The place to try Shamima Begum is not in the court of public opinion

Many minds were firmly made up early in the story of the London teenager who made her way to ISIS in Syria

epa07381805 (FILE) - A handout photo made available by the London Metropolitan Police Service(MPS) on 20 February 2015 showing Shamima Begum at Gatwick Airport, England, 17 February 2015 (reissued 19 February 2019).  
According to reports from 19 February 2019, Shamima Begum who went to Syria to join the jihadist militia Islamic State (IS) could lose her British citizenship as is a dual British-Bangladeshi national. Begum wants to return to Britain after fleeing to Syria to marry an IS fighter four years ago when she was 15.  EPA/LONDON METROPLITAN POLICE / HAND  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES *** Local Caption *** 54984335
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In any list of names likely to inspire hatred when spoken aloud or written down, Shamima Begum’s would stand out prominently.

She has been called a terrorist, a monster, a narcissistic would-be celebrity and a twisted manipulator since running away to join ISIS as a girl of 15 in 2015.

Now a special immigration appeals tribunal has rejected her appeal against Britain’s decision to strip her of citizenship, a judgment nevertheless couched in terms deeply unfavourable to the government’s case.

Insults aimed at this young woman have continued despite a painstakingly detailed 10-part BBC podcast, which has also led to a 90-minute documentary, seeking to establish a fuller truth than obvious in past media coverage.

Many minds were firmly made up early in the story of the London teenager who made her way to Syria with two schoolfriends.

Initially there was concern for their safety. Nicky Morgan, then education minister, wrote to the girls’ school in Bethnal Green, in east London, saying “we hope and pray for the safe return of the pupils”. But that seemingly decent approach would not last. The girls were demonised. Ms Begum was transformed in official and public perception from gullible to wicked.

Fuelled by lurid reporting and the unforgiving rhetoric of rent-a-quote politicians, the new narrative made light of inconvenient facts.

Ms Begum and one of her friends were minors – 15 years old – when they left home; the third girl was 16. It is accepted that they had been groomed. All the same, as opinion hardened, they were no longer seen as victims of child traffickers, but as irredeemable terrorists.

The other girls are thought to have died in the Syrian conflict. There has been no sympathy over their fate, and little more for Ms Begum since she turned up alive four years later in a Syrian refugee camp. When the British government removed her citizenship, preventing her return even to answer allegations about her activities, a thumping majority – nudging 80 per cent in one poll – supported the action.

With four more years having passed, it might be thought that a serious attempt to tell the disturbing but also quite complicated Shamima Begum story would encourage rational analysis. But not a lot has changed, especially if reaction to the broadcasts – on social media and in populist sections of the media and politics – offers a reliable guide.

In a scathing review of Josh Baker’s podcast and documentary, the Daily Mail’s TV critic Christopher Stevens deplores a supposed “left-wing delusion that allowing her to return to the UK will demonstrate some sort of moral righteousness”. Bizarrely, he criticises the BBC for being “intent on airing the arguments for and against a second chance”.

The Sunday Telegraph’s Zoe Strimpel insists Ms Begum was in full possession of her faculties when she “committed herself to a sadistic genocidal group of terrorists”.

She has been called a terrorist, a monster, a narcissistic would-be celebrity and a twisted manipulator since running away to join ISIS as a girl of 15 in 2015

Amid such unyielding condemnation, and a shocking refusal to recognise extenuating circumstances, it is little wonder that the public mood remains overwhelmingly hostile.

In this fevered atmosphere, it is also easy to forget there is much common ground.

Most people, from left, right or centre, despise ISIS and its horrific violence. Most probably also agree there should be judicial consequences for anyone who commits crimes connected to a terrorist group, from simple membership (which Ms Begum, now 23 and outwardly remorseful, admits) to active participation (which she does not).

Sajid Javid, who as home secretary removed Ms Begum’s UK citizenship, has said anyone who “knew what I know” would have reached the same decision. But we do not know what he knows; there may be justification for withholding details of the claims against her, but we do not know that either.

We do know, of course, that she was legally a child when she left. If that is not already powerful mitigation, the government’s own lawyer James Eadie unwittingly provided more.

He told the immigration hearing that no one disputes it is entirely possible for a person to be “trafficked or manipulated or brainwashed or similar” before becoming a threat to the public. If that sounds like the start of a compelling defence submission, think again. He went on to say: “You can be trafficked in the most ghastly, unacceptable way, exposed in the most unacceptable way, desensitised in the most unacceptable way and yet, unfortunately ... still be a security threat.”

To some observers, that is harsh. It also seems disingenuous to insist, as Mr Javid has done, that his decision does not render Ms Begum stateless because of her Bangladeshi roots. These roots that have never led to a visit to the country, let alone an application for citizenship or any wish by Bangladesh to accept her.

Reaction to the tribunal’s decision, announced on Wednesday, divides along predictable lines. The human rights lobby group Reprieve denounced a “racist citizenship-stripping policy” which it said was “unsustainable and badly out of step with security partners like the US”.

The judgment itself revealed significant reservations on the part of the tribunal. Justice Robert Jay found “credible suspicion” that Ms Begum was “recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purpose of sexual exploitation” but felt compelled to conclude that it was for the home secretary, not the panel, to consider whether her travel was voluntary and decide what was in the public interest.

“Reasonable people will profoundly disagree with the secretary of state,” the judge wrote. “But that raises wider societal and political questions which it is not the role of this commission to address.”

The government inevitably welcomed the decision. And Mr Baker, the documentary maker, stands accused of treating Ms Begum sympathetically in his podcast interviews. In fact, he makes ample allowance for the possibility, likelihood even, that his subject is not wholly truthful when answering his questions.

Maybe she was fully aware of what she was doing, and did become – as alleged – a cruel enforcer of ISIS repression who stitched bombers’ suicide vests. Maybe, at least, she knew an awful lot more than she now admits. But the place to prove that is a dispassionate court of justice, not the notoriously febrile court of public opinion steered by tub-thumping polemic.

If she is guilty, she should be punished, as have been the wives of ISIS fighters returning to other European countries. It is more difficult to see why she should be treated more severely than a stream of offenders who have been jailed for terrorist-related crimes without forfeiting British nationality.

In any criminal trial of Ms Begum, the charges can be tested, along with her claims of innocence or pleadings for mercy. Offences that began as a groomed minor are still offences; it would be for a judge to determine what allowance to make for age, grooming, enforced under-age marriage, three babies lost in infancy and the years she has already spent in Al Roj camp. The security services are well able to keep her under close scrutiny if there is suspicion of any residual threat.

As matters stand, she has been convicted of nothing. Mr Jay pointedly said ”the idea that Ms Begum could have conceived and organised all of this herself is not plausible”.

And what shame would be brought on the country of Ms Begum’s birth and childhood if she were denied one of the most fundamental of human rights, an entitlement to be judged fairly in accordance with the law?

Published: February 26, 2023, 2:00 PM