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The UK Supreme Court Has Failed Shamima Begum

Neither Justice nor Security is Served by Leaving Shamima Begum in a Legal Black Hole

Renu Begum, eldest sister of Shamima Begum, 15, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed by the media at New Scotland Yard, London, England, February 22, 2015. © 2015 Laura Lean/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s highest court delivered a shocking blow to justice when it ruled that Shamima Begum, who was just 15 when she left for Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS), could not return to Britain to challenge the government’s stripping of her citizenship. This was despite the Supreme Court accepting that she could not have a fair hearing while detained in northeast Syria.

Instead, the Court ruled that her due process rights are indefinitely suspended until she can play “an effective part in her appeal without the public’s safety being compromised,” but gave no indication of when that might be and left the decision in the hands of the government. This leaves Begum stuck in a detention camp in northeast Syria where thousands are held without any legal basis, in conditions so dire they amount to inhumane treatment or even torture.

An estimated 50 other British women and children have been held since 2019 in Al Hol and Roj detention camps without charge or trial. The dire conditions there may have led to the death of Begum’s newborn son in 2019 and have taken the lives of hundreds of other children including at least three who burned to death in a tent fire just days ago. Despite repeated requests from the Kurdish authorities who control northeast Syria, including these detention camps holding suspected ISIS-associated women and children, the UK government has refused to repatriate most of the British citizens held there except for six unaccompanied children.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing, the UK government has left Begum de-facto stateless and prevented her from effectively challenging the decision that did so. If Begum did commit crimes during her time with ISIS, she should be brought home and given a fair trial. This ruling and her continued detention make this impossible.  

The UK Government should heed growing calls from security experts, UN officials, and human rights groups, and immediately repatriate Shamima and the other British women and children. To turn its back on them is not only a legal and moral aberration, but a long-term security risk. Leaving them in detention camps leaves them vulnerable to radicalization and the dire conditions can serve as a recruitment tool. If we have learnt anything from the last 20 years, it’s that our security is never served by undermining human rights.

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