Op-Ed: Charges Against Moazzam Begg Dropped; Why Was He Ever Held In First Place?
Op-Ed Author: Andy Worthington
Yesterday 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.