December 24, 2013
Moazzam Begg reveals exclusively why the British government has been conitually harassing him since his return from Guantanamo, and took his passport for the second time in eight years
In the summer of 2012 I wrote about the first of my two visits to Syria to investigate leads into cases of British and American complicity in the rendition of terrorism suspects to the regime of Bashar al-Asad.
This followed on from something I learned first-hand from CIA and US military intelligence agents who threatened to send me to Egypt or Syria if I failed to co-operate with them during my time in the Bagram prison. I made British MI5/MI6 agents, who were present at every leg of my unlawful imprisonment, fully aware of these threats. Their response was telling me that I had to co-operate with their US counterparts.
On my return to the UK, along with three other British citizens, I received a letter from the Home Office informing me that my ability to apply for a passport had been restricted by the Home Secretary under the powers of the 'Royal Prerogative’.
Having returned from three years of separation from my loved ones mostly spent in solitary confinement and suffering the effects of regular human rights violations, I didn’t challenge the decision immediately. Instead, I tried to rebuild my lost connection to a traumatised family, including a son I’d never seen.
UK torture complicty
As part of my work for CagePrisoners, however, I began campaigning for prisoners imprisoned at Guantanamo and those held in secret detention sites or who had disappeared after being rendered to countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Syria. We conducted numerous investigations into recurrent reports of extreme torture carried out by the Syrian regime with the complicity of the governments of the US, Canada, France, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Britain.
I was also constantly being invited to speak all over the world about issues pertaining to Guantanamo, torture, the rule of law and the war terror. Thus, in 2009 I mounted a successful challenge to get my passport back.
My subsequent extensive travel abroad was greeted simultaneously by meetings with people in power – including unexpected praise from US ambassadors in Luxembourg - to armed police escorting me off planes in order to deny me entry to Canada (where I’d come to meet with men who had been victims of rendition to Syria).
Returning to the UK was often an ordeal in its own right as I would be stopped almost every time and questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This happened even on visits to Brussels where I was invited to speak at the European Parliament by British MEPs as well as trips to Malaysia where I had been giving evidence in war crimes tribunals set up by the former prime minister there. Often British police would ask me if I had gone to these places to further my claims about British complicity in torture.
During this period three very important things happened which I believe the British intelligence services have been unable to recover from:
1. A major civil action was taken by 16 former Guantanamo prisoners against the British government and intelligence services for complicity in torture and false imprisonment.
2. Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry to be launched into allegations that the UK was complicit in torture
3. The Metropolitan police began a criminal investigation against British intelligence services into recurrent allegations of complicity in kidnap, torture and false imprisonment
In 2010 we won a major out-of-court settlement against the government after it was compelled to hand over documents that showed that British government ministers had decided we should be consigned to Guantanamo, despite evidence of mistreatment. At the end of the discussions with the government the then Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke QC sat with us all and listened to what we had to say. It was an odd moment, several of the world's supposedly most dangerous terrorists sat in a room with a senior Tory minister discussing the previous government's wrongs. I handed him a copy of my book hoping there might be some proper understanding after this but all the while the government was preparing the Justice and Security Bill - which was passed as law earlier this year - which would ensure that damaging and embarrassing civil actions such as ours would henceforth be heard in secret under colour of 'national security concerns.'
The inquiry into torture by Sir Peter Gibson was shelved last week in favour of the Intelligence and Security Committee but in his interim report Gibson concluded that MI5 had at best 'turned a blind eye’ to our abuse.
The criminal investigation is still on-going but I have sat for hours with the Met Police giving witness testimony to them about what happened in Bagram and Guantanamo and, they have gone to meet with rendition victims in Libya and continue to investigate the claims of Shaker Aamer who has been in Guantanamo without charge for twelve years.
Last year several former Guantanamo prisoners, including me, met with Asa Hutchinson, who had served as US Undersecretary for Homeland Security while we were captives at Guantanamo. In a report by the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment, which included him and two former senior US generals, they described the practice of torture by the US administration as "indisputable". The report also stated bluntly that the treatment and indefinite detention of the Guantánamo prisoners was "abhorrent and intolerable". And the British government had colluded in sending us and keeping us there.
Following the uprisings of the 'Arab spring’ I was able to make several visits to the Arab world and follow up cases of rendition, including the case of a man whose tortured false testimony was used as a justification for both the US and UK to invade Iraq.
In the July last year I also visited Syria where I met numerous former prisoners who had been held by the Asad regime as well as victims of US and UK rendition. One of the men, a Libyan who had resided in Syria had been rendered to Libya after phone call by a British Libyan dissident had been intercepted by MI5 and its contents disclosed to Asad’s mukhabaraat. Documents found in the headquarters of Gaddafi’s mukhabaraat after the fall of Tripoli clearly prove British involvement.
