Shamima Begum: A legal perspective

Background:

Unless you have been living under a rock you will have most likely heard of Shamima Begum, who in recent weeks has kicked up a media storm.

However, if you have not heard of her, I shall briefly sum up the current situation.

Shamima Begum is a 19-year-old British born citizen who, at the age of 15, left her home in London for Syria to join the terrorist group ISIS along with 2 of her friends. Upon arriving in Syria 15-year-old Shamima became married to a 27-year-old Jihadi.

During her few years of living in Syria she acted in a traditional women’s role, that is, the role of the housewife, mother and caregiver. It should be said immediately that there is absolutely no suggestion that Shamima was every directly involved in any terrorist activity.

Fast forward to February 2019. The now pregnant Shamima has fled from ISIS, is living in a refugee camp in Syria and is begging to be allowed to re-enter the UK.

Shamima has now given birth and is speaking to the media from Syria asking to come back to the UK. Her family, who are still living in the England, are advocating on her behalf for her return and saying they will take on the care of her new born child.

However, last week, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, decided to revoke her British citizenship.

False Narratives That Need Correcting:

Firstly, it must be taken into consideration that Shamima was groomed and brainwashed by a powerful terrorist organisation at the age of 15. At such a young age it can be expected that a child would be extremely vulnerable and impressionable.

Secondly, despite the false narrative pushed heavily in the media Shamima has shown remorse for her actions.

However, even if she had not shown remorse for her actions – why should we be surprised by this? She has been groomed and manipulated by ISIS since she was 15. Not only is she likely to have a warped view of her experience as a result of this but also it would also not be surprising if she was suffering mentally whilst she is trying to come to terms with the situation she is currently in with her new born child.

The Legal Perspective:

Citizenship:

The revocation of Shamima’s citizenship has potentially contradicted international law. Shamima is a British citizen and a British citizen only. No one can have their citizenship revoked if it will leave them stateless.

Why is it illegal to be stateless?

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”.

The Home Secretary has limited power to remove an individual of citizenship based on the “public good” but only where the person would not be stateless as a result.

In this situation our government assumed that Bangladesh would claim her as a citizen as one of her parents is Bangladeshi (although this does not automatically give her the right to dual nationality). However, the Bangladesh government have said they will not recognise Shamima as a citizen under any circumstance.  And why should they? Shamima is British. Why should she be the responsibility of any other country than Britain? Particularly if she is a terrorist (as so many have claimed).

Due to her rejection from Bangladesh, Shamima is currently left stateless.

The status of her child:

It must be noted that there is an innocent child in amongst all this chaos. This child does not deserve to be subject to attacks; treated as a terrorist or to grow up in a dangerous environment.

However, despite the immense sympathy that I feel for the child that has become wrapped up in this mess – what is this child’s legal standing?

Begum’s child is also a British citizen and should be afforded the same rights as any other British child. There is certainly no reason to make this child stateless.

Sajid Javid has reinstated this point to the House of Commons saying: “Children should not suffer. So, if a parent does lose their British citizenship, it does not affect the rights of their child.”

However, despite these grand words from the Home Secretary, they appear to be just words. It is yet to be stated what the government will be doing to protect and enforce this child’s rights. There are currently no British consular staff in Syria to help retrieve Shamima’s new born. Thus, as it stands, nothing is being done to protect this child and he has also been left stateless.

The Right to a Fair Trial:

If Shamima has broken English law, then she is our responsibility and deserves access to a fair trial, as does any British citizen.

The right to a fair trial is secured by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as enacted in English law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, the rule of law (meaning everyone should have access to a fair trial and everyone is innocent until proven guilty) is a fundamental element of our constitution and thus something that should not be frivolously denied.

Further, why would we not want to give her a trial if she has broken the law? To leave her in Syria, stateless, boosts her chances of becoming a prime target for terrorist organisations who wish to radicalise her further. Surely, we want to prevent radicalisation in any way we can? It is through radicalisation that terrorist organisations create willing members to carry out their acts. At least in the UK she would have the chance to be rehabilitated.

However, all of this is very theoretical. Shamima has never actually been accused of committing a crime (especially not a terrorist act). It has been suggested that Shamima may have broken ancient treason laws and there have been calls to change the law in wake of this case to ensure that any ISIS supporters who re-enters the UK could be prosecuted. However, as the law stands, it is extremely unlikely that she has breached these outdated treason laws.

What is the usual protocol for people returning to the UK?

This is not an unusual or unprecedented circumstance. Shamima is one of thousands of British citizens that have left the UK in the past few years to join ISIS and have been allowed to return. Upon their return they have either faced trial, if they have done something illegal, or have been interviewed by security services to judge the risk they pose to the public and then been reintegrated back into society.

The graph below shows how many citizens who had fled to join ISIS had been allowed to return in one year (2015). In an analysis of six EU countries carried out by the European Parliament, half of those who left the UK, had returned, this is the highest rate among the six examined.

So why is Shamima’s case different?

This is a question in which the answer can only be speculated.

Shamima herself has claimed that she believes that the reason her case is being treated differently is because of her publicization of the case in the media. This certainly seems to be the case. A brief google of her name displays several clickbait headlines including: ‘She doesn’t deserve to come back to Britain’ (Daily Mail) and ‘Fury as taxpayer cash set aside to help jihadis’ (The Mirror). Public opinion has been heavily against Shamima.

Moreover, her case has been used by many as an excuse to heavily attack the Muslim community. Whether this is through so called ‘jokes’ (which are not funny and are purely Islamophobic) or blatantly racist/Islamophobic comments online. Comments seen online including things such as ‘if her family care so much they should go back with her’ and other racist comments evidence two things: Firstly, if those who have made these comments (and similar) actually cared about whether Shamima had done anything wrong they would not even consider mentioning the family – who have done nothing wrong. Thus, it is clear that immigration, racism and islamophobia have played a massive role in public opinion.

Secondly, it is this public opinion that has undoubtably effected the decision of the government. Immigration is a highly topical issue for the government at the moment. Unfortunately, many members of the public have a misconception that stricter immigration means removing any British citizen who isn’t white, even though this case has absolutely nothing to do with immigration. However, it would be extremely unsurprisingly if, in this current political climate where public opinion is weighted heavily against the government amidst Brexit, the government wanted to cave to public opinion so that they could be seen to make one popular decision to appease the public.

But what position are the public in to determine the legal rights of another? This is completely contrary to the rule of law, human rights and our constitution. It certainly sets a dangerous and quite frankly, scary, precedent that the government have been able to defy international law and human rights just because they want to appease the general public – whose opinions are heavily influenced by false information from the media their own personal prejudices.

Finally, what now?

It is unclear what will happen to Shamima now. She has been denied citizenship from the UK and Bangladesh so continues to be stateless. She is still residing in a refugee camp in Syria and her family have vowed to appeal the decision. It can only be hoped that appellant courts will chose to rectify this decision in accordance with the law.

In amongst all of this it is important to remember the precedent that this sets which has the potential to affect everyone. If the government have the ability to remove someone’s basic, fundamental rights so easily and are readily willing to do so on the whim of public opinion – what is preventing another abuse of power on a potentially even larger scale? It appears, absolutely nothing.

 

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