'We're happy he is back. He was picked on because he is a Muslim'

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The Independent Online

Osama bin Laden and George Bush glared forth from the small bill stickers splattered across the lamp-posts in Birmingham's Balti Triangle yesterday. An image of the twin towers separated them and beneath the message was: "Remember September. You are either with the Muslims or with the Kaafir [non-Muslim]".

Osama bin Laden and George Bush glared forth from the small bill stickers splattered across the lamp-posts in Birmingham's Balti Triangle yesterday. An image of the twin towers separated them and beneath the message was: "Remember September. You are either with the Muslims or with the Kaafir [non-Muslim]".

They inspired neither passion nor anger among the exclusively Asian shopkeepers, who shrugged them off as the work of "stupid kids messing about".

A company director, Tariq Mahmood, said: "There are levels of people. In our level we are all quite happy. There are fundamentalists, but we don't ever get involved. We just keep away. It is like the National Front, people don't get involved."

It was here among the steaming kebab restaurants, the shops brimming with rainbows of silks or semi-fluorescent sticky sweets and kulfi ice-creams, that Moazzam Begg ran a bookstore selling extremist Islamic literature. It was this shop that MI5 raided, believing it to be linked to terrorist groups.

Yesterday, the store window, with its display of Korans and tapes, was in darkness. Its new owner - as is so often the case, according to neighbours - was nowhere to be seen.

"Business is business. He just sold literature because people wanted to buy it. I was a customer of his and I have no connections with terrorist organisations. He was doing it for a living. Of course, he is innocent," explained Imran Khan, 19, whose older brother was a schoolfriend of Mr Begg's.

As the 37-year-old former law student was due to fly back into Britain after three years in American custody as a suspected "enemy combatant" - 18 months of which were in a tiny solitary confinement cell in Guantanamo Bay - no one in Ladypool Road doubted that this had been a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Mr Begg was arrested in Pakistan by the CIA in February 2002 and held in Afghan-istan before being transferred to the camp in Cuba, but he was never charged.

Sajid Sabir, 29, said: "We don't condone terrorists. We don't condone the taking of innocent lives for nothing. But he is an innocent man. If he was involved with anything they should have shown proof. They didn't provide any evidence."

Mr Begg's father, Azmat, 66, a former bank manager, is expecting to be reunited with his son today. Over the next few days the family is hoping he will be able to see his wife, Sally, and their four children. The young-est, Ibrahim, was born during his incarceration.

Rukhsana Begum, 21, a fashion shop manager, said: "Of course he should come home now. Three years is a long time. I can't imagine the suffering he has been through. I can't imagine not being there to have seen my son and daughter born. He is a Muslim guy. This area is Asian and they will welcome him home as one of our own."

Some of those labouring away in the bustling street insisted they were too busy to bother themselves with political matters, that - as British-born Asians - such issues were inconsequential. "Bush, Blair, Osama bin Laden. They are all fanatics. It doesn't matter what religion somebody is. If I get respect, I return respect. If I get attitude, I give attitude," said a large, jovial cloth-shop trader.

But there was little doubt that cases such as those of the Britons held in the Cuban camp have increased the sense of alienation and persecution among some young Muslims.

In a halal meat shop, Naz Ali, 21, said: "It is good he is to be released. He is innocent. Everyone is happy he is coming back. He was only picked on because he is a Muslim. That is what the Americans do. They do what they like because they are the world policemen."