A few months later in October I was called by MI5 who said they wanted to talk to me about my views on the situation in Syria after having read my article. I told them that they must be aware that I was investigating several leads regarding British and American complicity in rendition and torture in Syria. They called back after consulting with their lawyers and said they understood that and would still like to meet. I agreed to speak to them and meet at a hotel in East London. Both MI5 and me had lawyers present.
MI5 were concerned about the possibility of Britons in Syria being radicalised and returning to pose a potential threat to national security. I told them that Britain had nothing to worry about, especially since British foreign policy, at the time, seemed in favour of the rebels. At the end of the meeting I was assured by MI5 that my proposed return to Syria to continue my work would not be hindered.
I travelled later to Syria without incident. I spent much time accumulating testimony and information for a report on the situation of the current prisoners as well as the accounts of those who had been detained and tortured in the past. I witnessed the squalid refugee camps, I visited the wounded - young and old, I buried the young and old, I saw the carnage of the Asad's killing machine and I saw the beautiful young faces of children aged beyond their years. I witnessed the harsh winter and saw farmers chop down their olive trees to warm themselves. I saw British ambulances, British fire engines, British garbage disposal trucks and British hospitals with British doctors and nurses almost exclusively from Britain's Muslim community. And yes, there were some British fighters too.
I returned to the UK without hindrance, except for the customary schedule 7 stop. I was briefly questioned about my visit by border police and returned home shortly after. I came back radicalised enough to speak at numerous events for various charities working out in Syria. I also conducted interviews with people on the ground that are close to the fighters to answer questions about any tangible threat to the UK to help allay the fears of the British public and intelligence services.
Schedule 7 stops
Since then I have been 'randomly’ stopped under schedule 7 several times while travelling.
The last time this happened was last month when I was en route to a conference in Turkey about the mass-imprisonments and torture occurring in Egypt after the military coup. British police suggested that I might be going to Syria, despite showing them details of itinerary and return flights for the following weekend.
I was made to miss my flight but the police were prepared to rebook me for the next available one meaning that they were neither preventing me from going to Turkey, or even potentially to Syria. I refused as I would have had missed the main conference by then and returned home. However, they took possession of my iPad and phone and kept them for a week. Both items contained sensitive information and documents pertaining to CagePrisoners’ investigations on both complicity in torture and responses to the British government’s measures in tackling extremism.
In anticipation of future harassment at airports I began legal proceedings to challenge the constant stops at airports under schedule 7 and informed the Home Office, the border police and British airports about my intended travel via my lawyers. We received a response from their lawyers, which acknowledged the letter but did little else.
Change of language
The language and attitude of the British government has steadily changed towards the Syrian opposition especially since it has openly chosen an Islamic path. Britain went to war based on the falsehood that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons, in addition to over 120,000 dead in Syria has not elecited any such reponse. And we are gratful for that. No one wants to see British involvement in Syria, especially the Syrians who know well what happened next door in Iraq.
As a result, however, the Asad regime is now regarded as the better of the two choices. That is why last week the decision to stop even non-lethal aid for western-backed factions in Syria was taken by Britain. But, despite there being no evidence of a tangible threat from British fighters returning Syria (the contrary in fact) and certainly not the type that might have been posed from the same in Iraq or Afghanistan because of the obivous presence of British troops, the government now wants to remove not just the passport but the nationality of Britons suspected of being involved in fighting in Syria.
Simply speaking the government has lost all touch with the reality on the ground and the enormous sentiments in the Muslim community regarding the Syrian conflict. Despite seeing countless convoys leaving with aid from Britain for Syria every month they cannot fathom that this is simply about Syria, not Britian.
Losing my passport - again
After a trip to South Africa last week - which had coincided with the funeral of Nelson Mandela - where I spoke extensively about the complicity of the British government in rendition and torture, I was met upon arrival at Heathrow by officials who served me with a notice to seize my passport under the Royal Prerogative stating that it was assessed my previous visits to Syria had constituted involvement in terrorism. No explanation other than that was given.
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.
How logical is it to stop me from travelling anywhere in the world simply because they want to prevent me from going to Syria? Numerous British citizens have been prevented from entering Turkey at the behest of the British authorities. They could have done the same with me. There is no doubt in my mind why this has happened.
It is these government-shaking issues are the real reason why I have been continually harassed and targeted by the authorities in this country. I am not and never have been in anyway a threat to them, except through my words, which simply call for accountability.
At a time when Islam and the Muslim community is facing an unprecedented attack via politicians, the media and ultimately some sections of the public affected by this onslaught, it is the aim of CagePrisoners and myself in trying to empower the community that is being purposefully undermined.
Since our aim is a good and just one I do not believe our detractors will succeed.