Shamima Begum: Appeals Court Tells UK Government It Was Unlawful to Strip Citizenship of ISIS Child Bride


British citizen Shamima Begum, photographed in the Al Hawl camp in Syria in 2019, where captured ISIS brides and children were being held. She is holding her week-old son, who subsequently died.

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It’s a sign of the extent to which commonly accepted standards of justice and decency have fallen that I even have to write the headline for this article, but the sad truth is that, in the UK, government officials, at the highest level, believe that it is entirely appropriate to strip a British citizen of her citizenship, making her stateless, if, as a 15-year old, she took the decision to travel to Syria to become a “jihadi bride.”

On one level, this is completely wrong because all countries that claim to respect the rule of law, Britain included, have signed up to treaties recognising that juveniles (those under 18) should not be held responsible for their actions. In my main line of work over the last 14 years — writing about the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, and campaigning to get it closed — one of the most shocking aspects of that whole sordid story is the way that the US government ignored its obligations to treat juveniles as distinct from adults, and, in fact, denied that such distinctions even existed.

“These are not children”, foreign secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed when the story first broke that children were being held at Guantánamo. At least 23 of the prisoners were juveniles — under 18 — when they were first seized, including the most famous Guantánamo child of them all, Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen who was 15 when he was seized after a firefight with US soldiers, and whose rights were not only denied by the US, but also by his own government in Canada, which eventually had to be told by Canada’s Supreme Court that Canadian agents had deprived him of his rights when they visited him at Guantánamo to interrogate him.

However, although it is very evidently shameful that the British government stripped Shamima Begum of her citizenship when she was discovered, aged 19, in a detention camp in north-east Syria, it would have been no less shameful had she been over 18 — rather than 15 — when she first travelled to Syria, because, as a British citizen, she should be held accountable for any any crimes that she allegedly  committed in her homeland, as would happen in the case of any other British citizen accused of committing a crime in another country, unless (and you may see a pattern here), they happen to be a Muslim, and can be accused of anything resembling terrorism.

In Begum’s case, it is, in addition, unclear if she committed a crime, beyond, at some point, uttering support for ISIS. Instead, her alleged crimes most evidently consist of having borne three children to a jihadi husband, all of whom subsequently died. And yet, in February 2019, then-home secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of her British citizenship, making her stateless, because, although her parents are Bangladeshi, she had never even set foot in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi government was under no obligation to recognise her as a citizen.

As I explained when I first reported on Begum’s story, “it is illegal under international law to remove someone’s citizenship if doing so makes them stateless.” I added, “As the barrister David Anderson, who previously served as a reviewer of the UK’s anti-terror legislation, pointed out to Al-Jazeera, ‘Those born as British citizens who are not dual nationals cannot be stripped of their citizenship in any circumstances’ — and many, many other public figures, including lawyers, academics, politicians and journalists, made their opposition to Javid’s decision clear.”

As the legal NGO Reprieve explained in a press release after the ruling was announced, “The court unanimously allowed Shamima’s appeal, ruling that she must be readmitted to the UK in order to fully and effectively appeal against the deprivation of her citizenship. The Court found the Home Secretary’s ‘suggestion that Ms. Begum’s appeal should be stayed indefinitely in circumstances where she is being detained by the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] in the camp, does nothing to address the foreseeable risk if she is transferred to Iraq or Bangladesh, which is that in either of those countries she could be unlawfully killed or suffer mistreatment.’”

The court further noted that any risk that Ms. Begum might pose “could be addressed and managed if she returns to the United Kingdom”, adding that, “If the Security Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions consider that the evidence and public interest tests for a prosecution for terrorist offences are met, she could be arrested and charged upon her arrival in the United Kingdom and remanded in custody pending trial. If that were not feasible, she could be made the subject of a TPIM” — a notice under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, which allows for various forms of house arrest, replacing the “control orders” regime implemented by the Labour government of Tony Blair.

Reprieve also explained that they were “advocating for all Britons currently held in camps in North East Syria (NES) to be repatriated to the UK”, noting, “A very small fraction of the detainees currently held in NES are British. Of these, the majority are children. Reprieve estimates that there are between 15 and 20 family units in total”, and as their director, Maya Foa, explained in an article for the Guardian, many of the women and children “were trafficked into Syria and forced into marriage and domestic servitude.”

Further elaborating on the threat these individuals would face if they were to be handed over to Iraqi forces or the forces of Syria’s President Assad, Reprieve stated, “There have previously been suggestions that Britons could be sent to Iraq, where they would likely face the death penalty with no prospect of a fair trial. Human Rights Watch has reported that trials of suspected IS members ‘are summary and often do not put forward evidence of specific offences’, while ‘interrogators routinely use torture to extract confessions, and in most cases judges ignore torture allegations from defendants.’ The UK Government itself has previously acknowledged the widespread use of torture and the death penalty across the Iraqi criminal justice system.”

Regarding Assad, Reprieve noted that, “In December of last year, the British Government appeared to walk back its previous opposition to Britons being handed to the Assad-controlled Syrian regime, where there is no prospect that they could be effectively tried. Should UK detainees be handed over to the Assad Government, they will face torture, disappearance and death. A UK Government Human Rights and Democracy report acknowledged reports of ‘widespread and systematic use of arbitrary detention, torture and execution of detainees’ in Syrian prisons, while a Human Rights Watch investigation in 2015 revealed at least 6,700 killings in Syrian detention.”

As Maya Foa said, in response to the ruling, “It was always unsafe and unjust to make Brits in Syria someone else’s problem, and [now] it has been ruled unlawful. The Government must urgently revisit its policy and repatriate the tiny number of remaining British families, to face British justice wherever there are charges to answer.” As Reprieve added, “The UK’s justice system is well equipped to deal with returning Britons who are credibly alleged to have committed crimes in Syria”, with Max Hill QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, suggesting that the UK is perfectly capable of prosecuting “the vast majority [of] returning foreign fighters.”

