British prosecutors dropped all terrorism-related charges against a former Guantanamo Bay detainee Wednesday, raising new questions about Britain’s expanding anti-terrorism efforts.
The prosecutors’ decision to drop the charges against Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, and release him five days before he was scheduled to go on trial comes at a tense juncture in the UK. Amid growing concerns over the Islamic State's expansion in the Middle East, British politicians have vowed tough action against its citizens who travel to Syria and Iraq to join the fight.
But Mr. Begg’s case highlights the challenge of countering legitimate terrorism threats while preserving civil liberties – and the slippery slope complicating the balance.
Begg was arrested in February on charges connected to the war in Syria, the BBC reports. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) originally alleged that he had attended a terrorist training camp when he traveled to the country a year earlier. It also accused him of possessing documents connected to terrorism and terrorism funding.
But human rights activists in the United Kingdom and the United States were outraged by Begg's arrest, which journalist Glenn Greenwald called "disgusting from the start.”
The Monitor's Dan Murphy commented at the time of Begg's arrest that:
The UK hasn't revealed any evidence against him so far. It may be that he was in Syria doing humanitarian work – or it may be that he was there to fight, or to help fighters aligned with a jihadi group like Jahba al-Nusra or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant."
But even if he was mingling with folks who admire Al Qaeda and share their regressive ideology, that's far from a guarantee he was about to become a threat to the people of Birmingham.
A controversial activist
CAGE, an organization founded by Begg that advocates for the rights of terror suspects, said his arrest earlier this year was politically motivated, Reuters reports.
Begg's first term of detention came in 2002, when he was arrested in Pakistan and handed over to US custody. After serving three years in Guantanamo, he was released without charge and repatriated to the UK, where he became a prominent human rights activist and critic of President George W Bush's "war on terror."
Begg's defenders say those activities made him into a political target. In a statement, Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, praised Begg’s release during a “testing time for Moazzam, his family and the Muslim community.”
“We hope that Moazzam's release is a sign that the government are now willing to adopt a more measured strategy in relation to anti-terrorism policy and avoid the attempt to criminalize all dissent and crush any organization like CAGE that stands up for the rule of law and justice."
Police told the Guardian that the decision to drop all charges was made after they received new intelligence information two months ago. “If we had been made aware of all of this information at the time of charging, we would not have charged,” the CPS said in a statement.
Dominic Casciani, home affairs correspondent for the BBC, called the move a “catastrophic blow to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.”
There are many people in positions of authority who do not like Moazzam Begg — but he has been a tireless campaigner for what he says have been injustices in the ‘war on terror.’ This entire affair has therefore damaged relations between the British security services and some Muslim communities. Moazzam Begg's supporters have said for months that he did nothing wrong when he went to Syria. They will feel vindicated by today's formal acquittal.
Meanwhile, the British government continues to expand its anti-terrorism efforts. Home Secretary Theresa May said Tuesday that a new counterterrorism bill would be ready by the end of November, Reuters reports. The proposed legislation would give her more powers to prevent British citizens from traveling to Syria and Iraq.