It is not often that a British court decision makes the news for the right reasons. So used are we to judgements that fly in the face of what appears obvious to any non-legal mind, that when the opposite happens it is often met with incredulity.
Yet last week, the UK Supreme Court astonished many of us with just such a verdict. In the case of Shamima Begum – a Briton stripped of her citizenship for having abandoned the country to join the terrorist group ISIS – it ruled that there was no impediment to a free and fair trial were she not to be physically present in court for an appeal hearing against that decision.
The fact this was being debated at all is somewhat surprising. In the coronavirus era, the British court system has been functioning perfectly well utilising electronic means. There have been no complaints that justice has somehow been less well served by being meted out remotely as opposed to in person.
It is worth recalling why Begum is languishing in a Syrian camp in the first place, and the government’s reasoning both for its decision to remove her citizenship and also to invoke national security grounds for denying her a return in person for an appeal.
Begum infamously left the UK in February 2015 with two Bethnal Green Academy schoolfriends. She was aged just 15. Her destination was the nascent Caliphate declared by ISIS in the lands they had conquered in Syria and Iraq. A conquest that was brutal in nature for those now under ISIS rule – with murder, rape and maiming the norm – but somehow strangely seductive to this trio of departees. And many more besides them.
Much has been made of Begum’s age at the time of her departure and that this somehow absolves her from all that followed. But while 15 year olds may have diminished responsibility in the eyes of the law, they are not held in the same category as young children who do not know the difference between right and wrong.
We all make bad choices at 15, but we tend to know they are not the best when we make them, and certainly disavow them later. Not so with Begum.
Nor has any evidence appeared to suggest that Begum was consciously targeted and groomed into following the path she did. In fact, the Security Services asserted in a previous hearing in the case that Begum had not been solicited into leaving the country. She and her friends appear to have made that decision of their own volition and full of excitement about their future lives as God’s soldiers, or in their cases, as the handmaidens to God’s soldiers.
Begum’s life thereafter has been well documented, not least through an infamous interview she gave in 2019 – by then as an adult – where she confessed to showing no remorse for her life in ISIS.
The sight of severed human heads of ISIS victims piled up in bins elicited no shock or pity from her, and it was quite clear that had the Caliphate not been militarily defeated that she would have been quite happy continuing life married to one of its violent adherents.
Which is why the British government took the sensible decision to strip her of her citizenship on national security grounds before she could hightail it back to the UK post-ISIS collapse. Begum was still an adherent of a malevolent ideology and could fall back into extremist circles in the UK, or worse.
Given her celebrity status in the world of ISIS ex-pats, it would not be difficult to imagine her being used by ISIS recruiting sergeants as the poster girl for the next phase of their influence operations, which could well lead to more blood being shed on the streets of Britain.
It was always an act of supreme arrogance for the Court of Appeal to have asserted last year that it could opine on national security classifications better than the Home Secretary. Natural justice has now been reasserted, with the Supreme Court slapped down the previous decision with the most withering of critiques.
For the truth is that Shamima Begum is no innocent victim: that tag should only be applied to those on the receiving end of ISIS injustice. She made her choices and stuck by them, when as an adult she could have renounced them and pleaded for forgiveness. There is no need for Britain to re-import national security problems like Begum when legal options exist to exclude them. It’s not as if we have a shortage of extremism and terrorism issues to deal with without her malign presence.
Our primary responsibility must always be to citizens who do not betray their fellow Britons by abandoning their country and signing up to an entity seeking to destroy it. The government upheld this, and for once at least, common sense has emerged victorious in the judicial system as well.