Human rights are a given, not a gift

Published by The i paper (25th February, 2019)

Last Thursday, standing inside Al-Hol camp in northern Syria, I came across a bedraggled girl. She was stripping off her abaya, replacing the dreary black robes of Islamic State females with the hoodies and jeans worn by children worldwide. She had a scar on one cheek and fresh wounds on the back of her head. I gave this child some chocolate and juice, which was rewarded with a big smile.

It turned out her name was Hadya and she had just escaped the crumbling caliphate. We met again the next day at a Yazidi safe house. She did not know her age, but other women suspected she was about nine. I learned her father had been killed by the IS bigots, while her mother managed to flee their clutches two years ago. Her sister, two years older, was sold into marriage. And this small girl, funny and full of smiles, was forced to work as a household slave for almost five years – during which time she was beaten endlessly with fists, cables and even an axe.

One more reminder of the cruelties of the caliphate as Britain struggles to resolve what to do with women who flocked to its twisted cause. I have spent much of the past week talking to foreign female recruits – including the now notorious Shamima Begum – amid the dank squalor of Al-Hol. All denied doing anything criminal, of course, insisting they stayed in houses most of the time. And all denied seeing any Yazidi slaves. Yet Hadya told me ‘I had to do everything for the women.’ And it was women that beat this child, like many others from her religion, leaving scars on her face, her head and deep in her mind.

So I understand why many people think the solution is to remove citizenship from fools and fanatics who flocked to IS. I felt the same in the past. They should bear responsibility for sordid deeds. Even if these women really never hurt anyone, they rallied to a bloodstained black flag to support barbarity. Yet the more I have thought about this complex issue, and the more I met female recruits, the more I believe Sajid Javid’s decision to strip Begum of citizenship is morally wrong and dangerous. It is crass populism, a corrosive precedent that could backfire disastrously.

Bear in mind these women are emerging from years inside a cult that demanded total obedience. They are confused and indoctrinated. Yes, some lack the slightest contrition, such as a newly-arrived German sitting on the mud with her children who defended the caliphate’s darkest deeds and insisted it would rise again. Yet others dared to be scathing about a ‘mafia’ that led them astray, despite still being under its grip with hardliners issuing death threats for disobedience even inside the camp.

Several who spoke to me seemed to be grappling with their own self-destructive stupidity. Many joined the cause as immature teenagers pursuing a misguided sense of religious idealism sold to them on social media. This group included Begum, who admitted to me she was naive and duped. Others did not seem overloaded with brains, such as an Australian furious over being called a ‘slut’ by a soldier – which feels a minor offence compared with mass murder – and a German convert who told me she joined aged 15 to pursue a Disneyfied dream of marriage.

As even Tory MPs argue, the Begum decision sets a dangerous precedent. We move into alarming terrain when ministers see human rights as a gift rather than a given, removing citizenship from silly teenagers who pop up in headlines. Since Theresa May’s atrocious stint in the Home Office, a power once used rarely has became commonplace. This rejects the concept of natural justice, let alone rehabilitation, at the core of our democracy by pandering to the baying crowd. There is also a repellent whiff when special powers are directed at ethnic minorities; note, for instance, how ‘Jihadi Jack’ Letts still clings to his citizenship.

I felt little sympathy when these women bleated to me about wanting to return home given the carnage they helped create, whether by accident or design. Yet this is where they should be assessed, reformed and – if necessary – tried and jailed. There should be what the Home Office calls ‘managed return.’

Instead we witness arrogance from a government that thinks it can simply dump troublemakers and potential terrorists abroad. This leaves them alongside the ultras in places such as Al-Hol and inflames a sense of injustice ripe for exploitation. And how can Javid now back the deportation of foreign nationals committing crimes in Britain? Britain is not the only country wrestling with this issue. There are 45 nationalities in the prisons holding male IS members in Kurdish-controlled Syria – and the numbers grow daily as the caliphate is crushed.

Yet as Kurdish officials point out, Britain is opting to leave all these potentially dangerous and unreconstructed jihadists in one of the most insecure parts of the world – and a place facing high risk of fresh conflict as a blinkered United States president pulls out most of his troops to the delight of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia. ‘If we are attacked these people will run free from prison and be dangerous for European countries,’ said one senior official.

He is right. Even former British intelligence chiefs have expressed concerns. Javid is shrinking fast in his post, this shirking of national responsibility simply the latest blatant effort to seduce the nationalist right ahead of a leadership fight. His populist stunt to deny Begum’s citizenship is wrong on grounds of human rights, justice, morality and security. Ultimately, it makes us all less safe – not least the likes of that little child so abused by religious bigots.

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