Naila Ahmed and Jules Martin of CAGE’s Legal Committee address many of the crucial questions that have to be asked in the case of Moazzam Begg. He was arrested and detained for 7 months on terrorism charges relating to his time in Syria before he was declared an innocent man just days before trial, allegedly due to “new material”, material they would have been aware of since his arrest.
This is the second time he has been detained unlawfully either at the hands of the British or with their complicity.
- Why was the case dropped at the final hour?
It has been reported that the CPS had “recently” become aware of relevant material, whilst ACC Marcus Beale explicitly stated that such “new material” came to light in “recent months” and they had been thoroughly assessing it during this time. If such material has been in the possession of the CPS and police for this length of time, why did it take so long for the CPS to formally offer no evidence?
Not only did Moazzam write about his meeting with MI5 months before his arrest but, the article in which he made mention of this fact was served by the CPS as evidence against him. Further, at a pre-trial hearing on 18th July the CPS discussed with the court as to exactly how members of the security services might be cross-examined in the upcoming trial. Thus, it is inconceivable that the CPS did not know that a meeting, which had taken place at the behest of Mi5 in consultation with and in the presence of their lawyers, had taken place.
It has been reported that this new material was in fact the minutes from the meeting between Mi5, Moazzam and their lawyers, which corroborated his defence. This evidence was made available to the CPS and police at the earliest possible opportunity – which would have been at the police station during interview. It therefore seems that there were major failings in the conduct of the investigation of Moazzam’s case; this could not have been the real reason for the sudden collapse of the case. In fact, between the Home Office, police, security services and CPS someone must have realised just how much this prosecution was going to harm government policy pertaining to Syria. Moazzam has stated clearly that he wanted his day in court and how he felt cheated that the trial hadn’t gone ahead. He was very confident about winning saying he had the moral, political and legal argument all on his side. This trial would have revealed Britain’s confused policy towards both the Libyan and Syrian oppositions, the incoherent and arbitrary application of terrorism laws, the repeated refusals to engage with Moazzam for the release of Alan Henning and ultimately, the legal precedent that everyone who goes to help in places like Syria to help defend the civilian population is not a terrorist.
- When was this secret evidence actually obtained by the police and CPS? Don’t they have a continuous duty to obtain all evidence relevant to the case?
If the evidence was obtained at the final hour then this last minute failure would be due either to gross incompetence on behalf of the CPS or malicious intent in regards to MI5. Regarding the former, it is well known that the CPS has an ongoing duty to investigate any claim made by the defence. The defence have claimed from the outset that Moazzam was public about all his activities in Syria (including making this clear to MI5). He mentioned the same in his police station interview, it was again raised at his bail application hearing and further in his defence statement. This information was made available to the CPS in February when he was first arrested. At what stage did they finally decide to uphold their duty and investigate these claims? This negligence on the part of the police and CPS is extremely concerning considering the context of what would have been a high profile test case in relation to defining terrorism in Syria.
These bodies must be held accountable for their failings which caused an individual to be unjustly detained in a high security prison, for up to 23 hours each day for 7 months.
- If the CPS did try to uphold their duty, why did it take so long for this “new information” to come to light?
From the outset, Moazzam made clear to the CPS that a meeting took place between himself and MI5 prior to travel to Syria as early as 2012 in the presence of lawyers from both sides. Moazzam had written If the CPS had investigated this in accordance with their statutory duty, then surely this evidence was being withheld from them by MI5. What were MI5’s motives in holding onto this information for so long, particularly following his highly publicised arrest and subsequent charge? It is more concerning that the evidence withheld was exculpatory in nature – indicating dubious motives. The state should act as one body, one arm should not withhold evidence from another arm; if evidence is withheld in a criminal investigation then unlawful detention is facilitated by the state. If this did take place, the disunity of government bodies should be called into question.
Alternatively, the CPS and police were well aware from the start about the meeting with Mi5, which seems likely given the fact they would have been informed of this when he was first arrested. If this is the case then the state allowed millions of taxpayers’ pounds to be squandered on legal aid for the preparation of the defence and prosecution of a case that would never come to trial.
- Was Moazzam’s arrest part of a wider strategy?
