Moazzam Begg is one of nine British citizens who were held at Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo Bay by the government of the United States of America. Begg was labelled an ‘enemy combatant’ by the US government, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and whose precise nature has never been determined.
Moazzam was born in 1968 in Birmingham to secular Muslim parents. His mother died when he was six, and his father sent him to the Jewish King David School in Birmingham, because he thought it inculcated good values. Moazzam is fluent in English, Arabic and Urdu. In his 20s, Begg became more interested in politics. He never fitted one dogma neatly – conservative when it came to family values, leftist when it came to issues of equality. In the early 90s, between his job and studying law, he spent considerable time working in Bosnia as part of the relief effort. Moved by the plight of the Afghani people, in 2001 Begg travelled to Kabul with his family to start a school for basic education and provide water pumps. When the allied attack on Afghanistan began in October 2001, Begg and his family moved to Islamabad in Pakistan for safety.
Kidnapped in Pakistan, detained in Bagram and sent to Guantanamo
It was in Pakistan that he was seized in January 2002 by Pakistani police and CIA officers, bundled into a back of a car and taken back to Kabul, where he was held in a windowless cell at Bagram airbase for nearly a year – where he witnessed the death of two prisoners by US soldiers. After this, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay where he remained for two years – mostly in solitary confinement. During his time in custody he memorised large parts of the Quran. He was released on January 25, 2005 without charge though he received no explanation or apology.
A voice for the voiceless
Upon his return, he authored an award-winning book detailing life as a Muslim living in the UK and his further experiences in Guantánamo. Enemy Combatant is the first book to be published by a former Guantánamo Bay prisoner – which has been translated into several languages and was featured in numerous British book festivals.
He also became the director for the prisoner human rights organisation, CagePrisoners (now known as CAGE) and has since then become one of the most authoritative voices against the War on Terror.
Moazzam appears extensively both in the media in the UK and internationally, lecturing on issues surrounding imprisonment without trial, torture, anti-terror legislation and community relations.
Moazzam has worked very closely with leading human rights organisations and has worked closely with Reprieve, Amnesty International, Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Law Society, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Constitutional Rights, Rewind, Peacemaker and Conflicts Forum.
Delivering talks around the world
Moazzam has delivered hundreds of speeches at schools, colleges and regularly speaks at the UK’s top universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, LSE, UCL, Warwick, York and Durham. He has addressed multi-faith audiences across the UK, including the historic Wells and Blackburn Cathedrals.
He has been a keynote speaker at the Jewish Forum for Human Rights. He has also been a regular visitor to Northern Ireland where he has met with numerous former prisoners to discuss the peace process as well as similarities between the Muslim and Irish experience in the UK.
Moazzam has also delivered Friday sermons at many mosques, including one at the Al-Quds Masjid in Cape Town, South Africa where over 6,000 worshippers attended and another in Jamia Masjid, Nairobi to over 12,000 people.
In January 2009, Moazzam made a momentous tour around the UK with former Guantanamo guard, Christopher Arendt, in the Two Sides, One Story tour. Later that year he and CagePrisoners took part in the historic Convention on Modern Liberty. He also spoke in Dubai with former Guantanamo soldier Terry Holdbrooks and the world-renown Professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo on the effects of torture on the human psyche at Boldtalks 2011.
He delivered presentations in front of several world leaders and politicians including Mahathir Mohammed (former Prime Minister, Malaysia), Martin McGuiness (Deputy First Secretary, Northern Ireland), Mahmood Ahmedinajad (President, Iran) and Kenneth Clark (Lord Chancellor, UK).
Appearing in the media
Moazzam has authored numerous opinion pieces that have appeared in major broadsheets around the world – and regularly writes for the Guardian Comment is Free.
He is regularly invited on national and international media as a commentator and has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews and, documentaries including the BBC's Hardtalk, Newsnight and Panorama shows and PBS's The Prisoner.
He is also featured in a number of award-winning human rights documentary films including, Al-Jazeera's Prisoner 345, Songs of War, Taking Liberties, You Don’t Like the Truth, Death in Guantanamo, Torturing Democracy, National Geographic's Guantanamo's Secrets and Taxi to the Dark Side which received an academy award (Oscar) in 2008.
