Mohammed Akunjee is a solicitor specialising in terrorism law and is a lawyer for the family of Shamima Begum. When she was 16 years old, Ms Begum travelled with two teenage friends, all of them from Bethnal Green in London, to Syria and ended up marrying a member of Daesh*. Then Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped Ms Begum of her British citizenship in 2019, albeit without charge or trial. Ms Begum remains detained in 'Roj' camp, in Northeastern Syria, as her family and lawyers have been challenging the decision on her behalf.
Mr Akunjee explained to Sputnik, in an exclusive interview, the significance of the legal arguments recently heard at the UK Supreme Court. The court will decide whether Ms Begum can be said to have had a fair and effective appeal, against the stripping of her citizenship, if she is not permitted to return to the United Kingdom for that appeal. The decision could impact as many as 40 other detainees in Syria who have or had UK citizenship.
Sputnik: Explain the case that's been made on behalf Shamima Begum at the UK Supreme Court.
Mohammed Akunjee: Well, it's the same case that was raised to the Court of Appeal, which was to challenge the idea that the ruling from [the Special Immigration and Appeals Commission], could it be in any way, sensible. And that was in SIAC that they accepted that Shamima Begum's inability to engage with the appeal process in any meaningful way led to unfairness, but that there were options that allowed for that unfairness to be remedied. Not by putting fairness back in, but by simply staying the proceedings and saying that that is an acceptable outcome.
Shamima Begum's argument was that parliament, in its wisdom, when it granted the Home Secretary the rights through statute to strip somebody of citizenship, did so by balancing that right for the Home Secretary, with the rights of the individual to appeal that decision. So, any appeal of that decision had to be a meaningful exercise of the appeal process.
Sputnik: So, the focus then is almost a technical argument about the process by which Shamima Begum was afforded an effective right of appeal?
Mohammed Akunjee: A failure of that, yeah.
Sputnik: So it wasn't focused on whether or not the stripping of citizenship itself was lawful?
Mohammed Akunjee: No. It's not focused on that. This is a very narrow appeal because it decides only one issue: whether or not she needs to be returned to the UK, for the purposes of dealing with the SIAC appeal. That's the only real issue being argued in these higher courts.
Mohammed Akunjee: The main argument they're saying is that Shamima Begum brought it on her herself, to have her citizenship stripped, and therefore if there's any difficulties, as she has found that there were difficulties, engaging with the appeal process, what could happen. One of the positions that the SIAC court suggested that could happen is a stay of proceedings - to pause the appeal process - and wait for things to get better, i.e get communications or be relocated somewhere, not in the UK, where she could speak to her lawyers. And when that happens we unpause the proceeding and then carry on at that stage.
Our counterargument to that is that it's almost ridiculous to suggest that anything ever gets better in the arena of war when it comes to Syria. Pausing the process, hoping that it will get better, is unlikely. More likely is if you pause the process and hope, well then it's more likely that it'll fall into greater chaos, and maybe even, who knows, death.
Sputnik: Isn't she in detention?
Mohammed Akunjee: She is. She's detained in al-Roj camp.
Sputnik: The people who have been running camps have been, for a number of years, trying to get countries to take back their citizens when people who were detained there are foreign citizens. So it's a catch 22, isn't it?
Mohammed Akunjee: Yes, that's right. Well, we don't think it's a very good argument because the appeal process is meant to be effective. And by saying that the appropriate response is for the appeal process to be cryogenically frozen by definition is not an effective appeal process.
Sputnik: Is there a case to be made that it's possible for someone to forfeit their citizenship?
Mohammed Akunjee: I mean that's the overall arc of the argument that the Home Office's lawyers are making; they're saying, 'if you go to Syria, and you find yourself in a situation where you can't engage the appeal process, you've brought that on yourself'. That is very much a primary school playground arguing really - a 'na, na, na, na, na' - type situation. Effectively, what they are saying is that by your own unilateral actions you can lose your citizenship. However, they're sort of implying it without going all the way, because they don't deny that you do have a right to appeal that.
Sputnik: How long is the Supreme Court likely to take to render its decision?
Mohammed Akunjee: This decision has an impact on a class of people. It will likely impact about 40 people in the camps straight away. So, we think that the Supreme Court is going to think about this rather carefully. So it may take some time, it may take some weeks before they formulate a response.
Sputnik: You think weeks rather than months, basically?
Mohammed Akunjee: Yeah. I mean, this entire appeal was brought on an expedited and emergency basis. So it was given a fairly quick hearing given our context with COVID. So we imagine that the Supreme Court understands the need for urgency. But also, if you watch the exchange, the Supreme Court certainly examined every point being made with some detail. They did probe quite a lot. So that suggests that they are going to provide a very, very, detailed response when they come up with their reasoning and their decision.
*Daesh, also known as ISIS/IS/Islamic State, is banned in Russia and many other countries as a terrorist organisation.