on the world: a view on human rights
On 21 May 2015, Anis Sardar, a 38-year black cab driver from northwest London, became the only person in the United Kingdom to be tried and convicted for involvement in the Iraq War. He was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to murder through joint enterprise in relation to the death of Sergeant Randy Johnson, a US soldier, in a roadside bomb near Baghdad in 2007. The sole evidence hinged on fingerprints on the tape around improvised explosive devices (IED) found nearby years later. On 23 July, ahead of an appeal, his family and friends held a public meeting in Wembley, London, to raise awareness of his case through the Justice 4 Anis Sardar campaign.
The publication of the Chilcot Inquiry Report into the 2003 invasion of Iraq reopened old wounds and raised new questions about the reasons – illegal or otherwise – that led Britain to join the US-led invasion and consequent war in Iraq. According to The Independent newspaper, the “greatest tragedy” and unanswered question is the unknown number of Iraqis who died as a result of this intervention. The Iraqi people, whom the war was intended to liberate, are largely invisible in the report, and any western narrative on the war.
Thirteen years later, Iraq is still at war. Very little is known of the consequences of the war for the Iraqi people. The decade between the start of the war and when the mass media deemed the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) newsworthy in June 2014 is particularly obscure.
When Anis Sardar visited Iraq in 2006, the country had almost completely disintegrated into a sectarian power struggle between Muslim Shiite and Sunni militia groups, the latter including Kurdish militias. Such armed groups provided local security for their communities but pushed others out of their areas by force. Many called that particularly violent period in 2006-7 “a civil war”. Ethnic and religious cleansing was going on in many areas. For the US, it was important to avoid such a definition, which undermined its military presence in the country and the purported success of its campaign.
The violence escalated; 2006 was the bloodiest year in Iraq since the conflict started. Over 45,000 Iraqis were forced to flee their homes each month. Almost 2 million Iraqis were internally displaced by the end of 2006, with a similar number seeking refuge abroad. More than half fled to neighbouring Syria with over three quarters living in Damascus, where Anis Sardar came into contact with these refugees and learned of the desperate situation they had left behind as well as the difficulties they faced.
During his trial in 2015, Anis Sardar was described by the prosecution as “a highly dangerous man” who made “bombs to kill US soldiers”. He was portrayed as an extremist. His campaign, however, painted a very different picture.
Dr Thanweer Farquhar from the Justice 4 Anis Campaign described him as a caring person who took an interest in the people around him. Family members described him as a generous person who always tried to help others.
Anis Sardar was born into an Indian Muslim family in London. In his late teens, he started to take an interest in religion. As part of his quest to know more about the Islamic faith, he wished to learn Arabic. He travelled to Damascus for the first time in 1997, aged 19, and would spend most of the following decade in Syria. He travelled to Syria for a purpose: he was committed to mastering the Arabic language. After several years, he became fluent enough to enrol on a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at a university in Damascus.
In 2003, Iraq was invaded. Refugees started to pour into Syria and told horror stories that were never reported in the western media. Sardar had made friends with an Iraqi refugee called Abu Muhammad. In 2006, he went back to Iraq to try to get his parents out. Sardar went with him, offering to help. They took medical supplies with them. In a country overrun by militias, he had no military skills to offer, nor did he acquire any there. He had not attempted to go previously or expressed any interest in doing so.
He stayed in Iraq for nearly six months, with Abu Muhammad in his village near Baghdad. The Sunni villagers were fearful of ongoing attacks by Shiite militias, so he would sometimes act as a night watchman to warn of approaching militias. A canal running near the village often had dead bodies that showed signs of torture and mutilation floating in it.
On one occasion, he and Abu Muhammad visited a man in the Shula district of Baghdad. Villagers were at the house making IEDs. He was asked to help by taping them together. The devices were later placed on unused dirt roads towards the entrance to the village. The dirt tracks were admittedly seldom used by the US military but on 27 September 2007 an armoured vehicle Sergeant Randy Johnson, 34, was travelling in tripped the pressure plate device on an IED, killing him.
By this time, Sardar had long returned to Damascus. What he had seen in Iraq traumatised him and he did not continue his studies. He returned to the UK in 2008 where he was fingerprinted during a random check at Heathrow Airport. He resumed his life in the UK and was not involved in any Islamist or extremist activity. He got married and started working as a black cab driver. He has a 2-year old daughter. He was arrested almost 7 years after Johnson’s death in September 2014.
The only evidence linking Sardar to the death of Sgt Johnson is his fingerprints found on two of a batch of 4 IEDs found near the site years later by the US military. This evidence, and other debris, was among millions of items taken to the United States for analysis as criminal evidence. At his trial, the jury was presented with the two fragments of tapes and photographs of his fingerprints, but no information about the circumstances surrounding the death and the situation in Iraq at the time.
The other evidence is purely circumstantial. There is no actual proof that he killed anyone or had such an intention. The four IEDs were found in the area over a period of months. The prints of another man called Sajjad Adnan, who was handed over to the Iraqi authorities and has since “disappeared”, were also found on the IEDs, including the one that killed Sgt Johnson. Sardar’s prints were not found on that particular device but the fact that the other man’s had been was used to incriminate him.