Moazzam’s religious, political and professional views were recorded by the Columbia University Oral History project in the same year.
Moazzam also hosted a programme on Islam Channel entitled Absent Justice.
Moazzam was later interviewed by Julian Assange for “The World Tomorrow”, “a collection of twelve interviews featuring an eclectic range of guests, who are stamping their mark on the future: politicians, revolutionaries, intellectuals, artists and visionaries”.
Moazzam took part in an interview with prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Arifi about conditions Guantanamo.
In 2010, controversy broke out regarding Moazzam’s views on dialogue with the Taliban and al-Qaida (a position now openly endorsed by many political and military leaders). This was borne out in public attacks made against him by a former member of Amnesty International which were championed by the likes of Salman Rushdie. However, Amnesty defended its position in working with Moazzam and CagePrisoners.
Negotiating the resettlement of Guantanamo detainees
Moazzam was also closely involved in discussions with the foreign ministries of several European countries in order to seek the resettlement of prisoners from Guantanamo and was praised by the US ambassador to Luxembourg - where he personally met with the Deputy Prime Minster - for his efforts and articulation, as revealed in a 2010 WikiLeaks cable.
Holding states to account
Along with other former Guantanamo prisoners, Moazzam won a substantial out-of-court settlement – after meeting with very senior government ministers – against the British government for complicity in torture after which Prime Minster David Cameron announced a judge-led inquiry into the actions of British intelligence.
The police are also leading an unprecedented criminal investigation into the actions of the intelligence services based on testimony of Moazzam and others.
In 2012 testimony presented by Moazzam alongside survivors of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became pivotal in securing a guilty verdict at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Kuala Lumpur against several former members of the Bush administration.
Travels to Syria
When the revolutions began in the Arab world, he was able to visit several of the countries involved and begin his own investigations into the British government’s role in rendition and human rights violations – which he'd already been doing in relation to the British Guantanamo prisoners. He thus visited Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia and Syria in 2013. Upon his return, he wrote extensively about his research. He also denounced the UK “anti-terrorism industry” which used the Syria conflict to justify a strand of drastic measures and arrests.
After a trip to South Africa, - which had coincided with the funeral of Nelson Mandela – and where he spoke extensively about the complicity of the British government in rendition and torture, he was met upon arrival at Heathrow by officials who served him with a notice to seize his passport under the 'Royal Prerogative' stating that it was assessed his previous visits to Syria had constituted involvement in terrorism. No explanation other than that was given.
However, in an article published soon after, he explained what he thought was the real reason behind the confiscation of his passport and the wider harassment he was subjected to.
In his own words: “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”.
Nevertheless, he continued appearing in the media and delivering speeches around the country on the very same issues.
Arrest on Syria related allegations
On 25 February 2014, Moazzam Begg was arrested at his house in Birmingham with three other people on suspicion of "attending a terrorist training camp" and "facilitating terrorism overseas". The West Midlands police explained that the arrest “were pre-planned and intelligence led”. However, it added that “there was no immediate risk to public safety”.
The arrest of Moazzam Begg, a highly respected voice in the Muslim community and beyond, immediately caused a wide movement of support on social media as well as protests being held demanding his release.
Held in Belmarsh
Moazzam Begg was held on remand at HMP Belmarsh's high security Unit, a prison once labeled Britain's Guantanamo Bay.
During his pre-trial custody, he applied for bail and appeared several times before court. However, the judge placed severe reporting restrictions, preventing journalists and supporters to publicise details of the hearings.
On 1 October 2014, just five days before his trial was due to start, prosecution lawyers told the court that the CPS had decided to drop all the charges against Moazzam Begg. The hearing lasted less that five minutes.
After the hearing at the old Bailey, Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale of West Midlands Police told: "Moazzam Begg is an innocent man".
On the same day, Moazzam Begg walked free from prison, stating:
I need to reconnect with my family again.
I need to understand what it's like to be a free man and I think that it's important to point out some of the Government's failures in its foreign policy and its internal policy - its clear demonising of the Muslim community.
And not once but twice in my case this Government has been involved either in directly detaining me or indirectly detaining me.
"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."