Charges Against Moazzam Begg Dropped; Why Was He Ever Held in the First Place?

1.10.14

This morning, at the Old Bailey, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all charges against Moazzam Begg, the former Guantánamo prisoner, who had been arrested in February on the basis of an alleged involvement in terrorism relating to visits he had made to Syria in 2012.

As I explained in an article at the time, “The Suspicious Arrest of Former Guantánamo Prisoner Moazzam Begg,” and in a radio interview with the US reporter Andrea Sears, it was impossible to believe that Begg, one of the most scrutinised Muslims in the UK, would have engaged in any activities that could be construed as terrorism.

He had indeed visited Syria, but had been in search of information relating to the US torture program that the Syrian government undertook on America’s behalf from 2002 onwards. Moreover, after his first visit in the summer of 2012, and before his second and last visit in December, the UK security services had interviewed him and had not attempted to prevent him from underraking his second visit.

It is also worth mentioning that, at the time of his visits, the UK was actually supporting those opposed to the Assad regime.

As the BBC explained this morning, his trial “was due to start on Monday, following a hearing at which he had pleaded not guilty to all the charges.” However, “at a pre-trial review on Wednesday morning lasting just five minutes, prosecution lawyers told the court that the CPS had decided there was insufficient evidence to continue with the prosecution.”

As the Guardian described it, the judge, Mr. Justice Wilkie, then “entered a formal verdict of not guilty” and “ordered that Begg be set free immediately from Belmarsh high security prison.”

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, which as the Guardian explained, “related to electronic documents found on a laptop computer in his possession,” plus five other charges relating to the possession of an article for a purpose connected to terrorism — apparently a Honda generator — between December 31, 2012 and February 26, 2014.

At a pre-trial hearing in court this morning, however, Christopher Hehir, a prosecutor, said, “The prosecution have recently become aware of relevant material, in the light of which, after careful and anxious consideration, the conclusion has been reached that there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction in this case. The prosecution therefore offers no evidence.”

Begg’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce, said, as the Guardian described it, that “he should never have been charged, as his activities did not amount to terrorism.” She described Begg as “a good man trying to the right thing in a very difficult world.”

Following the verdict, the CPS refused to provide an explanation about the new material that had persuaded them to drop the case, and West Midlands police were also not very forthcoming. Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale said, “New material has recently been disclosed to police and CPS, which has a significant impact on key pieces of evidence that underpinned the prosecution’s case. Our criminal justice system — quite rightly — demands a very high standard of proof. I understand this is going to raise many questions. However, explaining what this newly revealed information is would mean discussing other aspects of the case which would be unfair and inappropriate as they are no longer going to be tested in court.”

He also said, “From the beginning this case has challenged the relationship between West Midlands police and some of the communities we serve. I would like to reassure them and Mr. Begg that at every stage of this investigation my officers acted in the best interests of the public and of justice.”

That latter comment may be true, but it may be that Marcus Beale was not told about the political machinations behind the scenes. Two months before Begg was arrested, in December 2013, his passport was taken away from him after a visit to South Africa, and as I wrote after his arrest, “This struck me as intimidation, and an attempt to put off any Muslim intending to travel to Syria for any reason, and the arrest seems to be more of the same.”

I also cannot help but wonder about the timing of the charges being dropped. Now that a quiescent Parliament has fallen for the Prime Minister’s claims that a new bombing campaign is needed against the so-called “terrorists” we once supported in Syria, there no longer seems to be any need for a prominent figure to be jailed to send a message to British Muslims that they are not allowed to visit war zones under any circumstances. Now they can be bombed with impunity by the RAF (if they are in Iraq), and by the US Air Force if they are in Syria.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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25 Responses

  1. free radio jolly twitter news e musica non stop sera - FREE RADIO JOLLY says...