According to Peirce, picking up pieces from the theatre of war and using them as evidence years later creates “an artificial environment” in an ordinary criminal case. By 2015, with the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group a well-known force in Iraq and worldwide, it would be hard for a jury in a criminal trial, uninformed and unaware of the evolution of the situation in Iraq, to dismiss prejudices and biases based on the current situation. Sardar’s defence asked not to have the jury decide on the murder charge. This was rejected; the jury was asked to consider complex issues related to a multilateral international conflict.
Sardar did not make the bombs, nor did he place them. He was charged on joint enterprise with Adnan. Initially, he was charged only with conspiracy to murder; the murder charge came later. Peirce stated that it is odd that the US did not request his extradition for the death of a US citizen in Iraq. In light of the use of the death penalty in some US states and the flimsy evidence, it is unlikely that a British court would extradite him. Instead, as it so often does as the underdog in the “special relationship”, he was tried by an English court doing the US’ dirty work for it.
Anis Sardar’s trial started in late April 2015 and lasted around one month. The highly politicised trial took place at Woolwich Crown Court, a military area of London. The trial was attended by senior counter-terrorism officials and a US military lawyer each day. Prosecution witnesses appeared in full military uniform.
Sardar did not deny having helped the villagers on that occasion or having wrapped tape around the devices. His defence hinged on the villagers’ need for self-defence and the context in which he found himself. The intended target was Shiite militias, not the US military.
To protect their identities and sensitive military information, the prosecution witnesses were granted anonymity. On the other hand, Sardar was unable to call witnesses as the defence was not granted the same protection. Witnesses for the defence were not easy to find; Sardar himself did not remember his co-defendant when first asked about him many years later , a man he had met briefly on one occasion.
These witnesses – who included Iraqi refugees, international journalists and ex-military personnel – would be essential to prove the Iraqi community was acting in self-defence and assisted by Sardar to this end. A defence of self-defence, if established, permits the use of lethal force where necessary. Given in particular that some of the witnesses have family in Iraq, without anonymity they refused to appear in court.
In convicting him of murder, it is unclear who the jury believed the target of the killing to be. If the jury believed Sardar’s intention was to kill militia members, the sentence he was given for killing a soldier – a life sentence of 38 years without parole – is too high. This difference was not reflected in the sentencing. His father, Abid Sardar, speaking about his son, said that the family had no idea that he would be given such a sentence. Gareth Peirce stated that the “conviction for murder does not sit comfortably with the evidence.”
Anis Sardar’s appeal will be heard in October 2016. Gareth Peirce explained that his defence had presented four grounds for appeal, three of which – all related to the conviction itself – were rejected. Sardar will only be allowed to appeal the length of his sentence.
Appeals were rejected against his murder conviction, the court’s failure to allow a situation in which his witnesses could be called to give witness, and the court’s failure to allow the witnesses to give evidence in a protected manner and its use of hearsay evidence.
The Chilcot Report supports Sardar’s claim that the villagers he was helping were acting in self-defence. One of its main criticisms is the lack of post-war planning and strategy after the invasion. Instead of looking at Britain’s role and responsibility in a failed war that has led to many deaths on all sides, individuals such as Anis Sardar are made scapegoats. Outside of such a politicised context, one which did not factually exist in 2006-7, it is questionable whether such a trial would have come to court.
Upon conviction, the prosecution stated, “This was a landmark prosecution that shows we will do everything in our power to ensure that international borders are no barrier to terrorists in the UK being brought to justice for murder committed anywhere in the world.” This statement demonstrates the false premise of the case – the insinuation is that there is a connection to more recent terrorism, yet this is not a terrorism case. The incident took place in the theatre of war in a country at war.
Furthermore, no evidence of the murder being committed by Sardar was presented. The US sought a conviction for the death of one of its soldiers in the Iraq War. By trying Sardar on behalf of the US, the British judiciary gave it one. By trying the case in the UK, the British judiciary has endorsed a dubious US-led war in Iraq and thus Britain’s own involvement in the war. It also helps the judiciary and the British government appear tough on international terrorism, an issue that is divorced entirely from this case.
The fact that Sardar is a Muslim, in a context where the media conflates terrorism with Islam, makes it easier to create such an overall image, regardless of whether or not there is any truth to it. The prosecution played on popular prejudices to prejudice the case. His cousin Mahfuz Sardar stated the “British justice system has failed miserably”.
Gareth Peirce stated that she hopes that the Court of Appeal will show better understanding of the background to the case. She stated that criminal law does not reflect the politics of conflict. She drew parallels with prosecutions of Irish prisoners in the 1970s and the ignorance the judiciary showed about the conflict there and the Catholic faith. Peirce told The Guardian, “We are in a similar place to the IRA trials. If you look at them, it was English juries, English prosecutors and English police proceeding with complete ignorance of culture or religion. […] This trial proceeded amid complete ignorance, and it was utterly wrong to prosecute and wrong to convict him.”
You can find out more about the case of Anis Sardar and the Justice 4 Anis Sardar Campaign at http://justice4anis.com/
You can write to Anis Sardar through details given on the campaign Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/justice4anis/ By following the page you can also keep up to date with the campaign and the latest news. The campaign is also in need of funds. It was not allowed to open a bank account but by contacting the campaign (via website or Facebook) you can find out how you can contribute and/or get more involved.