The Legal Aid Agency has announced that Shamima Begum, the so-called “IS Bride”, will receive financial assistance to contest the removal of her UK citizenship which home secretary Sajid Javid decreed earlier this year. The decision to grant Ms Begum legal aid has been controversial, with the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt saying that it makes him “very uncomfortable”.
Let me lay my cards on the table at the outset. I despise the atmosphere into which Shamima Begum voluntarily put herself, and I think the odds are very strong that she is guilty of terrorism, or at least of aiding and abetting terrorism in a way which is detrimental to, and perhaps even incompatible with, the interests of the UK. If she has committed particularly egregious crimes, it may ultimately be right that she should lose her UK citizenship; if that is decided by due process, then I will be the first in the queue at Heathrow to wave her goodbye.
But those two words are all-important. Due. Process. Shamima Begum should be standing in front of the law of our country with all the safeguards and protections we afford to anyone accused of a serious crime. We should not treat her differently because of the notoriety of her case, nor because of our horror at her age and gender when she became involved. It was, in my view, a terrible failing of the legal system, and some grotesque playing to the gallery, which saw Sajid Javid, an ambitious politician who knows his constituency, strip Ms Begum of her citizenship in the first place. It should never have happened like that. Decisions like these should be taken independently of the political arena. We can see an analogue in life imprisonment; it is nearly 20 years since the home secretary lost the ability to keep prisoners in custody indefinitely, because it was recognised that this power was inappropriate for an elected politician with a political role, and there was a clear conflict of interest between justice and popular feeling. The same should be true of removing citizenship.
This due process should extend to decisions like legal aid. If the Legal Aid board decides – soberly, advisedly and on due reflection – that Ms Begum is entitled to financial assistance to bring an appeal which will affect the rest of her life, which could scarcely be more grave, then who are Cabinet ministers, especially those without even the Home Secretary’s portfolio, to criticise or question that decision? There is a reason that they are not in the relevant position of authority. What is Jeremy Hunt “very uncomfortable” about? Taxpayers making justice available to those without means? Civilised treatment of those whom we nevertheless regard as enemies?
This brings us to a wider philosophical question about the sort of society we want to be. We are judged as a group of individuals, acting for the common good, not by how we respond to the easy questions, the simple choices, but how we tackle difficult decisions, and how we treat those who would stand against us. We are in an existential conflict with IS and any who support it, and it is one of the marks of the civilisation that we have nurtured, which puts us on the side of good, that we treat our enemies with respect, decency and equity. I began by saying that Shamima Begum is (probably) our enemy, and so she is. All the more reason, therefore, surely, to abide by her rights and protections, and to bring her to account in accordance with the laws which we ourselves live by.