RUMOURS about the brutality of the Syrian regime surfaced long before the actions of a young Tunisian fruit seller ignited what went on to become the Arab Spring.
Stories of untold cruelty and torture in the dungeons of Bashar al Assad began to filter into the CAGE office in London where Outreach Director Moazzam Begg works.
We were already aware of the shocking case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen and father of two, who was kidnapped, renditioned and tortured way back in 2002.
Arar was travelling home to Canada after visiting his wife’s family in Tunisia and while changing planes at New York City’s JFK airport, he was detained and held for 12 days by US intelligence.
He was transferred secretly, via Jordan, to Syria, where he was tortured before he was released without charge a year later. US authorities had relied on inaccurate information provided by Canadian intelligence and the Canadian government subsequently gave him compensation and a formal apology.
Moazzam and I knew the Arar case was not a one off. A few of us also suspected that other Western intelligence agencies had been complicit in the kidnap and torture of others who found their way into the ghastly Damascus Prison run by Military Intelligence Branch, 215.
In June 2010 I even went to the Syrian Embassy in London to discuss some of our findings with an apparatchik of Assad. There was also a strong whiff of Western intelligence cooperation.
Moazzam and I later travelled to Libya during the fall of Gaddafi where again we were confronted with undeniable evidence of British intelligence’s complicity in torture.
This included the appalling case of Sami al Saadi and his family who were awarded £2.2m by the British Government for their suffering while the FCO said the payment was not an admission of guilt for the events of 2004 which led to their arrest and rendition.
Then there were similar allegations exposing more British complicity in torture made by Abdulhakim Belhadj and his wife, including an incriminating letter from chief spook Sir Mark Allen.
But as the revolution moved to Syria we knew there was far worse to come. Powerful people in powerful places who do terrible things in the name of national security would no doubt be feeling uncomfortable at the thought of sensitive documents falling into the wrong hands … ie the hands of someone like Moazzam Begg who would go to the media with a full expose.
Now we’ve already had a flavour of what the regime gets up to courtesy of the British law firm Carter Ruck who recently revealed a chilling dossier of 50,000 photographs of 11,000 corpses taken by a Syrian military photographer. We know because he defected and handed over the files for lawyers to draw up a crimes against humanity dossier on the Syrian leader.
The catalogue of images were likened by one lawyer to the shocking scenes which surfaced in the Nazi death camps at Belsen and Auschwitz. Not only are hot irons, shackles, electric shocks and sheer brute force being used on prisoners but it seems starvation is also deployed as a weapon in the Syrian dungeons. Death must have come as a blessing to those broken, skeletal victims of Assad’s.
One can only conclude that since the UK and US intelligence services outsourced torture to Syria, evidence of their illegal dealings will be lying around in somebody’s safe or archives. Should that information fall into the wrong hands – the likes of Moazzam Begg – then it will become deeply embarrassing for the British Government.
There will be folk on the ground in Syria employed to make sure that embarrassing documents like the ones which surfaced in Libya, do not see the light of day as walls come tumbling down in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Daraa.
And make no mistake, the incriminating documents are there, for as the Assad torture files show this is a regime that likes to document and catalogue every vile action on every individual who has the misfortune to end in the hands of the regime.
I know why Moazzam Begg has been arrested and so do the thousands of others who will join in an unprecedented protest and rally outside Birmingham’s Police HQ on Saturday.
As long as he is banged up on the orders of powerful people in powerful places those same faceless men and women think they are safe. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The regime will fall, the walls will come tumbling down and now that we all know what we’re looking for when that happens the complicity of those who have helped protect a wicked, wicked regime will be exposed.
In the meantime, we need to turn out in large numbers this Saturday to show we will not forget Moazzam Begg nor the real reason why he has been banged up.
British journalist Yvonne Ridley is a Board Member of the London-based NGO, CAGE.
(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.)