There is more to this Moazzam Begg saga than meets the eye, and we need to be told. Let me establish a few basics at the outset.
I recognise the need for state security organisations. I do not hold the romantic view that all those held at Guantanamo – for all the extra-judicial iniquity of the place – were pure as the driven snow. Nor could I possibly be described as a member of the Moazzam Begg fan club. He left Britain for Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002, and it is still not entirely clear why. I don’t entirely trust his account of events.
All that said, when he was arrested on terrorism charges in February – in the inevitably well-publicised dawn raid – it was hard not to smell a rat. How brazen, stupid or ungrateful do you have to be to turn on the country that has secured your release and even compensated you (rather generously) for what you went through? Anything is possible, of course, including that Begg is a real bad-hat, but something did not ring true.
Lo and behold, just a few days before the date set for his trial – at the Old Bailey, no less – all seven charges were suddenly dropped. New “relevant material”, it was said, had persuaded the Crown Prosecutors that they would have no chance of success. So off Moazzam Begg goes back to Birmingham, his charity work and his trips to Syria.
There are those who believe that the authorities wanted to make an example of Begg as a high-profile Muslim with links to Syria. And perhaps there is something in that. But what happened here raises more questions. Take a cold hard look, for a start, at the cost. There was the police investigation that led to his arrest. Then his seven months at Belmarsh top security prison. Then the legal expenses – for him and the phalanxes of lawyers always involved in any such high-profile cases – and the court time. Then, at the very last moment, the whole construct collapses. At the very least this has been an egregious waste of public money.
So I wonder where the devastating last-minute “material” came from, don’t you? And don’t you think, given the costs incurred and the prospect of a miscarriage of justice if the trial had gone ahead, that we ought to know? Any inquiries, though, were comprehensively stonewalled.
Now I may be quite wrong, but the lateness of the intervention, the anonymity and the stonewalling seem to point in one direction and one direction alone: the intelligence services. Not Pakistan’s ISI, not the American CIA, DIA or NSA, but our very own MI5 and/or MI6. There was even a clue in the post-release statement issued by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which said – rightly – that the ruling called into question “the whole basis for arresting Mr Begg in the first place”. It went on: “His visits to conflict-torn regions in Syria were not only publicised, but Mr Begg was also engaged in an on-going dialogue with the security services about his activities.”
So there you have it. Perhaps Begg and the security services fell out and MI5 wanted to put the heavy hand on him, or perhaps West Midlands Police and the intelligence services were operating at cross purposes. Or both. We may never know.
What we do know, however, is that the UK intelligence services have been implicated in some very dubious stuff. Begg was not the only Briton detained at Guantanamo who claimed that UK intelligence had played a role in his capture or his interrogation. The Government chose to pay up rather than summon intelligence agents to court, which is how Begg and others won their compensation.
Then there was Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a leader of the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya, who claims UK intelligence was complicit in spiriting him and his pregnant wife back to a torture chamber in Libya from Thailand. Most recently it transpired that one of the killers of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo, was not only known to the intelligence services, but may have had them to thank for his repatriation from a Kenyan prison. Did that entail some deal on continued or future cooperation?
You can argue, and I would not demur, that tracking people like this is exactly the sort of thing MI5 and MI6 should be doing – getting down and dirty with activists who may have malice aforethought. Moazzam Begg’s trips to Syria may have yielded crucial information unobtainable any other way.
But if such operations are defensible in security terms, let’s hear them defended. We deserve to know that, just as with journalists employing subterfuge, the use of dubious methods is justified by the greater public interest. But I can recall no instance where that has happened. Everything is silence, distant inference or strangely phrased non-denial denials. You find exactly the same in the snail-like progress of the inquest – now inquiry – into the radiation death of Alexander Litvinenko.
It is just less than a year since the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ appeared before the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in an unprecedented public hearing. This departure was hailed as the start of a new era of openness and accountability. Moazzam Begg’s release after seven months in Belmarsh and the sudden appearance of “relevant materials” suggest that old habits die very hard indeed.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies