Home Technology Abject Before The Law: Assange, Begum, and rule of law
Abject Before The Law: Assange, Begum, and rule of law

Abject Before The Law: Assange, Begum, and rule of law

by host

Roughly a decade ago, when it was still normal for the under-50s to talk politics on Facebook, one of my friends, an Irish trade union rep, proudly posted a photo of the gigantic Julian Assange poster that adorned her bedroom wall. There was a sour note in the comments. “Is this a joke?” asked an American activist living in Ireland, who I had recently seen deliver a speech at an abortion rights rally in Dublin. Whether this woman’s disdain was driven by the multiple rape accusations against Assange, or by the view promulgated by many American liberals that Assange is a pawn of Russia, I don’t know. I relate this admittedly trivial anecdote because it marked the point at which I noticed that supporting Assange was becoming an increasingly marginal position.

As socialist writer Thomas Fazi meticulously outlines in Unherd, a multi-pronged attack, partly relying on public ignorance, has successfully cut down much of the support that Assange would seem to merit. “The British Government’s lack of concern for Assange’s fate is not surprising”, Fazi writes. “More worrying is the fact that much of the public also seems relatively unconcerned. This is probably the result of a campaign waged against Assange over the past decade and a half, aimed at destroying his reputation and depriving him of public support. Those not privy to the case’s details may even think that Assange is in jail because he’s been convicted for one of the many crimes he’s been accused of over the years — from rape to cyber-crime to espionage.”

Assange has paid the ultimate price (his mental and physical wellbeing and his freedom) for “the ordinary journalistic practice of obtaining and publishing classified information […] that is both true and of obvious and important public interest,” as one of Assange’s lawyers put it during the February UK High Court hearings which will decide whether the WikiLeaks founder will be extradited to the US. For Fazi, the story of Assange “is about so much more than one man: it is about whether you want to live in a society where journalists can expose the crimes of the powerful without the fear of being persecuted and imprisoned. If the British state allows Assange to be extradited to the US, it won’t be dealing a potentially deadly blow just to one man, but to the rule of law itself.”

Another recent UK court case with potentially far-reaching implications is the appeal of British-born Shamima Begum to return to her country of birth, after spending more than five years in a Syrian detention camp. On 23 February, three judges unanimously rejected Begum’s appeal, as reported by Dan Sabbagh in The Guardian. 

In 2015, Begum traveled to Syria when she was 15 years old to join Islamic State (ISIS), and was subsequently stripped of her British citizenship. According to the February decision, when Home Secretary Sajid Javid decided to revoke Begum’s citizenship in 2019 the decision would not have technically led to the young woman becoming stateless, because she was eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. However, now that this eligibility has expired, Begum is in fact left stateless.

This result runs counter to existing British legislation, as writer and lawyer David Allen Green explains in Prospect. “Even the relevant legislation expressly states that the home secretary may not make an order to deprive a person of their British citizenship if they are ‘satisfied that the order would make a person stateless’. And yet Begum remains detained in a refugee camp in Syria, without the rights and privileges of citizenship of the United Kingdom or elsewhere”. 

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Dissatisfaction with the outcome of Begum’s appeal does not just come from liberal or progressive circles. Many British conservatives are perturbed by the implications of the case, including Peter Hitchens, who writes in the Daily Mail of “mob justice” and “punishment without trial”. For Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, writing in the Spectator, the judgement undermines the constitution itself. “The decision to deprive Begum of her citizenship is wrong because it attacks two linchpins of the constitution that safeguard us all,” Rees-Mogg writes. “The first principle that is breached is the idea of equality of all British citizens before the law. The ability to deprive people, who have a claim to another citizenship, of their British passport, creates two categories of Briton. […] The other linchpin of the constitution that has been ignored is the right to trial by jury.” 

With the exception of Hitchens, who appears to accept that Begum’s misfortune is the result of youthful naïveté, none of the writers above are necessarily defending Begum herself. Rather, as with the Assange case, this is a decision with potentially grave consequences for the rule of law. ”ISIS was the epitome of evil,” Rees-Mogg writes, “and its adherents deserve to be hunted down and prosecuted. Yet if in the process we forget the rule of law and make it arbitrary, then we do not defend our values but abandon them.”

Since the ground war against ISIS ended in Syria more than four years ago, western countries have had to repatriate their citizens who decided to join the terrorist organisation. While this process will never be without controversy, Britain has been especially reluctant to bring British citizens back. “Having repatriated just two adults and 15 or so children,” Haroon Siddique writes in The Guardian, “the UK is an outlier. For instance, among its allies, France has repatriated more than 160 children and more than 50 women, while Germany has taken back almost 100 women and children.”

If the repatriation of Islamists – or indeed the refusal to repatriate them – is an opportunity for politicians like Sajid Javid to use the law to “set an example”, so too is their deportation. 

In late February, France deported imam Mahjoub Mahjoubi to his country of citizenship, Tunisia, after video emerged of him preaching “hatred of France” and of the Jewish community. Mahjoubi had lived in France since 1986, and has a wife and five children there. French Minister of The Interior Gérald Darmanin was quick to claim that the rapid deportation was thanks to the country’s recently introduced immigration bill. However, as Julia Pascual informs us in Le Monde, all the legislative tools necessary to deport the preacher already existed.  

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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