With this recent decision by the court of appeals, it is time for the long and disgraceful policy of successive British governments, since 9/11, to regard British citizens who are Muslims as unworthy of legal protections, and as candidates for citizenship-stripping, to be brought to an end.

Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen. As Maya Foa also explained in her Guardian article, “Following the court of appeal’s judgment, a spokesperson for the home secretary pledged to apply for permission to appeal. Were permission to be granted, this would set the stage for a supreme court hearing on the government’s citizenship-stripping decisions. A wiser course would be to reflect on the judgment, which notably argued that any risk Begum might pose ‘could be addressed and managed if she returns to the United Kingdom.’”

She added, “The government now faces a choice. It can fight for its disintegrating policy against lengthening legal odds, while the camps holding British prisoners edge closer to total collapse. Or it can conduct a much needed reassessment of its approach, in the manner advised by security and law enforcement experts, as well as many of its own MPs. It was always wrong to suggest the UK could abandon British women, children and men in north-east Syria. The sooner the government accepts this, and changes course, the better for our security and justice interests.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a response to the good news that the appeals court has ruled unlawful the British government’s patently unlawful — and cruelly immoral — decision last year to strip the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a British citizen who was just 15 when she travelled to Syria to become a “jihadi bride.”

    The stripping of citizenship is a betrayal of justice, and the stripping of citizenship of anyone who, like Shamima Begum, doesn’t have dual nationality, making her stateless, is illegal under international law.

    As I explain at the start of my article, “It’s a sign of the extent to which commonly accepted standards of justice and decency have fallen that I even have to write the headline for this article, but the sad truth is that, in the UK, government officials, at the highest level, believe that it is entirely appropriate to strip a British citizen of her citizenship, making her stateless, if, as a 15-year old, she took the decision to travel to Syria to become a ‘jihadi bride.'”

    Here’s hoping that the British government doesn’t appeal this decision, and that they act not only to secure the return of Shamima Begum, to face justice, if there is a case to answer, but also the return of any other British citizens still held in Syria who were involved with ISIS.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend 앤서방 shared this on Facebook, he wrote:

    Those who agreed with the Conservatives stripping this young woman, a child when she was groomed by Jihadists, of her citizenship can now shut up. It was always, as Andy Worthington says in this excellent article, ‘patently illegal’. No one should be made deliberately stateless. She needs to be brought home now.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, 앤서방. It’s so important that all decent people recognise how dangerous and fundamentally wrong it is to treat citizenship as a privilege rather than a right.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Jason Símon de Souza shared this on Facebook, he wrote:

    Another good article by Andy Worthington. As Shami Chakrabarti elucidated to the BBC’s execrable Gita Guru Murthy, you cannot disown people and make them someone else’s responsibility by revoking their citizenship because you disapprove of their actions. The responsibility is ours to prosecute them where appropriate. Otherwise the implications are far more reaching than people realise.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Jason. I hope all is well with you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Sajida Habib wrote:

    Why has the Brtish government never stripped citizenship of Jews who travel to Israel for the specific purpose of murdering Palestinians? We can’t have one rule for one group of mercenaries and another for a vulnerable 15 year old who was groomed online?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Or let’s say, Sajida, that a member of a white nationalist group went to a football match in Europe and killed someone, why would the British government not then strip them of their citizenship?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Sajida Habib wrote:

    My son’s Portuguese friend was going to travel from the UK to join the French Foreign Legion. He wouldn’t have been stopped from returning to the UK even though he doesn’t have British citizenship.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    The hypocrisy and the contempt for the law is astonishing, Sajida. The government uses anti-Muslim hysteria to hide the fact that it believes a certain category of crime, related to terrorism allegedly committed by Muslims, is so severe that the right to a trial shouldn’t exist. That’s appalling on its own terms, but then the government also adds extrajudicial citizenship-stripping as another way of avoiding citizens’ right to a trial, and has largely been getting away with it.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    In case anyone isn’t clear about citizenship-stripping, the British government declared in 2002 that it had the right to strip dual national British citizens of their citizenship, and, in 2014, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism established that 41 individuals had been stripped of their British nationality since 2002, and that 37 of these cases had taken place under Theresa May’s six years as home secretary, from 2010-16. The Bureau also suggested that, in two cases, the stripping of UK citizenship led to the men in question – Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen who grew up in London, and Mohamed Sakr, a British-Egyptian citizen who was born in the UK – subsequently being killed by US drone attacks. Both men had travelled to to Somalia in 2009, where they allegedly became involved with the militant group al-Shabaab.

    However, it wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 2014 that, again under Theresa May’s prompting, the government allowed itself to make a British citizen – not a dual national – stateless. The Act stated that British nationality can be revoked if “the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds for believing that the person is able, under the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, to become a national of such a country or territory.”

    I don’t know how many British citizens – again, not dual nationals – have been stripped of their nationality since, but one case, in addition to Shamama Begum, is of Alexanda Kotey, one of four British men involved with ISIS, and allegedly involved in terrible, brutal crimes, who were dubbed “the Beatles.”

    As I noted last year, in 2018, “when the last two members of … ‘the Beatles’ were captured and stripped of their British citizenship, no one seemed to notice that, although one of the men, El Shafee Elsheikh, had moved to the UK from Sudan with his family in the 1990s, the other man, Alexanda Kotey, although generally described as having ‘a Ghanaian and Cypriot background’, was born in Britain, and was therefore made stateless when his citizenship was stripped.”

    For more on this, see:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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