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    This is very good news, as the Crown Prosecution Service claims new material (not disclosed) made a prosecution untenable, but it doesn’t bring back the seven months of his life that Moazzam lost in Belmarsh, and nor does it explain, as I suspect, that he was used to send a message to Muslims not to travel to war zones. Now, of course, we’re at war, so transgressors can be bombed instead.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    Another disturbing possibility is that Begg may be repeatedly arrested again in the future.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Possibly, Mary, although he has a lot of high-level supporters in the UK, and it could be embarrassing for the government if he was openly harassed – more than previously, that is, when he was always stopped going in and out of the country. The big question I want an answer to right now is whether or not he will immediately and unconditionally be given his passport back.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I just tweeted @Moazzam_Begg Welcome back, Moazzam. Glad to see you looking so relieved & relaxed in photos. Many of us were disturbed by your false arrest

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s Gareth Pierce’s statement:

    Moazzam Begg is a good and brave man. He is a rare individual who will talk to everyone and listen to everyone, even those with whom he profoundly disagrees. He has spent the near decade since he was released from the torture of Bagram and Guantanamo in attempting to wake the world up to injustice and to comprehend its causes and effects. His intelligent voice, of reason and tolerance, is desperately needed now. We are relieved he is free again to contribute to our understanding of each other.

    There is nothing new that can have been discovered now that was not always crystal clear – that this is an innocent man.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    This is a statement by Mirza Begg, Moazzam Begg’s brother:

    We are just so happy to have Moazzam home with us in time for Eid. It is confusing why the British government would incarcerate him for such a long period if it didn’t have sufficient evidence. But right now, we are just relieved that this 7 month ordeal can come to an end and Moazzam can be back with his family.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    This is a statement by Amandla Thomas-Johnson, a spokesperson for CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners), where Moazzam is the Outreach Director:

    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 offence 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 criminalise 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.

  9. Cosmic Surfer says...

    Andy, my dear friend, no doubt, the jailing of Moazzam Begg was entirely for show but then that holds true of the continued detainment of 149 men in Guantanamo.
    “We must show we are tough on terrorism” elections are based on it (especially in the US when we have an election every 2 years for either senate or house or Senate, house and president…); corrupt regimes are supported on it; arms dealers are made wealthy by it; stock markets rise on it; trade deals depend on it; and imperialism thrives on it.
    The US and (sorry) the puppets of the UK/NATO are controlled by those who must promote the paradigm of fear. Their paychecks depend on it – from drug wars to the War On a noun (terror) to the neo-liberal “Might equals Right (as long as we make big $).”
    We must depend on the people to stand against it in unison, but with the destruction of education (Colorado’s Jefferson County School Board now wants to install a review panel, reviewing history curriculum, to promote patriotic material, respect for authority, and the free-market system. In turn, the panel would avoid material about “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” Teachers and students have walked out for the past 2 weeks) and the censorship of media (either by themselves or by order), how do we educate a public kept ignorant, fearful and balkanized?

    As always –
    The Cosmic Surfer (Jan)

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. Great to hear from you. I was thinking about how much the American people are kept in state of fear, and reflecting on how our own Tory-led government is currently doing the same, threatening to tear up rights and liberties, to impose media censorship of undesirables (for the first time since it was tried on the IRA, when all it did was increase political support for Sinn Fein), and – genuinely – threatening to leave the EU not only because the right-wingers want it, but also to enable us to scrap the Human Rights Act. What democratic government would openly brag about wanting to get rid of an act that guarantees human rights?

  11. Cosmic Surfer says...

    Andy, the politics of fear – surveillance, control, destruction of basic civil and human rights, destruction of the entire judicial system based on centuries of hard fought precedent.

    We, in the US, as in many nations we claim to be “abhorrent” (Russia, China) live in a constant state of high angst and, in turn, have become even further balkanized….race, religion, economic status, political bend, and even location..

    Exceptionalism, austerity, nationalism, fascism (though some might say they are all part and parcel of the same evil), racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and perpetuation of war and perpetuation of ignorance – all symptomatic of a government failing; Empire falling; Civilization crumbling. All tools used to rigidly control a nation by a government out of control

  12. Anna says...

    Was out all day, wondering about how this hearing would go and when back home, found a message that Moazzam was free :-))). WOW!