It was reported that right after Moazzam’s arrest a series of events took place that constituted a concerted effort to shut down CAGE or to at least render it operationally ineffective. This took the form of the Charity Commission applying unwarranted pressure on some of CAGE’s most significant funders, the mysterious closure of their business bank accounts, closure of the personal accounts of CAGE’s Treasurer and a senior volunteer, as well as a number of current and former board members, all of whom had a long reliable financial record, facing investigation for financial irregularities. Moazzam’s arrest was part of a coordinated crackdown on CAGE and that in turn was a deliberate attempt to scare the Muslim community into submission and deny it a voice in civil society.
Moazzam is a public figure and it is well known that he has expertise on terrorism in the context of the Middle East. By removing him from public life, he was effectively silenced during a crucial period when an increasing number of unprecedented prosecutions were brought against individuals in regards to alleged terrorist activity in Syria. Moazzam has since stated that he met a lot of these individuals in prison, many of whom he felt should not have been prosecuted. Him being removed from public life facilitated many prosecutions that could have been challenged had Moazzam been used as an expert witness. In a repeat of history, the British authorities targeted and unlawfully detained Moazzam, (their complicity in his torture and detention at Guantanamo is widely accepted).
- If there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Moazzam, why did the Judge refuse bail?
Given the fact that Moazzam was vocal in his defence regarding his meeting with MI5 from the outset and the ongoing duty on the CPS to investigate his claims, the evidence that was produced at his bail hearing should have been considered insufficient (as it later was), leading to his bail being granted. This is further compounded by the fact that Moazzam’s bail application was strong. His lack of passport (which had been seized in December 2013), high profile status, character references from well-known individuals (including Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, and former hostage Terry Waite amongst others) and high-value sureties (including one on his brother’s house) made him an extremely unlikely candidate for absconding.
Detaining individuals longer than is necessary is not only a breach of the individual’s rights but also a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. Serious questions need to be asked about why the evidence was not properly examined at this stage allowing for such a major injustice (a denial of freedom for seven months) to take place.
If there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Moazzam, why did the treasury designate him in the first place and why did they merely revoke the designation instead of quashing it outright?
The Treasury placed a financial sanction on Moazzam Begg shortly after he was charged. The designation effectively allowed the government to, without any evidence or proof of criminal terrorist activity, completely freeze all his private funds, assets and accounts. It also placed significant difficulty on those around him who wished to assist him (be they friends or relatives) by restricting them and even potentially criminalising them if they tried to provide any assistance to Moazzam or his family – indeed, such an act would have amounted to a criminal offence. Aside from this it also allowed an unproven and untested accusation to tarnish individuals and severely restrict their right to family and private life.
Of equal importance is the issue of how one comes to be designated in the first place – how can an individual be designated financially under the Terrorist Asset Freezing Act 2010 (therefore effectively being labelled a terrorist) and have their freedoms so severely restricted prior to any sort of fair trial? This type of sanction based on untested accusations defies the legal maxim of innocent until proven guilty (not to mention the difficulties that the sanction caused CAGE to suffer merely by association).
This sanction has now been lifted by the Treasury (two weeks after the case collapsed). However, the decision to designate should not have merely been revoked but should have been quashed, the distinction being that it should not have been in place to begin with. This means that although Moazzam’s designation is no longer in place, the fact that he was originally placed on such a list and sanctioned will have wider ramifications, such as increased difficulty in opening another bank account despite his innocence.
- Why was Moazzam’s passport taken away from him and why are the authorities still withholding it?
Two months prior to Moazzam’s arrest, upon his return from a trip to South Africa, his passport was seized by the authorities, who stated that his “previous visits to Syria had constituted involvement in terrorism”. Essentially, he was stripped of a crucial document (not only for travel but for general day-to-day identification purposes) before any charges had been brought against him. However, if the authorities believed Moazzam’s visits to Syria constituted involvement in terrorism to be true at the time, then surely now that his innocence has been declared and all charges against him have now been dropped, his passport should be returned to him. Moazzam is now challenging this revocation.
- Why are the police and prosecution choosing not to disclose the alleged “new evidence”?
