If ever there was a need for a proper inquiry into why a British citizen found himself on the wrong end of British injustice, this is the case.
I am very pleased to read that Moazzam Begg has been released. I read it as I returned from visiting the last British resident in Guantánamo Bay, Shaker Aamer, in Camp Echo – in a cell adjoining the one where I met Moazzam ten years ago.
“I understand this is going to raise many questions,” says West Midlands Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale. “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.”
This is pure nonsense, a backhand smear of a man who I have long known and respected. If ever there was a need for a proper inquiry into why a British citizen found himself on the wrong end of British injustice, this is the case.
Let us focus first on the judicial process. I went to court many months ago as I wanted to appear as a surety for Moazzam’s bail. He obviously deserved to be free pending his trial. After all, he was being held in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, and was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from his years in Bagram Air Force Base and Guantánamo. I recognized the symptoms only too well, recalling the three days I spent with him in November 2004, listening to him detail the horrors that he had witnessed and endured in these US black holes.
What danger did Britain face in allowing Moazzam to be with his family pending trial? He was perfectly willing to surrender his passport, and he wanted to face his accusers, as soon as he could. I was absolutely confident that he would repay my trust in him; my wife Emily wanted to do even more as she was so sure of his integrity.
However, Moazzam then hit the first roadblock in the system. The judge and the prosecuting barrister agreed that since he refused to admit that he had done something wrong by traveling to Syria, he must be a high risk to “commit another offence”. I was stunned by the way in which this trampled on the presumption of innocence: their circular argument assumed that Moazzam was guilty in the first place; the Crown Prosecution Service has now decreed that he was not.
The second roadblock involved the reporting laws. The reason I feel so moved to write from my motel room in Guantanamo now is that at the time of his bail hearing I could not – I would have been in contempt of court. One reason British judges rarely receive the long brown envelope of home truths is that the reporting laws essentially squash much legitimate criticism. It is fine to protect the presumption of innocence of the accused – something the judge did not do – but sunshine is the greatest disinfectant, and we can only expect to eliminate such dreadful decisions if we are able to discuss them when they are made.
The third bar to justice apparently involved the failure of the police to secure secretive evidence in the hands of the Security Services before swinging their wrecking ball at Moazzam and his family. His defence was hardly a secret. After all, many of us who knew Moazzam could have detailed how he spoke freely with the authorities about his trip to Syria, both before and after he went. However, the fact that he could spend months in the government’s maximum security prison before the government saw fit to share this information with its prosecutors is surely yet another argument for open justice.
“I need to reconnect with my family again,” Moazzam said upon his release. “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.”
Mr. Beale, you should listen to the man you arrested, rather than sweep this catastrophic abuse of power under your police station carpet. You need to start recognizing that your greatest asset must be a reasonable, decent Muslim man like Moazzam Begg.