On October 1, 2014 the UK dropped all seven charges against Moazzam Begg, Outreach Director of the Muslim prisoner advocacy organization CAGE, due to “lack of evidence.” The judge, Mr. Justice Wilkie, then “entered a formal verdict of not guilty” and “ordered that Begg be set free immediately.”
CAGE has insisted all along that Begg’s arrest last February was politically motivated, targeting him for his work on exposing complicity between the Asad regime and illegal torture and rendition in Syria. His arrest took place the day before his research report on Syria was to be released to the public. This was the second time that a major Western country has held Moazzam Begg without trial and so serious questions must be asked about why this has been allowed to happen for a second time.
Andy Worthington wrote that “it was impossible to believe that Begg, one of the most scrutinized Muslims in the UK, would have engaged in any activities that could be construed as terrorism.”
Begg says he suspects the explanation for his wrongful imprisonment probably embraces incompetence, Islamophobia, maliciousness and fear. “I think we will know the answer one day and it will be very embarrassing.”
The “new information” which emerged just in time for his pre-trial hearing includes the minutes of meetings that MI5 had neglected to hand over to police and prosecutors, in which Begg had explained that he was planning to visit Syria in part to investigate the agency’s involvement in kidnapping a man in Syria and bringing him to Libya for torture. MI5 told him they would not stop him.
The Crown Prosecution Services issued a statement that said: “If we had been made aware of all of this information at the time of charging, we would not have charged.”
West Midlands police officers are reportedly furious that MI5 had withheld the minutes of its meetings with Begg for so long. They said that MI5 had pressured local police to arrest him.
It has also emerged in court that not long after that meeting with MI5, Begg’s car was bugged for more than a year. Begg says it is inevitable that he will be bringing civil proceedings against MI5 and the government.
He told the Guardian he “feels cheated” by the prosecutors’ decision to abandon the case against him. “I wanted my day in court; I was spoiling for the fight. I wanted to challenge every allegation in the case against me. I believe that if I had put my case before a jury I would have been acquitted.”
Begg told the Guardian that the Belmarsh high-security prison in south London where he was detained without bail was much more pleasant than the three years he spent in Guantanamo, where he was hooded, handcuffed in stress positions, kicked in the head by US soldiers who threatened his family members with harm.
Nevertheless, he is still “bewildered” that so many British Muslims have faced arrest and imprisonment after returning from Syria. Some, he says, spent no more than a couple of weeks there, during which many were deeply disturbed by the brutality of Isis.
“People returned specifically because they did not want to be part of that … they wanted to come back,” said Begg.
“In Denmark and Germany they are not arresting returnees from Syria. We need to find another way. Not to take young men, some as young as 19, and put them away for 15 years because they made a misjudgment about the way the British government would view them.”
While in Syria, Begg helped to run a training camp in the countryside near Idlib, north-west Syria, where opponents of the regime could undergo military- style physical exercise training and acquire the rudiments of first aid. This, Begg insists, was not an act of terrorism, but an attempt to help people defend themselves against war criminals.
The charges against him involved claims that he attended a terrorist training camp in Syria “knowing or believing instruction or training was provided there for the purposes of terrorism” between October 9, 2012 and April 9, 2013 and that he possessed documents for a purpose connected to terrorism and terrorist funding.
“I was never afraid to go to court. Any right-minded person on a jury would have seen very early on that I am not the terrorist here,” he says.
Amandla Thomas-Johnson, spokesperson for CAGE, said, “Moazzam Begg and his family have suffered over the past 7 months not only because of his incarceration but also because of the financial sanctions imposed upon him, as a result of which his bank accounts (including joint accounts) were frozen or shut down. His wife was unable to pay her utility bills that were held in their joint names without receiving a license from the Treasury, and it became a criminal offense to even try and support his family with money and food during this period. Our thoughts are with his family and we share in the joy of receiving him home again.”
“We call on the CPS to review all ongoing Syria-related terrorism trials to review the evidence and drop charges. We believe many of these trials and the campaigns against Muslim charities and individuals working in Syria are politically motivated fishing expeditions using the wide scope of terror laws and Prevent policy to criminalize Muslims.”
“We also ask that the British state reviews its policies of harassment intimidation and politically motivated prosecutions of Muslims involved in the Syria crisis.”
Mirza Begg, brother of Moazzam Begg, told CAGE, “We are just so happy to have Moazzam home with us in time for Eid.”