DEBATE: Should Shamima Begum have been stripped of her British citizenship?

This month the Court of Appeal ruled that Shamima Begum, the British schoolgirl who fled to Syria in 2015 to become a jihadi bride, can return to the UK to fight for her citizenship. Due to her eligibility for a Bangladeshi passport, her British citizenship had previously been revoked by Home Secretary Sajid Javid in 2019 due to security concerns. Palatinate Comment asked two writers for their opinion on whether the disgraced former schoolgirl from Bethnal Green should have had her citizenship removed.

FOR: Citizenship removal is necessary to create a clear deterrent against terrorism

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Most people acknowledge that in some form our choices as humans are influenced by the people and ideologies around us. It is true that others were partly responsible for Shamima Begum’s radicalisation when she was just fifteen years old. But she cannot be allowed abdicate responsibility for her actions. In February 2015 she chose to make the journey to Syria with the intention of living in the Islamic State’s caliphate. By this time, the atrocities being committed by Isil were public knowledge in the UK. In August 2014 videos showing the beheadings of Westerners were published online by Isil. In early 2015, the full force of the organisation’s brutality was brought even closer to home when sixteen people were killed in Paris after attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket. 

Our human biases perhaps mean that Begum’s situation as a woman may incite more sympathy in people than if she were a man. The unfortunate reality is that Isil fighters such as Begum are not passive ‘brides’ with no hand in violence. When questioned on Isil’s practice of beheading, Begum has replied “I’m OK with it”. She is alleged to have worked in Hisba (Isil’s religious enforcement unit), carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and enforcing Isil’s beliefs through violence. Isil, a group endorsed and joined by Begum, has claimed responsibility for over 140 terrorist attacks outside Iraq and Syria which have left thousands of people dead.

It is often impossible to prosecute jihadists who return to the UK due to a lack of evidence.

For every man and woman who leaves the UK to fight for jihadist causes there will have been a moment when they leave certain reservations and uncertainties behind and chose to go. In the past many of these have faced no legal consequences for their actions. It is often impossible to prosecute jihadis who return to the UK due to a lack of evidence. Over 400 fighters have returned to the UK from Syria, yet only 40 have been prosecuted. So, it seems that no justice is served. Some of these fighters may live out peaceful lives, some of them may even regret their actions but some will retain and spread a dangerous and violent ideology.

In the UK, citizenship can be deprived when “the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good”. It is the responsibility of the British government to keep its citizens safe. This must, surely, include deterring potential fighters. With prosecution proven to have very limited success, removal of citizenship, including Shamima Begum’s, is necessary to create a satisfactory deterrent.

AGAINST: Removal of citizenship is an abdication of responsibility by the British government

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The UK needs to step up and accept its legal responsibility for radicalised citizens. What is particularly concerning about the government’s unethical and illegal removal of Shamima Begum’s citizenship is how fundamental judgements over the rights of individuals are being used as political statements against terror, with rulings influenced by the court of public opinion.

Under international law it is illegal to remove citizenship if the result of this is to make a person stateless. The reason for this law is to ensure that the human rights to a nationality, a place of residence, and a fair trial, are not infringed upon. Even in the case of a criminal or terrorist, human rights must be upheld. Legally speaking, it does not matter if Begum is guilty or not: the UK has a responsibility to uphold the basic rights granted to her as a citizen.

It is both dangerous and ridiculous that…a person’s liberty risks being used as a political football.

The government excused their disregard of international law by claiming that British-born Begum would be eligible to apply for citizenship in Bangladesh- something that the government of Bangladesh fervently denies. But even if she were eligible for citizenship in Bangladesh, ought another country really be responsible for her, given she was born in, and grew up in, the UK, and it was here that she was radicalised? It seems that this is a case of the British government trying to palm off responsibility for its own citizens and the problems of radicalisation that take place on UK soil.

It is important to remember that Begum was not a hardened criminal when she left to join the Islamic State. She was an indoctrinated child, aged just fifteen, married off to an Islamic State fighter in a marriage which would be illegal under UK law. The evidence of her directly committing terrorist attacks is far from overwhelming. One wonders whether one of the reasons the UK government would rather she did not return for a fair trial, is that they would have a hard time in convicting her of a crime which serves the public’s appetite for retribution.

One of the most concerning aspects of this case is that it highlights the danger of key legal decisions over citizenry being decided by the home secretary in such an arbitrary manner. One can only wonder whether the decision was made, not on the basis of public danger, but of public pressure, as the media and the population turned against Begum. It is both dangerous and ridiculous that the question of a person’s liberty risks being used as a political football.

Image: Levi Clancy via Unsplash.

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