West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit asserted that it would be wrong to put the “recently disclosed information” into the public domain as this “would mean discussing other aspects of the case which are no longer going to be tested in court”. If it was in the public interest to prosecute Moazzam in the first place, surely it should be in the public interest and a duty on the police and CPS to publicly explain why the decision was reversed. If the police are so concerned with community relations, making such information public would go a long way in ensuring transparency and therefore restoring some faith in the police and their competence. The strength of the English legal system is to ensure open justice, so that justice is not only done but it is seen to be done. However, this maxim cannot be applied to Moazzam’s case, as there is still much doubt around the circumstances of his arrest and then acquittal. The CPS and police must ensure they are transparent so that justice can in fact be seen to be done.
- Why were there such severe reporting restrictions on the case, effectively shrouding it in secrecy?
Moazzam appeared in court on numerous occasions: he had a pre-trial hearing, Plea and Case Management Hearing and a Bail hearing, all of which were conducted under severe reporting restrictions. Even the mere fact of Moazzam being denied bail was not allowed to be reported. Whose interests does this type of restriction truly serve? This was a deliberate move by the authorities to silence any type of activism and awareness that could have been raised at the time, gagging journalists and human rights organisations. As a direct consequence of this silence and the trumped up charges, Moazzam’s name became associated with fear and risk and he was unable during this time to present his defence or provide a fuller picture (effectively criminalising him before even standing trial). Moazzam has been adamant since his release he wanted his “day in court”; it is evident that if the specific charges and facts surrounding the case were to come to light, there would be public outcry in that the evidence and allegations would not stand up to scrutiny.
- Where are the voices of the human rights community?
Since his release from Guantanamo, Moazzam has tirelessly campaigned for the rights of those being unjustly detained. However, finding himself once again unjustly detained, there was deafening silence from those organisations that claim to call for justice and aim to uphold human rights, many of which he worked alongside. While select individuals have been vocal in their support, there has been a general lack of outrage from the human rights community. Moazzam’s case should be of importance to anyone who holds the rule of law and human rights as fundamental to civil society, and anyone who does hold this view should have joined the campaign calling out such injustice.
CAGE would, however, like to take this opportunity to thank those who stood by Moazzam by signing our statement of support and more recently a letter to the press, which raised important questions about his political persecution. We feel this demonstrates a willingness by these individuals to stand by the principles of due process, the rule of law and maintaining the rights of the accused – no matter what they have been charged with.
- Was this a political prosecution?
It has been contended that these charges were not politically motivated but in fact based entirely on the law and evidence. However, if this were true, then questions need to be asked which facts or law in the form of this “new evidence” changed the CPS’s position and caused the case to collapse? Moazzam never denied being in Syria and he even explained to MI5 how he was compelled to assist civilians who were defending themselves against a regime that had committed mass killings and brutal chemical attacks amounting to war crimes; this is a fact that has not changed. If neither the facts nor the law has changed during this period, then what has changed? By process of elimination, we are left with the changing political landscape. Indeed the Times have reported that it was MI5 that pushed the police and CPS to bring charges against Moazzam. This is the very same MI5 who said months before that they were aware of his actions in Syria and assured him that they would not hinder his return. Nothing legal or factual changed between this time and their sudden decision to push for prosecution – MI5’s change in stance can only be due to a political change.
Moreover, MI5’s push for prosecution begs the question, how is it that the CPS (a body that is meant to independently assist the Court in maintaining justice) is being influenced by an extrajudicial body that operates outside the English legal system, essentially allowing them to have a say in the application of the law. Finally, Moazzam’s case should be viewed within the wider context of the lack of CPS guidelines for prosecution in relation to Syria and terrorism, essentially leading to an undefined discretion.
Further reports reveal Theresa May had a say in his arrest and detention, another arm of the state which seemingly has an impact on the police and CPS carrying out their duties, going well beyond her capacity as Home Secretary, and encroaching on the criminal legal system.
- Moazzam is an innocent man – why are some sections of the media still calling him a “terror suspect”?
Assistant Chief Constable of the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Police stated in no uncertain terms that Moazzam is an innocent man. Despite this, numerous news outlets (here, here, here and here) have continued to describe him as a “terror suspect”, effectively placing doubt on his undeniable innocence.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)