He Was Tortured in Guantanamo. Now He's Taking the UK Government to Court.

The case against Moazzam Begg collapsed but his passport has been kept from him for years. He tells VICE World News about his continuing “harassment” by authorities.
Simon Childs
London, GB
Moazzam Begg.Photo: Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Moazzam Begg. Photo: Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“My auntie just passed away in Pakistan. She helped to bring me up as a child when my mother died when I was only six years old. I couldn't even think about attending her funeral,” says Moazzam Begg.

After a three-year stint in Guantanamo Bay, Begg - now a human rights campaigner - has had his passport withheld by Britain for eight years.

As the Government pushes ahead with its controversial policy of stripping dual citizens of their British passports, Begg has become a high-profile case study showing its devastating impact on hundreds of lives. The personal cost to him has been high.

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“My daughter got married recently in Turkey,” he tells VICE World News. “She was the first of my children to get married. She's lived the impact of being my daughter, but she knows that my father's innocent, he's never been convicted of any crime. I can't go to that wedding. I can't share in her joy.”

Now 53, Begg was detained in Pakistan for suspected links to al-Qaeda in 2002 and moved the Guantanamo Bay but was released three years later without charge. In 2014, he was arrested again in 2014 on terrorism charges, before police accepted that he was innocent. Despite this they withheld his passport.

The UK government has recently sought to strip jihadis who went to Syria of their citizenship, most notably in the case of Shamima Begum, a teenager who travelled  to join ISIS and later had her citizenship removed despite begging to come home.

Begg’s trouble with US and British authorities has dragged on for two decades. He was detained in Pakistan on the 31st of January 2002 by CIA agents who tied his hands behind his back, put a hood over his head and threw him in a vehicle. The US accused him of being a member of the al-Qaeda terror network, recruiting for the group, sending money and support to al-Qaeda camps and preparing the fight the US. 

Begg has admitted to supporting militant Muslim groups in Bosnia and elsewhere, but denies support for al-Qaeda or terrorism. After being taken to the infamous Bagram internment centre, Afghanistan, he was moved to Guantanamo Bay where he was kept for three years and tortured without trial or charge, much of it in solitary confinement.

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He was released without charge and returned to his home in Birmingham, England, but the interest security services continue to show in him cast a shadow over his life. Not only because of his bitter memories of incarceration, but because the British government has denied him a passport for years of “checks”.

In December 2013, he went to South Africa to meet ANC members and discuss their experience of incarceration. On his return, his passport was seized. Two months later he was arrested and sent to Belmarsh high-security prison, accused of providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas, but was released in October with charges dropped.

Last September Begg was finally issued a passport, but a month later he was told this was “in error”. He is now taking the government to court for systemic harassment.

January 2022 marked 20 years since Camp X-Ray was first constructed and despite repeated calls for it to be closed, it still holds 39 prisoners who remain incarcerated without having been charged with a crime. Constructed following the 9/11 attacks in the New York, the camp formed part of the “War on Terror”. Former detainees have described horrific acts of torture – including being put in stress positions, being subjected to loud music for hours on end and sexual degradation.

Barack Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay on his second day in office in 2009 but was unable to close it. Donald Trump on the other hand signed an executive order to keep the camp open.

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Begg is unimpressed by the lack of progress made towards its closure under President Joe Biden. “One prisoner has been released by Biden, who's supposed to be the more open minded person on Guantanamo,” he said. “Well, thus far, that's exactly the same as what Donald Trump did – he released one person while he was President. Now, Biden has a bit more time, but it's not looking good.”

Begg fears for the impact the notorious prison camp will have on future generations.

“There's a young man I spoke to recently, he's 19 years old. He's a Pakistani kid. His name is Jawad. He's never seen his dad in his life. And his dad has been held in prison for 20 years, without charge or trial. And that hasn't been held in prison in Pakistan. He's been held by America, the most powerful, vociferous defender of human rights and democracy in the world.

“If any country had done that to an American citizen, or a British citizen, we would have started a war over it, or at least sanctions and lots of talk and sabre rattling, and there would have been mass campaigns. I bet you nobody even knows the name Jawad Rabbani. That's the really sad part.”

Begg is known to make blunt, sometimes controversial statements. When Afghanistan fell once again to the Taliban in August 2021, 20 years after they had been driven out, he wrote that the soldiers of the invading countries would go down in history as “the bad guys”. “In the meantime… we should afford all those who fought them the right to celebrate,” he wrote.

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He believes, however, that the continuing attention he gets from the authorities is because of his work pointing out  human rights abuses he says are carried out by Western governments. He credits CAGE, the human rights organisation for which he is outreach director, for its support in helping him continue his work.

“On the occasions that I travelled to investigate British and American complicity in torture, I was stopped every single time. I wasn't stopped abroad – I was stopped here in my home country.

“I'm paying the price for trying to hold them to account,” he says.

Begg also criticises the lack of help for former detainees who are released from Guantanamo. “After 20 years of imprisonment, being away from your family, no communication with the outside world. What's your programme? How do you even start life after that?”

For Begg, readjusting to normal life was made more manageable as he was released back to the UK where he has a family and supportive community. The same cannot be said for others.

“Some of these guys, they go from Guantanamo and are resettled to a country they've never been to. These are the untold stories of Guantanamo – Syrians sent to Uruguay, Yemenis sent to Kazakhstan, Uyghurs sent to Bermuda.”

While it faces a legal challenge from Begg, the British government is seeking to expand its powers to strip people of their citizenship without telling them - which the government says would be used in “exceptional circumstances” when people present a risk. The court of appeal has found that the way the government stripped a woman’s citizenship after she allegedly joined ISIS in Syria was unlawful.

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For Begg, this is troubling. “The British government has stripped the nationality of at least 300 people over the past six or seven years, which is unprecedented. But they're doing it clearly, majority to people who are from Asia and Africa,” he says.

“This to me really stinks of racism in such a bold, bare-faced way. And it's been done by a government that has the most diverse cabinet that we've seen in any government makes it even more sinister.”

If Begg gets his passport back, he will use it to continue speaking out against the horrors that have taken place as part of the “War on Terror”. 

"I want to go back to investigate. I want culprits are involved in in the torture and the murder to be recognised. If they're not going to face court, at least come out in some kind of truth and reconciliation discussion to say that 'we accept that we did this'. That's the first step of any path to justice.

"But those sores still remain. And I know that in places like Bagram, there were hundreds of prisoners that had gone through there who are still embittered about what they faced."