In 2015 Syed, from Hounslow, West London, wanted to join the Islamic State, but the British security services prevented him from travelling to Syria. Instead, he purchased a large kitchen knife with the intention of attacking an innocent member of the public in the street and beheading them. He was planning to carry out an attack on a date close to Armistice Day in 2015.
When he was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in 2015, Syed was told he may never be released. But chillingly, he remained intent on carrying out a beheading, even while locked up in Britain’s most secure institutions.
In 2017 the High Court ruled that the conditions of his detention breached his human rights, prompting an appeal by the Government.
On Thursday the Court of Appeal finally upheld his claim. The judges found that Syed had been locked in his cell for between 20 ¾ and 21 ½ hours a day for a period of over 4 ½ months from 2nd November 2016 to mid-March 2017.
In this week’s ruling the Court of Appeal praised the High Court judgment which they described as being of ‘admirable thoroughness and clarity’.
Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, sitting with the Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Etherton and Lord Justice Hamblen, rejected the government’s appeal, adding: ‘Lewis J applied the correct principles to the facts and arrived at an answer which he was both entitled to, and right to, reach, namely that the restrictions to which NS was subjected under the MCBS Unit regime did sufficiently interfere with NS’s right to a private life such as to engage Article 8(1). He went on to hold that such restrictions, although pursuant to a legitimate object and proportionate, were not in accordance with the law and were therefore not justified under Article 8(2).’
During his initial detention Syed was held in isolation in a unit with a small number of other segregated prisoners. He was allowed daily exercise and time outside his cell for domestic chores (Monday to Friday), but only had limited opportunities for association with prisoners. He had no opportunity to participate in activities outside the Unit until 2 February 2017 (since which time he has had once-weekly access to the library).
On 17 March 2017, he was able to attend Friday prayers. The court said these restrictions went ‘beyond the restrictions and limitations inherent in lawful detention and need, therefore, to be justified.’
According to court documents, the authorities claim that while he was on remand before his trial began, Syed had ‘commented that, if he were convicted (as he was in December 2015), he would carry out the act that he was in prison for (that is, the act of preparing for an act of terrorism by acquiring a knife in order to kill, and behead, a person)’.
Just weeks after he was found guilty of preparation of terrorist acts, he was heard making murderous threats at Category A Woodhill jail in Buckinghamshire.
‘On the morning of January 7, 2016, there were reports that the claimant was part of a group of prisoners who were hitting cell doors, stating that officers oppressed Muslims, shouting Allahu Akbar and uttering threats of beheading,’ according to the court judgment.
When a guard entered Syed’s cell, the prisoner said that if officers ‘violated one [Muslim] brother, they violate all’, making more threats to behead prison staff all morning. He then tried to get one particular officer to come into his cell, which the judge concluded was ‘an aggressive act and, indeed, reflects the same kind of hostility that had led to the act resulting in his conviction’.
Syed was put in a segregation cell shortly afterwards, and weeks later was placed in a secure wing called the Central Managing Challenging Behaviour Unit (CMCBSU), because of the threat he posed to guards, and because of the fear that he was inciting other inmates to attack warders. A Prison Service assessment of him said: ‘Mr Syed has a lot of intelligence stating that he has intentions to take staff hostage and behead them. He is also documented inciting others to disruptive behaviour and at HMP Belmarsh took part in this in the segregation unit, at the time he was also calling out “this is jihad”, and he threatened to radicalise the whole unit. Mr Syed presents a risk to others, especially staff and should be treated as such at all times. Staff are not to be alone with him to prevent the risk of hostage-taking.’
Despite the danger that he posed to staff, three Appeal Court judges have ruled that Woodhill prison breached Syed’s human rights by locking him in the CMCBSU.
His lawyers argued that restricting his ability to talk to other prisoners breached his right to respect for his private life under Article 8 of the controversial European Convention on Human Rights.
One of the judges said that Syed’s confinement was unlawful because the prison authorities did not notify him beforehand that he was to be placed in the unit, and thereby give him an opportunity to respond. The detention was ‘unlawful’ because it was ‘procedurally flawed’.
However, the appeal court has decided his claim does not warrant damages. The judges also upheld the decision that the conditions under which Syed was detained in the MCBS Unit at HMP Woodhill did not amount to “removal from association” within the meaning of rule 45 of the Prison Rules. Syed’s case highlights the danger that jihadi prisoners pose in British jails.
Of the 13,000 Muslim inmates in the country’s prisons, about 1,000 are either extremists or are vulnerable to radicalisation, a parliamentary report found last year. Some of Britain’s most dangerous extremists are believed to have been radicalised while in custody.
Westminster killer Khalid Masood, 52, is believed to have converted to Islam in prison and became radicalised. Richard Reid, 44, the Briton who was convicted in the US of trying to blow up an airliner with a bomb hidden in his shoe, is also believed to have converted to Islam while in prison.
Critics have described the ‘jail within a jail’ as Britain’s answer to Guantanamo Bay, but the MoJ says the move is essential to protect other inmates from being radicalised.