samamara: Yes. This is the only thing they told me about in the open. If there was any other evidence, it was secret.

So what’s happened to your case since? Because that was about a couple of years ago.

Husein Al-Samamara: Yes, nearly two and a half years ago now. Since then, nothing, except these terrible conditions. I’m still living under these conditions. I appealed to the Court of Appeal, and I’ve been waiting all this time for a hearing. Until just yesterday [19 October 2009], I had a hearing in the Court of Appeal about the grounds.

In Abu Qatada’s case, and in your case, I think SIAC accepted that people accused of terrorism in Jordan were tortured systematically –

Husein Al-Samamara: Yes, by the GDI.

But why did they still say that you could go back to Jordan?

Husein Al-Samamara: I have no idea. They said ‘we are promised by the Jordanians that they won’t torture you’, and on that assurance SIAC said ‘you can go back’.

So you’re waiting to hear from the Court of Appeal, and in the meantime you’re still living under these conditions. How has your life, your wife’s life been affected by living like this?

Husein Al-Samamara: My family life, my wife and daughter, have been affected so badly. Recently my wife spent nearly two months in the hospital. She’s got really mentally ill, she’s got agoraphobia now, she can’t go out at all now, unless if I go with her. This is how badly it’s affecting my wife. She was released from hospital about a month ago but she’s still bad, and the mental health team have visited her, for the first two weeks every day, now twice a week. We have to go to the hospital once every two weeks to be seen by the senior doctor, because of her problems.

And before all of this started, what sort of person was she?

Husein Al-Samamara: She was a very, very active woman, she used to be happy, and when I started that business with the cars, she used to be cooking, cleaning the house, and even helped me in the car business. She used to do work on the computer …

Do you think your daughter has been affected?

Husein Al-Samamara: Absolutely. I’m really close to my daughter. After I was released, I have built up a good relationship with her. Recently, a friend of my wife took her to her house to play. I called my wife’s friend and I asked her to give me my daughter to speak to her on the phone. And she just wouldn’t, she was crying, ‘I don’t want to speak, I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back’. She didn’t want to come back to the flat. Sometimes she wants me to take her out and I can’t because of the curfew. She’s only three and a half, she doesn’t understand why I can’t take her out. Sometimes she says, ‘I need to have some crisps, I need to have some drink, take me to the shop’. I say ‘I can’t’. We Muslims say inshallah, that means ‘If God wills it’. She starts hating that word, every time I say ‘We’ll do it tomorrow inshallah‘, she says ‘No, don’t inshallah, no inshallah‘. She doesn’t understand even what inshallah means, but she knows that when I say it, it means there are going to be delays, it’s going to be tomorrow. So this is how bad it is. It’s affecting the whole family. And me personally, but I’m trying to show them I’m strong, I’m OK.

One of the things you’ve done to keep your own sanity and strength is building with your matchsticks. Tell us a bit about that.

Yes. I never thought in my life I would do anything like build with matchsticks. When I was in Long Lartin for the first time in my life I saw people doing this, building with matchsticks, so I started doing these projects, just to keep my brain occupied, and I really enjoyed it. I managed to do a jewellery box first, for my wife, then I did the mosque for her. Then I did the boat, and the boat and the mosque were exhibited last year. The boat was sold at an auction, and I gave the money to the charity who exhibited them.

[In a glass display case is a beautiful mosque, with a central dome, pillared courtyards and four minarets, made entirely from matchsticks. Another of Mr Al-Samamara’s matchstick creations, a traditional sailing boat with a curved prow, was sold at a Cageprisoners auction for £3,000.]

Related links

Cageprisoners

Watch the BBC Newsnight report: Terror suspect speaks about life under ‘house arrest’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Control orders challenged’

This interview record was compiled using notes taken during the interview.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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