UK

Ex- Guantanamo Bay Prisoner Moazzam Begg Has Seven Terrorism Charges Dropped At Old Bailey

01/10/2014 10:58 BST | Updated 01/10/2014 18:59 BST

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg today had seven terror charges connected with the civil war in Syria dramatically dropped at the Old Bailey.

The outspoken British-Pakistani director of Muslim human rights group CAGE had been remanded in custody in Belmash prison for seven months, suspected of attending a terrorist training camp during a visit to Syria from October 2012 until the following Spring. He was also accused of possessing terrorism-related material and funding terrorism, by making his Honda generator available in July 2013.

On leaving Belmarsh jail, he told reporters: "I wanted my day in court but I was very happy."

"I need to reconnect with my family again. I need to understand what it's like to be a free man and I think that it's important to point out some of the Government's failures in its foreign policy and its internal policy - its clear demonising of the Muslim community. And not once but twice in my case this Government has been involved either in directly detaining me or indirectly detaining me.

"I think it shows that we have a knee-jerk reaction. It shows that little has changed since the beginning of the early days of the war on terror and there is not an appetite, there isn't a desire, to try to really understand what's taking place and the more this continues the more it's going to alienate people."

Earlier in court, Begg spoke via video link only to confirm his name and showed no emotion as the prosecutor offered no evidence, following a review of the case. Mr Justice Wilkie formally acquitted him of all charges.

moazzam begg

Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay, has had seven terror charges dropped

His supporters have always insisted that Begg's visit to Syria was humanitarian, and that he had been investigating "the British government’s role in rendition and human rights violations".

Asim Qureshi, research director of CAGE, said it was a "testing time for Moazzam, his family and the Muslim community".

"The criminalisation of virtually any Muslim that has been to Syria has only increased in intensity, while CAGE has been attacked from every angle by a host of government agencies," he continued, citing the closure of the group's bank accounts by Barclay's and the Co-operative bank. "We hope that Moazzam's release is a sign that the government are now willing to adopt a more measured strategy in relation to anti-terrorism policy and avoid the attempt to criminalise all dissent and crush any organisation like CAGE that stands up for the rule of law and justice."

The group and its director have been "maligned, defamed and vilified by far too many," Quereshi said.

Begg came to prominence after his three-year-detention in Guantanamo Bay. He was originally captured in Pakistan in 2002, suspected of terrorist activities and transferred to the notorious prison camp after a year in an Afghan internment centre.

Prosecutor Christopher Hehir said: "The prosecution in every criminal case of every type have a duty to keep under review the sufficiency of the evidence. When Mr Begg was charged with a number of offences earlier this year the Crown Prosecution Service were satisfied there was sufficient evidence to afford prosecution.

"In the months that have followed the prosecution have kept under review the sufficiency of the evidence in this case. The prosecution have recently become aware of relevant material and in light of which, after careful and anxious consideration, have reached the conclusion that there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction in this case. The prosecution therefore offer no evidence."

The judge responded: "On the indication of the Crown offering no evidence, verdicts of not guilty should be entered."

Begg's legal team had argued that refusing him bail had led to the re-emergence of the post-traumatic stress disorder he had suffered since leaving Guantanamo. The court was told that "a very substantial body of sureties", the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds had been offered by Begg's supporters, including the eminent human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, who represented him while he was at Guantanamo. He had also received a letter of support from former hostage Terry Waite, held in Lebanon between 1987 and 1991.

His lawyer Ben Emmerson QC Emmerson had told the court Begg "never made any secret of his visits to Syria and on two occasions informed authorities of his travel plans".

The training camp he had initiated was to help enable young men to "defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime," the court heard in May.

"This is not some sort of political defence. This is a serious point about the lethal and physical limits of the definition on terrorism because if the defence says the occasions concerned were defensive actions, in much the same way the UK was itself providing non lethal aid itself, then we submit that would not be defined as an act of terrorism."

Begg's lawyer, Gareth Peirce, said: "Moazzam Begg is a good and brave man. 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."

"We are just so happy to have Moazzam home with us in time for Eid," Begg's brother, Mirza, said. "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 seven-month ordeal can come to an end and Moazzam can be back with his family."

West Midlands Police Assistant chief constable Marcus Beale defended the original decision to arrest Begg, and said he understood that the case being dropped will "raise many questions".

He declined to offer an explanation of the new evidence which had come forward because it would mean "unfair and inappropriate discussion of other aspects of the case which are no longer going to be tested in court".

“From the beginning this case has challenged the relationship between West Midlands Police and some of the communities we serve," he said. “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.

“Today’s events demonstrate that the police and CPS continually assess the evidence in terrorism prosecutions and will alter course if that is the right and proper thing to do.”

No charges had ever previously been brought against Begg buthis release comes just hours after Home Secretary Theresa May announced a raft of tough new anti-terror laws at the Conservative Party conference, including new "banning orders" would allow the authorities to outlaw extremist groups, even if they did not pose a terrorism threat.

The Home Secretary told activists in Birmingham that the potential for Britons to become radicalised at home before joining Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria and then returning to the UK was clear and so new powers were needed.

She said banning orders would help the authorities tackle groups that are not covered by existing terror laws while extremist disruption orders would tackle those "who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred".

May also revealed that she has so far removed the passports of 25 Britons seeking to travel to Syria, while 103 people have been arrested in relation to terrorism in Syria. Of those arrested 24 have been charged and five convicted, she said.

Islamic Human Rights Commission chairman Massoud Shadjareh said Begg's imprisonment was "especially disturbing" in the context of yesterday's Conservative manifesto pledges. "Under these proposed laws the likes of Mr Begg and others who outspokenly criticise western foreign policy would be criminalised for merely their beliefs and opinions," he said.

Inside Guantanamo