I am sure that Tooba Gondal, the latest Isis bride to beg for a return to Britain, would, as she says, rather face justice in a British court than in the detention camp where she is being held in a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria. Maybe she really is the “changed person” she claims to be and she really would, if given the chance, do her best to “help prevent vulnerable Muslims from being targeted and radicalised” – as she wrote in her letter to the Sunday Times yesterday.
But whether you believe her or not – and I have to say I read her pleas with a huge dollop of scepticism – it seems to me that the debate over what to do with Britons who willingly travelled to join Isis, either as fighters, brides or whatever, revolves around a somewhat questionable premise: that Britain has the right simply to take these people back and do with them what we want. What about the rights of people in Syria and Iraq to seek justice for terror acts committed in their countries?
I don’t agree with trying to remove the citizenship of people who are clearly British. To withdraw the British citizenship of Shamima Begum on the grounds that she could possibly be eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship was not Sajid Javid’s finest hour at the Home Office. Quite apart from the fact that we risk breaching human rights by leaving people stateless, what had Bangladesh done to deserve her being dumped on them?
But liberals who assume that Britain has the right to decide what happens to Britons who have, or may have, committed terror offences in foreign countries are indulging in legal imperialism.I don’t think we would take too kindly if, say, an Iranian citizen travelled to Britain, blew up a bus, and then Iranian authorities demanded the right to take him back so that they could try him for terror offences in an Iranian court. We would see it as our right to prosecute him. So why do we take a different view when Britons travel abroad and commit terror offences there?
True, we might not be confident that courts abroad work to our own standards of justice – and of course in the case of former Isis areas in Syria and Iraq there isn’t necessarily a formal state apparatus. Gondal, like Begum, is in a camp under Kurdish control. But still, we want these areas to rebuild, to become normalised. Seeking justice against those who have served in terror groups is an important part of rebuilding a collapsed society. We should be helping these areas build a justice system, not just trying to snatch British citizens and leaving all others to their fate.
Begum, Gondal and others are sometimes described as being in limbo. Another way to look at it would be to say they are former servants of one of the most malignant regimes to have held power anywhere in the world in recent times and that they are, quite properly, being kept in detention as a consequence of their actions. There is a humanitarian case for offering to take her blameless children and put them into care in Britain, but as to what happens to her, we should respect that it is the Kurdish authorities who have the first call. If they want to keep her in a detention camp so that she can be tried locally for terror offences, so be it.