The collapse of the trial of Moazzam Begg is a cause for celebration for Begg and his family, and for all those who have insisted on his innocence for the last seven months. But this outcome also raises disturbing questions about the state persecution of a prominent Muslim activist who has also been an outspoken critic of British foreign policy and post-9/11 antiterrorism legislation.
When Begg was first arrested by West Midlands Police in February on charges of terrorism there were many people- including myself – who believed that such accusations were nonsensical and wondered at the legal basis for his arrest. For the last seven months all that was known publicly was that Begg had been charged with having attended ‘terrorism training camps’ between October 2012 and April 2013, and ‘possessing a document intended for terrorism training and funding’ .
At yesterday’s hearings it was revealed that the evidence against him consisted of five computer documents which described a daily schedule and fitness training regimen in the alleged camps, and an attempt to provide a Syrian/International rebel group called Katibat Al-Muhajireen with a portable generator – an effort that was depicted until yesterday as ‘funding terrorism.’
In themselves it is hard to see how these charges amount to ‘terrorism’. And even if it was accepted that they did, it is even harder to see how they justified keeping Begg in jail for seven months. Numerous public figures had offered sureties on his behalf, yet the judge refused bail after prosector Brian Altman described Begg as a flight risk.
The idea that such a high-profile figure could have absconded, even if he had wanted to, is utterly ludicrous. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the British state acted out of pure vindictiveness, in order to make an example of a man who it has never forgiven for having been released without charge after spending three years in Bagram and Guantanamo, and for then having the temerity to act as a compelling and eloquent advocate for his fellow Muslims arrested under similar procedures.
Yesterday, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that it had decided to drop prosecution after ‘new material’ was presented two months ago. Why then was he kept in Belmarsh until yesterday? And what this new material and who provided it? West Midlands Police assistant commissioner Marcus Beale has said it would ‘not be fair or appropriate’ to publish this information as it will no longer be used in court.
Well publication would certainly be embarrassing for the police, but it would seem very fair and appropriate, and even essential, for all those wishing to understand the reasons for Begg’s arrest – and to prevent any repetition.
Apart from its specific components, Begg’s arrest is another example of the British government’s contradictory response to British Muslim involvement in the Syrian civil war, and about the elastic, nebulous and empirically meaningless definitions of ‘terrorism’ which made his arrest possible.
Begg has always claimed that he reported his trips to Syria to the British authorities, who did not not oppose or attempt to stop them. These visits took place at a time when the British government was on the side of Syrian rebels against Assad and trying to persuade its population to support air strikes against the regime.
Begg had intended to mount a defence in court on the basis that he had gone to Syria to help protect Syrian civilians from indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian security forces. Given that the British government was using such attacks as a justification for military intervention in Syria, it is difficult to see why the authorities should have considered that Begg’s own efforts amounted to terrorism.
His defence lawyer maintained that ‘Mr Begg did not train anyone for the purposes of terrorism as defined in the 2001 act. Mr Begg says he was involved in training young men to defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime.’
But even if Begg had been supplying weapons to rebel groups or had gone there to fight himself, he would have been no more terrorist than the British government and its allies, all of whom supported and faciliated the armed rebellion in various ways. After all, it wasn’t until last week that Katibat Al-Muhajireen – now renamed Jaish al-Muhajireen – was officially designated a terrorist organization by the US government – a designation that as usual has more to do with America’s shifting priorities that it does to any objective understanding of terrorism.
Whether or not you agree with Begg’s political choices, there is clearly an enormous difference between someone who is motivated by genuine Muslim internationalism to defend his fellow-Muslims against oppression and injustice, and those who participate in the sectarian massacres, murders, rapes and atrocities carried out by Islamic State.
His arrest suggests, once again, that the British government is incapable of or unwilling to recognize such distinctions, and that it has chosen instead to extol political quiesence as an alternative to ‘radicalization’, and opted to use terrorism laws as an indiscriminate catchall net against all expressions of Muslim activism and internationalism which don’t suit its immediate political agenda.
It is coincidental that Begg’s release took place after Theresa May’s crowd-pleasing but utterly reactionary speech pledging new laws and procedures against ‘extremism’ and ‘ideologies of hatred’, which are supposedly intended to ‘keep us safe.’ Begg’s activism is clearly not driven by ‘poisonous hatred’ or antipathy to ‘democracy’ or ‘British values’, and arresting people who think like him will do nothing to keep anybody safe.
On the contrary, the persecution of Moazzam Begg demonstrates that Britain’s antiterrorism laws are already draconian and undemocratic enough, and that Muslims are invariably at the receiving end of them. And rather than tighten them still further and respond to May’s vacuous cant, the public would do better to study very closely at how and why an innocent man who had already spent three years of brutal incarceration in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay for offences he did not commit, should have been locked up for another seven months on spurious charges.