Moazzam Begg, one of the first people to sign our statement against prisoner isolation, has been arrested by British police. The move appears to be part of an attempt to disrupt his work as a human rights activist and as Outreach Director of the campaigning group CAGE.
Moazzam Begg was illegally held by the US for 3 years at Bagram and then at Guantánamo Bay. He spent 20 months at Guantánamo in solitary confinement. He was released in January 2005, without ever having been charged or tried.
On Tuesday 25 February he and three other people were arrested by West Midlands Police at their homes near Birmingham, supposedly on suspicion of “terrorism” linked to Syria. On Wednesday, under controversial anti-terrorism powers, police were given a further 5 days to hold him for questioning. At the end of this period police will have to either charge him, release him, or ask a court for permission to extend his detention again. Terrorism suspects in Britain can be held for up to 14 days without charge – longer than in any comparable democracy.
Moazzam Begg has over the last year or so suffered increasing levels of harassment in connection with his human rights work. Last December, after he had returned from a visit to South Africa, the authorities took his passport away, claiming “royal prerogative” as the legal basis for their action.
It is over a year since Moazzam visited Syria, where he was interviewing people in connection with the ongoing investigation by CAGE into British complicity in rendition and torture. It seems rather odd that it has taken British police until this week to decide that his activities in Syria were potentially illegal under UK law.
Moazzam made his own guess about their motives. Writing after his passport was taken away, he said:
“I am certain that the only reason I am being continually harassed – something that began long before any visit to Syria – is because CagePrisoners and I are at the forefront of investigations and assertions based on hard evidence that British governments, past and present, have been wilfully complicit in torture.”
Journalist and CAGE board member Yvonne Ridley wrote today:
“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.”
Moazzam Begg indicated that he planned to take legal action to recover his passport, and he and CAGE continued their long-running campaign against the Schedule 7 “Stop and Question” powers that plague people travelling to and from Britain. Moazzam himself was frequently questioned under Schedule 7. He says that he would often be asked if the purpose of his travel was to further his claims about British complicity in torture.
He was also outspoken in his criticism of the police attention that was increasingly being given to convoys taking humanitarian aid to Syria, and of attempts by the British authorities to demonise people fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.
If the police harassment was meant as a hint to Moazzam Begg that he should try to be bit less good at his job, he clearly wasn’t going to take it.
To a lot of people, Moazzam seems indestructible. In fact, though he rarely talks about what Guantánamo felt like, he doesn’t hide the fact that he had a very, very difficult time there. He told an interviewer in 2005: “twice I lost control of my senses in solitary confinement. Literally lost control.”
Moazzam Begg is a torture survivor. Nearly everyone who suffers prolonged solitary confinement is traumatised by it. Moazzam is probably no different. And now he is in a police cell. People I have talked to who have suffered lengthy pre-charge detention in British police cells describe being subjected to disorienting treatment, such as erratic meal times, permanent lighting or erratic lighting.
There will be a demonstration against Moazzam’s arrest and detention in Birmingham on Saturday. And then the struggle to bring to account the people, in Britain and elsewhere, who have had others horribly tortured will continue.
The police and the British government will say that, now that Moazzam has been arrested, justice must take its course. It’s funny how it never seems to be important for justice to take its course when evidence suggests that powerful people have been complicit in torture.
What I said in a recent SACC press release bears repeating:
Moazzam Begg’s arrest was political. His release can also be secured by a political decision. We call on the government and the police to ensure that he is released immediately and that his persecution stops.