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What would happen if pregnant IS teen Shamima Begum returns to UK?

14 February 2019 National


Shamima Begum, 19, who left Bethnal Green in 2015 with friends to join the extremist group, says she now wants to return home to the UK for the sake of her unborn child.

:: What happened when she left?

When she and her friends sneaked out of the country, they sparked a counter-terrorism investigation.

However, the then head of Scotland Yard Bernard Hogan-Howe said in 2015 that Shamima Begum and her friends would not face terrorism charges if they returned – unless there was evidence they committed any specific crimes while with IS.

Mr Hogan-Howe’s comments remain true, according to the lawyer representing her family.

Tasnime Akunjee confirmed to Sky News that he believes she should be treated as a victim, as long as no evidence of further offences while she has been abroad is found.

"I am relieved that she is alive and simultaneously appalled by the news that someone so young has birthed and lost children," Mr Akunjee said.

"There are many possibilities [regarding] her return," he said, without wanting to go into further detail out of respect to Shamima’s family.

He added that the topic of Shamima Begum’s return is "a contentious issue and stirs up very strong positions from the public", noting that he had already seen "some horrific comments".

Mr Akunjee continued: "There is a very traumatised young person who will have to live through the rest of her life with the added burden of the reporting of her tragedy."

:: How could Shamima Begum return?

She could either try to sneak back into the country from the refugee camp she is in, or seek assistance from British authorities.

She may face a temporary exclusion order, preventing her from entering the UK.

:: What would happen if she finds a route back to the UK?

Shamima Begum will almost certainly face an investigation to evaluate if she has committed any criminal offences and to establish if she poses a threat.

The ultimate decision would rest with Home Secretary Sajid Javid, aided by assessments from MI5, MI6 and counter-terrorism police.

Security minister Ben Wallace said: "The UK advises against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq. Anyone who does travel to these areas, for whatever reason, is putting themselves in considerable danger.

"Everyone who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences, and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security.

"There are a range of terrorism offences where individuals can be convicted for crimes committed overseas and we can also use temporary exclusion orders to control an individual’s return to the UK."

Estimates suggest 850 Britons, including around 150 women, have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Figures vary, but it is thought around 80 women and children have returned.

Women and girls returning from IS strongholds have been held in detention and questioned when they landed back on British soil.

She says she is nine months pregnant. If she were to give birth before landing on UK soil, she risks having her child removed from her as has happened with at least one IS widow on her return.

:: How likely is it she would be convicted of terrorism?

The chance of her being convicted of terrorism is slim, as the onus for prosecutors to prove terrorist activity took place beyond reasonable doubt is difficult because access to evidence is limited.

Speaking in 2015 about Shamima Begum’s case, Sir Mark Rowley, who is now retiring as the Met’s head of counter-terrorism, said: "We have no evidence that these three girls are responsible for any terrorist offences. They have no reason to fear, if nothing else comes to light, that we will treat them as terrorists."

Mr Rowley’s comments in theory protect her from facing jail time for being a member of IS, which has been a proscribed organisation since 2014 – the year before his comments. This carries a sentence of up to six months in jail and a fine.

New laws under the Terrorism Act 2000 working their way through parliament could see her face ten years in a UK jail – even if she can prove she did nothing to actively benefit IS while she lived in Syria.

Under the draft legislation, those travelling to or remaining in certain geographical areas designated as a terror risk by the home secretary could be prosecuted.

Shamima Begum, who is believed to only hold British citizenship, will be protected from any attempts to remove her citizenship as this is only possible for dual citizens.

What do the politicians and experts say about returnees?

Their opinion on those returning from IS is divided.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson previously said "a dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain", whereas Mark Hill, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has suggested authorities should look to rehabilitate rather than prosecute some British citizens who were coerced to join IS or who travelled to Syria and Iraq through "naivety".

Mr Hill added that those who return can represent an opportunity for the security services to gather intelligence.

Dr Katherine Brown, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham, said there are a number of different fates facing returnees.

The option Shamima Begum is seeking, to return home, will see her be subject to the rule of the UK’s legal system.

However, Dr Brown, writing in a blog about the ethical and practical responsibilities of returning foreign fighters, said: "There are challenges with this option because of questions about sufficient evidence, jurisdiction, and ambiguity about returnees’ status."

She adds: "Some may have been compelled to travel (often wives and children), and others may have supported [IS] through non-violent means…These should be matters for the police and courts to determine, not politicians or the media."

Dr Brown suggests this option is better than allowing returnees to face justice in the countries they are returning from.

She argues that although "we cannot eliminate the risk of terrorist behaviour entirely" by allowing them to return to the UK, "we can reduce that risk" and challenge "the extremist belief that the West doesn’t care about Muslim citizens".

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