Yesterday, 26th February, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that 21-year-old Shamima Begum would not be allowed to return to Britain from Syria to fight to have her UK citizenship restored.
In 2019 the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid took away her citizenship on the grounds that she was a threat to national security, a stance reaffirmed yesterday by the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Patel said, ‘The government will always take the strongest possible action to protect our national security and our priority remains maintaining the safety and security of our citizens’.
Begum fled the UK for Syria at the age of 15 to join Isis. She married a Dutch Isis fighter (as far as we know being held in a different camp) and she has had three children all of whom have died. She was captured by Syrian Kurds in 2019 and is now in the Al-Hol detention camp, along with around 11,000 other foreign nationals and their dependants.
In a June 2019 visit to the camp, Human Rights Watch found ‘overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifted through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lay limp on tent floors, their bodies dusted with dirt and flies. Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers said’. In January this year there were twelve murders in the camp.
Begum’s case for returning to the UK to have her plea heard in person was based on the claim that is impossible for her to fight her case from a detention camp where she can’t have proper contact with her legal team.
In refusing to allow her to return the Supreme Court reiterated the belief that she is a threat to national security, and that no court could overrule the Home Secretary’s judgement in that regard.
Reaction to this decision has been predictably polarised. On the one hand there are those who say that no punishment is harsh enough for Begum given her association with Isis.
On the other are those who argue it’s ridiculous to regard a 21 year-old woman in a detention camp as a threat to national security; that she was underage when she left the UK and was likely groomed into doing so; and that in any case it’s illegal to leave someone effectively stateless by taking away their citizenship. (There is some dispute as to whether she has access to Bangladeshi citizenship or not).
Whatever arguments there may be over points of law, one thing is absolutely clear: yesterday’s decision condemns a young woman who has lost three children to unlimited detention in a camp in the conditions described above.
In other words the Supreme Court has in effect sided with those who reckon there’s no punishment harsh enough for Begum.
Who are the people - the actual, individual people - who are able to sleep at night knowing that this is what they’ve done? There are lots of them in the ‘justice’ factory, starting with Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, from whom we should expect absolutely nothing except heartless cruelty (they have form).
But what about Robert Reed, President of the Supreme Court, who got to read out the verdict? Watch him do so and marvel at the equanimity he displays as he bangs one nail after another into the life chances of a damaged young woman. It’s stunning, really, the way he manages to blot out the latrines, the murders, the sewage, the worm-infested water, the skin rashes, the emaciation, the garbage, dirt and flies. It’s hard not to marvel at the capacity he displays to obliterate even the tiniest vestige of compassion.
The Supreme Court’s decison was unanimous, which means that there are ten other people in the highest reaches of the system ready to renounce sympathy, mercy, kindness, grace in the name of … what? Ah yes, of course. Justice! Look at the smiles they take home with them while they condemn a vulnerable young woman, and by implication thousands of other women, men and children, to conditions they wouldn’t condone for their dogs.
Justice is supposed to be blind. How numbing to see that it’s heartless as well.