LONDON (Reuters) - A British man once held at Guantanamo Bay turned human rights campaigner told a court in London on Saturday he would plead not guilty to providing training and funding terrorism in Syria, police said.
Moazzam Begg, 45, who was released without charge from the U.S. military prison in Cuba in 2005, was detained at his home in Birmingham in central England last week and charged with terrorism offences dated between October 2012 and April 2013.
He appeared at Westminster Magistrates Court on Saturday and was remanded in custody to appear at London’s Old Bailey criminal court on March 14.
It is the first time he has ever faced any charges.
Begg was held by the U.S. government at Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, then Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, for nearly three years after being arrested in Pakistan in February 2002 suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.
After his release, he founded Cage, a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of people detained during counter-terrorism operations.
Cage accused British authorities of “retraumatising” Begg by refusing to grant him bail, saying this was part of a campaign to criminalize legitimate activism.
“This is a politically motivated arrest and very much bears the hallmarks of trying to criminalize legitimate Muslim activity by reinforcing a climate of fear,” said Asim Qureshi, research director of Cage.
Begg was one of four Britons arrested last Tuesday in central England on suspected Syria-related terrorism offences.
Another of those, 44-year-old woman Gerrie Tahari, also appeared in Westminster Magistrates Court on Saturday charged with facilitating terrorism overseas.
“When asked to give an indication of how they intended to plead they both replied not guilty,” said a statement from West Midlands police.
Tahari was also remanded in custody to appear on March 14.
Two other men, aged 20 and 36, who were arrested the same day, remain in police custody, police said.
The arrests came as concerns mount in Britain over the number of its nationals travelling to Syria to help rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Police fear they may become radicalized by Islamists or attend terrorist training camps before returning to Britain where they could pose a security risk.
British police had already arrested 16 people on suspicion of terrorism offences related to Syria this year, some as young as 17, compared to 24 such arrests in all of 2013.
Security assessments estimate that up to 500 Britons have gone to Syria in the past two years of which about half are thought to have returned home. This number includes those engaged in aid or humanitarian efforts.
British law was changed last year to make it easier for the government to confiscate the passport from anyone whose “actual or suspected” activities are deemed contrary to the public interest.
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky