Shamima Begum: The case against the politicisation of justice

Following Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria to marry an ISIS member, Shahrar Ali, the Green Party’s Home Affairs spokesperson, discusses the government’s approach to her case and argues for a principled stance.

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Chris Fleming

Shahrar Ali
Fri 1 Mar 2019

The Home Secretary’s handling of the Shamima Begum case is cause for multiple concern. Following the drip, drip effect of media speculation about how the UK should treat her should she return to the UK, Sajid Javid revoked her British citizenship. Now, one doesn’t have to entertain any sympathy for the circumstances under which Begum fled the UK in 2015 – as reported, to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq – to question the politicisation of a decision that should have been made on principled grounds instead.

The first principle is the right of the person not to be left stateless, under international law. On the same day that Javid revoked Begum’s citizenship on the assumption that she had access to dual nationality, Bangladesh publicly disabused him of that notion. It was not the case that Begum had Bangladeshi citizenship nor could she realistically be offered it. Little was said about why that was not an option but it doesn’t take much imagination to grant that once a state has revoked citizenship – and effectively made them second class, if not devoid of class – that would make it untenable for another state to then grant them citizenship. Unless we are to suppose that, somehow, whatever terrorist threat Begum presented to UK citizens did not matter to Bangladeshis.

In subsequent days, Javid appeared embarrassed by his mistaken assumption but clearly not sufficiently chastened to want to revoke his original revocation. Would that he had at least bothered to pick up the phone to Bangladesh, or confer with their embassy here, before he’d made his miscalculation, one that is highly consequential for Begum.

The second principle is that on matters of such consequence, to Begum and her baby, decisions should not risk politicisation in the hands of Secretaries of State. No matter how good Javid’s self-professed legal advice, Begum was not offered a proper judicial process. She was arguably subjected to arbitrary treatment by being denied a hearing, at which her state of mind could be assessed and she be given opportunity to account for her actions under oath. It may be said that we did not anticipate having enough evidence to be able to charge her with realistic prospect of conviction. If so, then she may have had to be let back into the UK with limited punitive consequence and additional risk that she presented a threat to others’ safety.

No matter how good Javid’s self-professed legal advice, Begum was not offered a proper judicial process

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The issue of course is not that we would willingly take upon ourselves greater risk for the sake of it but that we cannot simply deprive others of their liberty without due process. Until or unless Begum had acted in a way that warranted our depriving her of her essential freedoms, as tested by our own courts, then respect for the principles on which our own society is founded would require nothing less than licence to live here.

The third principle is that all should be treated equally without fear or favour. Was Begum treated more harshly because she is a woman? Or Muslim? Or has an ethnic name? Be under no illusions: a Home Secretary schooled in the conservative ideology of hostile environment is quite capable of acting in an Islamophobic manner. This is an environment in which the Stansted 15 were put under threat of life imprisonment for standing up for the rights of residents facing deportation; an environment stretching back to May’s racist van slogans and arbitrary Border Force raids; an environment challenged, in which – as per a policy I put to conference – the discredited Prevent programme is finally under review.

The upholding of these principles – the right not to be left stateless, the right to due process in law, and the right not to be the target of discriminatory treatment – typify much of the Greens’ approach to civil liberties. We may not wish to defend Begum’s actions per se; we may even wish to condemn her behaviour as foolish, reckless or worse. But Greens are insistent that we must adhere to the values we hold dear in defence of the values we hold dear; and will call out the actions of politicians corrupted by power.

Dr Shahrar Ali is Green Party Home Affairs spokesperson and its former Deputy Leader.