A Labour MP allegedly rang police and fled her home when her brother told her she was possessed after she married a man her family disliked, a court heard today as she denied conning a local council out of £64,000 in housing benefits to ‘dishonestly’ obtain a studio flat.
Apsana Begum, 31, who is on trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court, wept as she told jurors she went to a police station on May 21, 2013 out of fear she could become the victim of honour-based violence after her brother followed her to work.
On the same day, the Poplar and Limehouse MP – who won the east London seat with a 28,904 majority in the general election in December 2019 – said an argument erupted at her family home in east London when her brother locked her in the living room.
She said: ‘He told me he wanted me to see an imam because I wasn’t registering their concern about (her partner) Ehtashamul (Haque). He thought I was possessed and said he wanted me to get checked.
‘I refused and said I’m not under a spell, this is my choice and I just wanted them to support me. But he started reciting the Koran. He had his hand over my head. I started shouting for my mum but she wasn’t responding.
‘I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I thought he might beat me up.’
Begum said she managed to call 999 and when officers arrived she fled with only her handbag. A court clerk passed Begum tissues as she said she had to collect her belongings which her family had placed in black bin bags outside their house on Woodstock Terrace.
Giving evidence today wearing a white shirt and grey headscarf, Begum told the jury her Bangladeshi-heritage family disapproved of her relationship with Mr Haque, who is now a Tower Hamlets councillor.
Begum met Mr Haque while doing a community leadership post-graduate diploma. He was seven years older and had been married twice before, and her family did not see him as a suitable match for her.
She denies three counts of housing fraud for allegedly withholding information about her living circumstances to jump the queue for a council house between January 2013 and March 2016.
Tower Hamlets Council, which is bringing the prosecution, alleged it cost the local authority £63,928.
Apsana Begum, 31, claimed she was living in ‘overcrowded conditions’ with her family when she was in fact in a four-bedroom house with three other people, jurors have been told
Begum is accused of not notifying the council that she was no longer living in overcrowded accommodation – as she claimed when she applied for social housing – after she moved in with Mr Haque.
She claims she rang the council to notify it for council tax purposes and believed it would share the information. She said it was a period of ‘turmoil’ due to the breakdown of her relationship with her family and having lost her father months before.
Begum also claims Mr Haque was ‘controlling and coercive’ and had taken over her ‘matters and affairs’. ‘We had started a new life together – it wasn’t easy but it’s what we had chosen. He said he would tell everyone,’ she added.
During an interview with the council’s fraud investigations team on January 21 2020, a transcript of which was read out in court, she said: ‘I was going through a lot of turmoil at the time, escaping from an abusive situation and later on realising he (Mr Haque) was very, very abusive.
‘He told me he was handling my matters and affairs. He had my details, bank details, he was making transfers and all that.’
In response to evidence that her account had been making bids for houses while she was known to be living with Mr Haque, she denied making the bids and said: ‘I’m shocked to see these records.’
Asked if the bids could have been made by Mr Haque, Begum said: ‘It must have been him. He had access to the accounts.’
Last week, Begum’s defence lawyer Helen Law said investigators failed to ‘join the dots’, including that the complaint about her applications in 2019 was made by a relative of Mr Haque, Sayed Nahid Uddin.
She said she split with Mr Haque after he cheated on her in mid-2016. She added that she had also become concerned that he had a drinking problem. In November 2016, Begum called police to report that Mr Haque had been following her from her workplace in his car, after constantly calling and texting her.
The prosecution says Begum attempted to gain social housing at first by claiming she lived in an overcrowded three-bedroom house with her family and did not have a bedroom of her own, which made her a higher priority in the queue.
However, according to a social housing application made in 2009 by Begum’s aunt, the house had four bedrooms. Begum insists there were only three when she lived there.
Prosecutor James Marsland claimed she ‘must have had a good understanding of the social housing system and how it operated’ because she worked for Tower Hamlets Homes (THH), a public organisation working with the council to arrange social housing, between October 28, 2013 and August 3, 2016.
Jurors heard Begum left her family home in Poplar in 2013 because of a dispute over her partner being a divorcee, and felt she was under threat from her brother. Pictured: Snaresbrook Crown Court, where the trial continues
Reading out the agreed facts of the case at Snaresbrook Crown Court, James Marsland, prosecuting, said Begum thought ‘her family didn’t like Mr Haque because he was divorced’ and was ‘finding the situation… stressful’.
‘Her brother was aware that she had taken her passport and wrongly thought she had taken it to run away.
‘She was asked [by the police] if she was at danger of honour-based violence. She was feeling a bit worried. In their risk assessment, the police noticed that her brother was using controlling behaviour.’
In an interview transcript read to the court, Begum said she had been going through ‘a lot of turmoil’ and was ‘escaping an abusive situation’ after leaving her family home in Poplar.
‘Essentially it was a situation where there was honour based abuse,’ she said. ‘I left with police assistance. I did go to my partner’s address, but he told me there was somebody there. I went to his sister’s address. I stayed between both places for about two weeks. I moved in and I informed the council.’
Begum said her husband told her he had also informed the council of her relocation.
‘He said he did the same as well,’ she said. ‘He was very much in control of my affairs at the time. From the moment I had met him.
‘He had my details, he had my bank details, he was making financial transactions. I had a very, very difficult life. He was very, very abusive, controlling. He had a problem with alcohol.
‘His family were very intrusive. They would show up and try to make changes, interfere. I was very afraid of him. I had had those difficulties with my family.’
Begum said she thought she would ‘end up being in violent situations.’ She also told investigators she later returned to her family home in November 2015 to escape the harassment she faced from her husband.
‘I just remember fleeing from him, fleeing from my situation which was really, really bad with him,’ she said. She was awarded the one-bedroom studio flat in March 2016.
‘Police heard that Mr Haque was following her,’ Mr Marsland told the court. ‘[He] was constantly calling and texting her. She showed the messages to the police. On 21 April 2016, Ehtasham Haque was contacted by the police and was given a written harassment warning and told to stop harassing Apsana Begum.’
Begum was one of 26 new Labour MPs elected in 2019, winning her seat with a majority of nearly 30,000.
A supporter of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, she has spoken in Parliament about the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minorities and sits on the Commons education committee.
She is also notable for being the chair of an all-party committee on domestic abuse and violence and has spoken in the House of Commons about being a survivor.
Begum denies fraud and the trial continues.