Shamima Begum left London in February 2015 with two other girls from her class to join ISIS. The girls, dubbed “the Bethnal Green Trio,” left Britain to seek lives as “Jihadi brides” in Syria. Kadiza Sultana was killed in a Russian air-raid in Raqqa in 2016 and Amira Abase is also believed to have died.
Today, only Shamima Begum survives, languishing in a perilous situation in al-Roj refugee camp in Northern Syria. During her time in Syria, Begum has had three children with her Dutch husband Yago Riedijk, a convicted terrorist. All three children met the same fate as her classmates.
In February 2019, Shamima Begum was discovered in al-Hawl camp in Syria by Anthony Loyd, a journalist for the London Times. Begum gave an interview with Loyd in which she spoke candidly and with little regret about her decision to join ISIS. Immediately, the British Home Office, led by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, unilaterally summarily revoked Begum’s citizenship.
The revocation of citizenship without due process is an unprecedented move by the British government and is almost unheard of in the history of any democratic state.
The revocation of citizenship without due process is an unprecedented move by the British government and is almost unheard of in the history of any democratic state. Many, such as lawyer Tasnime Akunjee, who continues to represent Begum’s family, believe it was a step in an extremely dangerous direction.
“In no way could any court in this country ever sentence somebody to be taken out of the country and left in a camp in the conditions that she is in,” Akunjee told Inside Arabia.
Yet this is effectively what the British government has done, sidestepping the entire criminal justice system in the process. The revocation of Begum’s citizenship was carried out by the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, under Section 40 of the British Nationality Act, 1981.
The act has been amended over the years, giving more and more powers to politicians to decide who is a UK citizen and who is not. Prior to 2002, the Home Secretary could not have single-handedly revoked a person’s citizenship—the decision would have had to be ratified by a court, giving the accused the opportunity to exercise his or her rights in answering the charges.
In 2006, the standard for the government to meet in order to justify the revocation of a person’s citizenship was reduced from demonstrating that a person’s n actions are “against the vital interests of the state” to being merely an action “not conducive to the public good.”
The chief independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, David Ellison QC, said that such decisions should always be in the hands of a court, and that it is highly dangerous to give politicians such powers.
The ambiguity of the wording has been a point of concern for legal and law enforcement professionals in the UK. The chief independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation at the time, David Ellison QC, said that such decisions should always be in the hands of a court, and that it is highly dangerous to give politicians such powers.
Under the British Nationality Act, the state is not permitted to revoke a person’s citizenship if doing so would render that person stateless. Shamima Begum was born in England is a citizen only of the UK. Indeed, she had never traveled outside the UK until fleeing to join ISIS. She has therefore lost her only nationality and thus has been made stateless. While these facts did not deter the Home Secretary from stripping her citizenship, his actions were illegal.
The Home Office claims that Begum is entitled to the citizenship of Bangladesh, a country she has never visited, on the grounds that both of her parents were born there. Most observers, including the Bangladeshi government, wholeheartedly reject this supposed interpretation of Bangladeshi law. Akunjee says that Sajid Javid analyzed the relevant legislation in both countries “in a manner that is less cogent than a law student.”
Making matters more sordid, it appears that Sajid Javid acted largely out of a narrow self-interest. The revocation of Shamima Begum’s citizenship came just as Javid was planning to launch his bid for Conservative Party leader. Had he won that contest, he would have automatically become Prime Minister. It appears then that Javid set this extremely dangerous precedent in motion to flex his political muscles and be seen as a “law and order” candidate. Javid is from a Muslim background himself, and undoubtedly he felt extra pressure to be seen as tough on British Jihadis.
Akunjee agrees. “I don’t believe the Home Secretary’s motivations were in any way motivated by danger to the state,” he told Inside Arabia. “Rather it was about promoting his political career, using Shamima Begum as an opportunity to do so, knowing that there was going to be a leadership contest coming up imminently.”
Akunjee also accused Javid of being “entirely informed by the extreme right-wing of the UK media.” If true, it displays a chilling lack of principles on the part of one of the most powerful politicians in the UK.
Akunjee doubts that Shamima Begum poses such a threat to the UK that it could possibly justify the refusal to allow her back into the country to face trial.
Akunjee also doubts that Shamima Begum poses such a threat to the UK that it could possibly justify the refusal to allow her back into the country to face trial. “If we are that concerned about Shamima Begum, a young girl who has three kids who have died . . . well, there are far more dangerous individuals who have actually come back to the UK with our knowledge,” he said.
He also suggests that Javid’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership was the major factor in his decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship. “The reason why I can say that with some confidence,” he says, is that “Shamima Begum was outside of the UK, known to be in Syria from 2015 up until the 21st of February of this year. At any point during that four-year period, a Home Secretary (and there have been a few), a) would have been aware of that, and, b) we made sure they were aware of that.” This would also have applied to Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, yet, as Akunjee says, “at no point were any of these girls stripped of citizenship. What made [Javid] form the idea that she is suddenly a threat?” He believes, as do others, that this change of heart was simply too timely to be a coincidence.
Shamima Begum has been de facto made stateless, in violation of both UK law and international law.
Regardless of the legal arguments in play, the reality is that Shamima Begum has been de facto made stateless, in violation of both UK law and international law. She is trapped in a war zone with no right to enter any particular country. Speaking to The Mirror Newspaper, Akunjee said that Begum had been treated “worse than the Nazis,” referring to the fact that, at the Nuremburg Tribunals, Nazi war criminals were given the right to defend themselves in court; a right that has been denied to Shamima Begum on the whim of a Home Secretary.
“Ultimately, this case is less about Shamima Begum and more about the idea that we have a two-tier citizenship scenario in the UK at the moment,” said Akunjee at the conclusion of his interview with Inside Arabia.
“What that means is that your citizenship, even if you were born here, can be attackable. Whatever you do or don’t do, you should face the music for that within the jurisdiction, within the courts, within the rule of law. There shouldn’t be a tool whereby a politician can use your fundamental right to status in the country for his or her own gain, or for the gain of anyone else. This is unique in UK history, that someone’s citizenship can be attacked, after having been born here.”
In the eyes of many, what has happened to Shamima Begum at the hands of the British government harks back to the dark days of medieval exile. It is likely that the revocation of her citizenship will be overturned by the courts, but, by that time, it may be too late for her, as it was too late for her third child, who died in al-Roj camp this year as she was calling on teh government to be allowed home to save his life. If she is to die in Syria, before being allowed to return to the UK to stand trial, those such as Akunjee believe it will mark a shameful day in Britain’s history and set an ominous precedent for the days to come.