    I also regret he did not have his day in court, but even so this ‘sudden’ turn-around send an unmistakable message: there never really was a case against Moazzam, they just wanted to scare him, his family and all muslims and evidently thought that locking away an innocent man for seven months is perfectly OK, who cares about the rule of law!
    But also realized, that this charade would not hold up in court and wanted to avoid an all too embarassing farce.

    However, how wonderful that Moazzam is free again and back with his family. We’ll all worry about the background of this travesty later.

    While looking for more info on the net, I came across this – amazing – July text in the Mirror. Amazing, because it talks of ‘alleged terrorists’ instead of the usual thoughtless accusations and adds some more critical footnotes. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/inside-guantanamo-bay-go-behind-3738818

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Jan. Yes, governments out of control – the US whose crimes involving indefinite detention and torture I’ve been stuck with since 2006 (and you know way I’ve stuck with it), and the UK, a past master, which, under this almost unspeakably vile Tory-led government, is leading my fellow citizens into petty hatreds and working hard to destroy the very notion of the British state – with the exception of Parliament itself, and some parts of the judiciary and the defense set-up. Everything else is to be privatized as we speed backwards through time to a feudal arrangement.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Yes, great news – and I agree with your analysis.
    Thanks also for mentioning that Mirror article, which I noticed at the time but didn’t focus on. Some good commentary, as you say, for example, “I spent four days there last week and discovered a surreal world of double-speak, gobbledegook, evasion and official silence.”

  15. John Goss says...

    Other commenters have said most of what I wanted to say and it is good to see so much support. It is a great relief that Moazzam is free. It is joy to the world.
    There were many other ways the security services and prosecution services could have behaved. He could have been granted bail. He could even, God forbid, have been tagged, as a lesser punishment but still a harsh punishment for somebody who is not guilty of any of the (we have to call them ‘trumped up’) charges for which he was imprisoned. It is what the security services and prosecution services (are these inseparable?) did to Abu Qatada. They tagged him, so he could be followed every time he went to the shops. They put a curfew on the hours he could go out. All this is monstrous because Abu Qatada was also an innocent man. What has happened to my country? It was a country of which I used to be proud.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, John. Great to hear from you. Obviously, not granting bail to Moazzam was a sign of how the arrest was politically motivated and designed to portray him as a dangerous terrorist. They took his passport off him, for goodness sake. What was he supposed to do if granted the temporary freedom of bail?
    In Moazzam’s case, tagging, of course, would have been noticeably unjust – as tagging someone who hasn’t been charged, tried or convicted can only successfully be undertaken by the government on people who are unknown, or, if known, then demonized foreign nationals like Abu Qatada.
    Mostly, though, John, I appreciate you asking what has happened to the country of which you used to be proud. I ask myself what has happened on a daily basis, as greed, self-absorption, intolerance and petty hatreds seem to have become the dominant themes of modern British life.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks Andy for filling in the gaps of this story.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    You are most welcome, Ann. It’s so nice to have good news for a change. It’s appalling that Moazzam lost seven months of his life, but I was glad to see him looking so well in the photos taken on his release.

  19. Anna says...

    Yes Andy, he did indeed look great -obviously very relieved- on the pictures, but where were his glasses? I do hope he had just sat on them 🙂 that very day and not that they had been confiscated,leaving him myopic all that time?

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    I’m sure that Gareth saved the day.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, thanks to Gareth and everyone else who worked hard to secure Moazzam’s release, Ann. Clive told me in summer that he’d got two mental health professionals to assess Moazzam, and they had confirmed that he had PTSD, but the government weren’t interested, if I recall correctly, he said something about how they’d said that his PTSD was “manageable.”

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I think he was treated OK, Anna, if the uncensored letters are anything to go by, so I’d imagine he has his glasses. Was he perhaps going for a cool look, do you think, if that’s not too irreverent a question?

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Graham Ennis wrote:

    Huge relief at his release. London is becoming like eighties Moscow. Dissidents locked up, etc.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Nabil Al wrote:

    That’s a good news Abu Qatada and now Moazzam both are freed from the oppressors..

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Graham and Nabil. Good to hear from you.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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