Woman who joined ISIS in Syria as a teen can return to Britain to challenge citizenship removal, court says

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – A British woman who joined Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a teenager can return to Britain to appeal the government’s decision to strip her of her British citizenship, a London court ruled on Thursday (July 16).

Shamima Begum, who was born in Britain, fled to Syria with two school friends in 2015 and married a member of the terrorist group.

A 2015 photo shows Shamima Begum's sister holding a picture of Shamima during an interview in London.
A 2015 photo shows Shamima Begum’s sister holding a picture of Shamima during an interview in London.PHOTO: AFP

She now lives in a camp in northern Syria.

In February 2019, then British Home Secretary Sajid Javid decided to strip Begum of her citizenship and in June of the same year, she was refused the right to enter Britain to challenge the decision.

She says losing her British citizenship would render her stateless, while the Home Office argues that she qualifies for Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents, who live in Britain.

The Court of Appeal said on Thursday that Begum can’t play a “meaningful part” in the appeal from abroad, and should be allowed back to ensure a “fair and effective” process.

The case will add to pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government over the status of other Britons who were stripped of their citizenship after fighting in Syria.

Reprieve, a criminal justice and human rights group, estimates there are as many as 20 British “family units” in north-east Syria who should be repatriated to Britain.

The British government is “bitterly disappointed” by the Begum ruling, James Slack, Johnson’s spokesman, told reporters.

“We will now apply for permission to appeal this judgment to stay its effect,” Slack said.

“We will always ensure the safety and security of the UK.”

Addressing national security concerns, High Court Judge Julian Flaux said that she could be “arrested and charged upon her arrival” and “remanded in custody pending trial” if the Security Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions consider that there are grounds for prosecuting her for terrorism offences.

“I am afraid the return of Shamima Begum was entirely predictable,” Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister David Davis said on Twitter after the ruling.

“The government should now change this policy to bring back children and mothers where there is not an explicit risk.”

The Court of Appeal overturned a decision made in February by a special immigration court.

“Shamima Begum has not won her case but the court has ruled that it is impossible for her to have a fair trial without returning to the UK,” said Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer at Garden Court Chambers in London.

The courts may ultimately uphold the decision to deprive her of her British citizenship, he said.

Begum was found by a Times journalist in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019.

In a TV interview, she said a terrorist attack at a concert in Manchester was justified because of the bombings in Syria, adding that it was “retaliation” and a “two-way thing”.

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