The arrest of the Guantanamo returnees Moazzam Begg, Martin Mubanga, Richard Belmar and Feroz Abbasi on their arrival at RAF Northolt (25th January 2005) under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000 i.e. alleged involvement in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism caught some civil society bodies unawares. For example the Muslim Safety Forum, a community organization nurtured as a consultative forum and sounding board by the Met Police has decided to ‘walk out’ and ‘reconsider’ its relationship.
Given the four men have been under detention for three years without yielding any evidence of guilt, the UK action is bizarre. The MCB’s Secretary General aptly described the arrests as ‘torture on torture’ – “these men have, of course, already been questioned extensively by our security services in Guantanamo and we can see no justification for them to be detained any longer than absolutely necessary. We want these men now to be returned into the arms of their waiting families.”
However the Government’s actions at RAF Northolt were not precipitate. There is possibly a pattern in a trail of events and statements that prepare the ground for continued monitoring and surveillance:
November 2004 - Prime Minister Tony Blair states that the previous batch of returnees were “causing difficulty again” (12/11/2004, Sky TV); the implication is that closer monitoring is needed in the future.
December 2004 - Sir John Stevens of Met Police observes that “…the risk of an attack to London has not changed. An attack is still inevitable” (10/12/04, The Guardian). Such alarms help in justifying the state of public emergency that is the basis for derogation from the European Human Rights Convention.
January 2005 – an interview published in ‘Jane’s Police Review’ quotes senior police officers’ who are ‘terrified’ and admit to a ‘grave concern of a terrorist activity’ (14/01/2005, The Guardian).
January 2005 – a ‘useful idiot’ causes public consternation. The Times reports that “Omar Bakri Mohammed… [has] told his followers that they were in a state of war with Britain” (17/01/05, The Times).
The underlying reasons may include a US insistence - so as to preserve the semblance that the Guantanamo incarcerations were not baseless and also Government's need to deflect attention for three years of acquiescence to US practices. There appears to be an element of discriminatory practice if this is compared with what Home Secretaries have done to protect the interests of British citizens - take the case of Peter Bleach.
It is noteworthy that ‘The Independent’ on 6th January 2005 reported that “false allegations made against one of the [Belmarsh] detainees in relation to his association with Mr [Moazzam] Begg arose from an MI5 surveillance operation of Mr Begg’s Islamic bookshop in Birmingham in 2000. MI5 wrongly claimed that weapons had been found there” (06/01/05, The Independent). The suggestion is of an MI5 wrongdoing involving one of the Guantanamo returnees.
Of particular concern however is the recent disclosure: “Counter-terrorism officials see the prevention of attacks and the use of robust means to make it known to radicals they are being watched as more important than the preservation of harmonious relations with the Muslim community”, (20/01/05, Financial Times). This is a chilling revelation – the ‘robust means’ presumably refers to a host of stratagems from arrests under the anti-terrorism laws to use of the media for scare-mongering. Muslims in Britain are bearing the cost of such a policing policy – its demonisation in the media and life in a climate of suspicion.