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What It's Like to Do Prison Time Without Ever Being Convicted of a Crime

We spoke to Moazzam Begg, a British man caught in centre of the war on terror, and held for years in prisons around the world for no clear reason.

by Mari Shibata
20 August 2016, 8:00am

Moazzam Begg's had a markedly unusual adult life. He spent years in some of the world's most notorious detention camps on suspicion of terrorism, without ever being convicted of any crime. He's since become one the most vocal critics of how the British and American governments have handled the post-9/11 "war on terror".

"I saw two men being executed in front me in Guantánamo. From then on, I couldn't be silent about it anymore," he tells me. "The only way I can talk about it is to do it in the public realm, as I don't know if I will ever be able to go to court about it."

The British-Pakistani now tells his personal history in new documentary, The Confession: Living the War on Terror. In the film, Begg describes how he signed what he now terms a false confession to being a member of Al Qaeda in 2002, at a time when he was said to be under duress while in detention at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. US officials have previously disputed such claims, claiming Begg was transferred to Guantánamo as a result of the information he provided. In any case, he was released in 2005 without charge, a year before the US Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration does not have authority to try terrorism suspects by military tribunal.

Begg's account goes back to his teenage years, around the time of the Gulf War in the early 90s, in an attempt to examine the root causes of what led him to seek his identity in Islam. Based primarily around an extensive interview by director Ashish Ghadiali, it was filmed in March 2015 after Begg's release from London's Belmarsh prison, when he was cleared of seven terrorism charges in October 2014. He'd been arrested in an "anti-terror raid" for having allegedly traveled to assist rebels in Syria but was held for seven months, despite laws outlined in the 2006 Terrorism Act that no terror suspect without charge can be held for more than 90 days.

In the film, a series of interviews shot in a dark room are interspersed with archival footage of Jihadist-related news reports and previous chats with Begg and his family. Blair and W Bush's speeches appear as flashbacks, creating "an allegory of a bigger a story" on the war on terror, director Ashish Ghadiali says. "It's a seduction into a world of things you don't believe in, such as the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] which were never found."

The film also outlines Begg's complicated allegiances, the events that led up to his forced confession in Bagram and its aftermath. "So much has happened to me since that Guantánamo is quite an old experience for me now," Begg tells me, "but the landscape had changed." These include the host of Terrorism Acts have been implemented in the UK, as well as counter-terrorism strategies that critics believe have targeted the British Muslim community following the London 7/7 bombings, and more recently, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).

It's within this context that the film addresses whether it's possible for those like Begg, who believe jihad – but condemn violence associated with it – have a place in Western society today. In our conversation, Begg says that jihad is an aspiration "to rise above (conflict)" that should be about self-defence, not aggression, yet "the reality is that jihad has now become synonymous with terrorism". He acknowledges that Muslims may interpret jihad differently, but says that "violence is where the line has to be drawn" and that the brutal acts committed by groups like ISIS are "not my belief nor the belief of most Muslims".

He believes it's "completely wrong" for the British government to assume that all British Muslims travelling to Syria are going to join ISIS. Still, tracking jihadists has been a major MI5 priority since at least 2014.

"During my time in Belmarsh, there was only one guy who was connected to ISIS. But the others I had met had nothing to do with them – including two boys aged 18 and 19 – who were thrown in prison for returning," he says. "Because the political system wants to label them as terrorists, they're locked up for 12 years. This is only going to increase their frustrations against the state, which would only make them more vulnerable to radicalisation."

For now, Begg feels as though a cloud of suspicion from the intelligence community hangs over him. He was denied entry into Canada in 2011, reportedly for being on a US no-fly list. Because he has continued to investigate claims of others tortured with the complicity of the British government, Begg says he's been repeatedly harassed by the British state in retaliation for this activism. "I expect myself to be surveilled – I have absolutely nothing to hide. But it is frustrating that my movements are restricted," he says. In December 2013, his passport was confiscated at Heathrow Airport.

This hasn't stopped Begg reuniting with former Guantánamo prison guards "who weren't happy with what was going on there". Just last week, one named Albert Melise flew over from the US to speak at a screening of The Confession in Birmingham. "This is a man from the other side who stayed at my house and met my family. He gave his hat to my daughter when she started crying so she could wipe her nose because she didn't have a tissue," Begg says. "The film did play a part in bring us back together, but more importantly if we can be reconciled with each other then I think it sets an example of what could be achieved."

As the film continues its tour, Begg's fight for exoneration is far from over. He and his lawyers are waiting for a decision on £1 million worth of compensation from HM Treasury for using anti-terrorism laws to freeze his assets before charges against him were dropped. "There is no way that compensation isn't going to replace everything. My bank accounts that I had been using for 25 years are frozen, which no one in my family's able to access," he says, sighing. I ask him whether he's afraid if the police will arrest him again. "I don't want them to, it's not ideal. But if it does happen, I'm not afraid to face it."

The Confession: Living the War on Terror is playing at select UK cinemas from Friday the 19th of August.

@Mshibata_

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