British prosecutors have dropped seven terrorism charges against Moazzam Begg a week before he was due to go on trial. Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and an advocate for the rights of terror suspects.
London’s Central Criminal Court acquitted the accused man of all charges on Wednesday after prosecutors said new evidence showed “there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction in this case.”
Begg, 46, was released from Belmarsh high security prison just hours after his acquittal. He had spent seven months in custody following his arrest and questioning over a trip to Syria.
“The more this continues, the more it’s going to alienate people,” Begg said about his case. “I have to thank my lawyers; I have to thank my community. I have to thank my family and everybody who has been around me. They have been extremely supportive and I’m very pleased about that.”
He faced seven charges, including possession a document related to terrorism funding and training, and attending a terrorism training camp. He was alleged to have attended a training camp in Syria between October 2012 and April 2013. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Begg had been held in custody since March on terrorism-related charges and was refused bail at a hearing in May, despite concerns over his mental health. He was said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his detention in Guantanamo.
“He has never made any secret of his visits to Syria and on two occasions informed authorities of his travel plans,” said Begg’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson QC.
“Mr. Begg did not train anyone for the purposes of terrorism as defined in the 2001 Act. Mr. Begg says he was involved in training young men to defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime.”
Prosecutor Christopher Hehir said new evidence made a conviction untenable.
“The prosecution have recently become aware of relevant material and in light of which, after careful and anxious consideration, have reached the conclusion that there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction in this case,” said Hehir.
“The prosecution therefore offer no evidence.”
The decision is expected to raise serious questions for the government, since Prime Minister David Cameron pledged tougher action on British citizens who travel to Syria to join jihadist groups, including potentially taking away their passports.
“If you try and travel to Syria or Iraq, we will use everything at our disposal to stop you – taking away your passport, prosecuting, convicting, imprisoning and even if you’re there already we may even prevent you from coming back,” Cameron told delegates at the Conservative party’s annual conference.
Campaigners are concerned the government’s hardened line will result in greater harassment and possible victimization.
“The criminalization of virtually any Muslim that has been to Syria has only increased in intensity, while CAGE has been attacked from every angle by a host of government agencies,” said Asim Qureshi, Research Director of CAGE, a group set up by Begg that campaigns for the rights of people detained during counter-terrorism operations.
Begg was held in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for nearly three years. He was detained in Pakistan in January 2002 as an ‘enemy combatant’, and was transferred to the notorious US prison camp after a year at an internment center in Afghanistan. He was released in 2005 from US custody without charges.