Moazzam Begg


Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg was released from Belmarsh high security prison in London on Wednesday after the seven terrorism charges against him were suddenly dropped.

"And not once but twice in my case this Government has been involved either in directly detaining me or indirectly detaining me," he told reporters.

No official charges were made against Begg the first time he was detained. Born in England, Begg moved to Afghanistan in 2001. Later that year, he was captured by Pakistani police and U.S. intelligence officers in Islamabad, Pakistan where he had sought refuge after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began. Upon his release back to the U.K., he founded Cageprisoners (now called CAGE), which described itself as human rights' organization working to "raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror." His organization gained a lot of support from U.K.-based advocacy groups, most notably Amnesty International. Begg has been a very public critic of anti-terrorism policies around the world, appearing on many mainstream news outlets and even speaking after the screening of a film about Guantanamo detainees at the European Parliament.

When Begg was detained again in February of this year, prosecutors originally alleged that he had funded and propagated terrorism on a trip he took to Syria last year. Then, in a very sudden reversal, they dropped all the charges, citing "new evidence" that ran counter to the allegations.

"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 demonizing of the Muslim," Begg said after his release.

In the more than 10 years since he founded CAGE, Begg has highlighted the plights of illegally detained people and the reasons that some might pick up arms. Critics, however, readily point out that many of those for whom he advocates, or who he features online, are people who have made clear appeals to terrorist violence or engaged in it themselves. The most prominent of those is Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who was killed in a drone strike last year. Al Awlaki headed Al Qaeda in Yemen and was one of the militant network's chief recruiters. And although Begg claimed not to know about it at the time of the interview in 2007, Al Awlaki's incendiary book 44 Ways to Support Jihad, which said even civilians were fair targets, had been published at the time. Begg was deferential to Al Awlaki, and introduced him rather innocuously as "a Muslim scholar of Yemeni heritage."

Al-Awlaki was imprisoned the year before the interview, reportedly on charges tied to a plot to kidnap an American military attache hence his connection to CAGE's mission.

Begg's most recent stint as a "cageprisoner" began in March. Although he suffers from PTSD due to the nearly three years he spent at Gitmo and Bagram air base, Begg was denied bail in May.

The Crown Persecution Service (CPS) released Begg this week because of a new evidence relating to his case.

Marcus Beale, the assistant police chief of the West Midlands where Begg was standing trial told the Guardian, "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." But he refused to provide any details.

"I understand this is going to raise many questions," Beale said. "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."

It's since been revealed that the British intelligence agency M15 forwarded documents detailing Begg's meetings with M15 officers. The new evidence shows that the agency was aware of Begg's activities in Syria, even though he was investigating what he has called "several leads regarding British and American complicity in rendition and torture in Syria." Begg himself made public his connection to M15, so why this evidence was brought to light after he had already spent seven months in prisons is unclear.

"Be in no doubt, this result is a catastrophic blow to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies who had sought to pursue the former Guantanamo Bay detainee," the BBC's homeland affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani wrote. "There are many people in positions of authority who do not like Moazzam Begg — but he has been a tireless campaigner for what he says have been injustices in the 'war on terror," she added.

Begg's release is concerning to Gita Sahgal, the former head of Amnesty International's Gender Unit who resigned over the rights' organization's support of Begg's work. Sahgal is now the director of the Centre for Secular Space who has closely monitored the work of Begg and CAGE for years.

"I don't know why the prosecution was dropped," she told ThinkProgress in an interview, although she does have a hunch. "The one key thing is there is a British life at stake and that Al Qaeda has been politically involved in calling for [Alan] Henning to be released."

Henning is the latest Westerner that the Islamic State militant group has threatened to kill if their governments continue to support military action in Syria and Iraq. The British national was captured in Syria last December when he volunteered to drive an ambulance there as a part of an aid mission. While there's no real proof if Begg or his organization CAGE is helping to negotiate for Henning's release, religiously aligned individuals or organizations have been used to negotiate such prisoner swaps in the past -- with some charities or state-backed companies fronting ransom payments for their states.

"The money is written off by European governments as an aid payment, or else delivered through intermediaries," wrote Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times.

While the United States and United Kingdom are among an ever shrinking pool of countries who have stood by their promises not to pay ransoms, they have been attempted to free prisoners by other means.

U.S. officials attempted to rescue journalist James Foley before he was executed last month, and agreed to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in May so a prisoner swap of Begg for Henning isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility.

CAGE has called for Henning to be released, noting that it "condemns the arbitrary arrest, detention and punishment of anyone without cause and without being afforded their right of due process."

Asim Qureshi, the organization's research director, added in the organization's statement, "Alan Henning went to Syria with Muslims and is known to have been helping the people of Syria. He is not involved in any hostility to Islam or Muslims. Therefore, he cannot be considered a prisoner of war under Islamic law and should be released immediately. We believe there are no grounds for holding Mr. Henning prisoner or executing him."

This sort of statement reflects the "Islamic ethos" CAGE claims -- and is the sort that Amnesty's Sahgal has found to be problematic, especially as far as the issue of jihad is concerned.

"One the one hand you have this view of Begg as a campaigner for peace, and interfaith harmony - so liberal organizations don't condone his detention," she said. "[CAGE] claims that it's fundamentally a human rights organization...but from the website, it is clear that they are promoting people with very radical Islamist extremist ideologies," like, she says, Sayyid Qutb, who has been called the "founder of Islamist fundamentalism," or Salafism.

In a short book put out by the Centre for Secular Space, Sahgal's colleague Meredith Tax writes that Begg was, for a time, "one of the most important publishers and distributors of salafi-jihadi political material in the UK." But, Tax argues, Begg wasn't just supporting Islamist extremism on an ideological level.

While Begg has redacted the signed statements he made at Guantanamo Bay as coerced due to his treatment there, there is some reason to believe that he may have offered financial support to terrorism. At a terrorist camp destroyed by U.S. airstrikes, among bomb-making manuals and plastic containers labelled cyanide, USA Today reporter Jack Kelley found "a photocopy of a money transfer requesting that a London branch of Pakistan's Habib Bank AG Zurich credit the account of an individual identified as Moazzam Begg in Karachi for an unspecified sum of money. U.S. and Pakistani officials say they do not know who Begg is but will try to find him."

Once Begg was found, he was never formally charged with crimes relating to his time in Afghanistan and Pakistan before he was released along with three other detainees "as a favor to the [Tony] Blair government."

Sahgal believes that her former employer's connection to Begg stems from the British government's efforts to work with extremists in order to prevent terrorist attacks. Though she says, "I'm not surprised at all Cageprisoners has been allowed to function," she says, "but the reasons for that mysterious." Much like the sudden dismissal of the seven terrorism charges against him.