A former Guantanamo Bay detainee walked free from a prison in southeast London Wednesday after a high-profile government terror case against him collapsed in sudden, dramatic fashion.
Charges against Moazzam Begg, a 46-year-old British Pakistani who was held for nearly three years in Gitmo after he was arrested in Pakistan in February 2002, were dropped after prosecutors said there was inefficient evidence to bring him to trial.
The British government accused Begg of attending a terrorist training camp in Syria from October 9, 2012 to April 9, 2013, and claimed he possessed a document connected to terrorism and terrorist funding. He had spent more than seven months in custody after his arrest following a trip to Syria last year. Begg maintained that the trips to were taken to investigate the UK's role in the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects.
Begg was due to appear in court next week to face an array of terrorism charges, but prosecutors dropped the case after "new material" suddenly emerged. West Midlands Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale refused to specify what, exactly, the "new material" included.
"New material has recently been disclosed to police and CPS, which has a significant impact on key pieces of evidence that underpinned the prosecution's case," Beale told reporters gathered outside the court. "Our criminal justice system — quite rightly — demands a very high standard of proof. I understand this is going to raise many questions. However, explaining what this newly revealed information is would mean discussing other aspects of the case, which would be unfair and inappropriate as they are no longer going to be tested in court."
Begg addressed a group of reporters outside the prison after his release, and said UK's anti-domestic terror policies constitute a "clear demonization of the Muslim community."
"I wanted my day in court but I was very happy," Begg said of the dropped charges. He said he looked forward to returning to his family to "understand what it's like to be a free man."
Begg maintained his innocence from the beginning of his case, and again denied all charges against him during a short pre-trial review Wednesday morning. Minutes later, a judge acquitted him of all charges.
Begg wrote openly about his travels to Syria on the website of Cage (formerly CagePrisoners), an advocacy organization that documents abuses of due process that have allegedly occurred during Britain's war on terror. Begg currently serves as outreach director for the group.
"Moazzam Begg is a good and brave man," Begg's lawyer Gareth Peirce told VICE News in a statement. "He is a rare individual who will talk to everyone and listen to everyone, even those with whom he profoundly disagrees. He has spent the near decade since he was released from the torture of Bagram and Guantanamo in attempting to wake the world up to injustice and to comprehend its causes and effects."
Peirce added: "There is nothing new that can have been discovered now that was not always crystal clear - that this is an innocent man."
Beale also emphasized Begg's innocence. "Moazzam Begg is an innocent man," the prosecutor said flatly.
Beale also addressed the controversy surrounding the case, saying it, "challenged the relationship between West Midlands police and some of the communities we serve." He added that police and prosecutors, "acted in the best interests of the public and of justice."
Begg's family reacted to the abrupt turn of events with a mix of indignation and relief.
"It is confusing why the British government would incarcerate him for such a long period if it didn't have sufficient evidence," Begg's brother Mirza said in a statement. "But right now, we are just relieved that this seven-month ordeal can come to an end and Moazzam can be back with his family."
Begg was first detained by the US military in Pakistan in January 2002 and spent a year at the infamous Bagram prison in Afghanistan — where abuse and torture of detainees was widespread — before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay. He was never charged with any offense during his years in US custody.
Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant
Photo via YouTube/Cage