Jeremy Corbyn defends Shamima Begum's right to legal aid

From The Guardian World:


Lawyers and human rights groups say she can challenge removal of her citizenship

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn says Shamima Begum has the right to legal aid to challenge the decision to revoke her UK citizenship.
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Jeremy Corbyn has joined lawyers and human rights groups in defending the right of Shamima Begum to be granted legal aid so that the east London teenager can challenge the decision to remove her UK citizenship.

The Labour leader said that, whatever crimes Begum was accused of after she left the UK to marry an Islamic State fighter in Syria, she was entitled to proper legal representation.

“She is a British national and therefore she has that right, like any of us do, to apply for legal aid if she has a problem. She has legal rights, just like anybody else does,” he told reporters on Monday.

“The whole point of legal aid is that if you’re facing a prosecution then you’re entitled to be represented and that’s a fundamental rule of law, a fundamental point in any democratic society.”

His intervention came as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said the idea she could receive taxpayer funding to challenge the decision to remove her citizenship made him “very uncomfortable”.

He added: “She knew the choices she was making, so I think we made decisions about her future based on those choices.”

The row over her entitlement to publicly funded legal support grew further on Monday as the solicitor representing her family accused the government of breaching the Official Secrets Act by selectively leaking intelligence reports to sympathetic media, which has damaged her reputation.

Tasnime Akunjee, who represents Begum’s family, also revealed he is acting on behalf of others held in Syrian camps who have been stripped of their nationality rights. He warned that the number of such cases is likely to grow.

Akunjee is representing Begum’s family pro bono; they have not applied for legal aid. Begum’s case, however, has been transferred to the firm of Birnberg Peirce, which holds a legal aid certificate and has applied on her behalf for legal aid. The firm did not immediately confirm whether it has yet been awarded.

A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: “We are unable to comment on individual cases.

“Anybody applying for legal aid in a Special Immigration Appeals Commission [SIAC] case is subject to strict eligibility tests.”

Begum, now 19, should be allowed to appeal against the decision of the home secretary, Sajid Javid, to deprive her of her citizenship, Akunjee told the Guardian.

“[Javid] initiated a legal process and under that she’s entitled to appeal,” Akunjee said. “Legal aid enables her to fund that application with the help of solicitors. Those accused of serious crimes, such as rape, murder or terrorism, are regularly granted legal aid in the context of legal proceedings.”

He expects there to be a legal challenge, arguing that she should be able to return to the UK to fight the case in order to have a fair hearing.

Several newspapers at the weekend carried reports, said to have been based on intelligence sent to the Home Office and Downing Street, alleging that Begum was an enforcer working with the Isis morality police and had supposedly sewed up suicide bombers’ vests.

“I would question how that has come into the public arena and whether the Official Secrets Act has been breached,” Akunjee told the Guardian. He described the reports as “mere hearsay” and said that “the leak appears to have come from government sources”.

Many senior figures accept that she is entitled to legal aid. The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said Begum, who left the UK at the age of 15 to marry an Isis fighter, “knew the choices she was making”. He acknowledged, however, that the UK is a country which “believes that people with limited means should have access to the resources of the state if they want to challenge the decisions the state has made about them”.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, also backed Begum’s entitlement to legal aid. In a detailed blog, the anonymous Secret Barrister urged the government to ensure “equal treatment before the law” by granting legal aid.

“The removal of a person’s citizenship – a government telling a British-born citizen ‘You have no right to exist within our borders’ – is one of the most far-reaching decisions the state can make. We do not want to live in a country where politicians can act with unchecked power,” the blog argued. “The rule of law requires that those affected have a route to challenge a decision and have an independent court review the evidence and decide whether that decision was taken in accordance with the law.”

Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan police and friend of the family, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Begum was 15 when she was “groomed” by Isis and she should be given legal aid, which is a “principle of the British legal justice system”.

Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at human rights group Liberty, described the granting of legal aid in this case as “absolutely necessary to ensure that the government’s decisions are properly scrutinised”.

She said: “Stripping someone of their citizenship is among the most severe punishments a government can exercise, and the evidence that this decision will render Shamima Begum effectively stateless presents a powerful argument for subjecting this case to rigorous scrutiny in court.

“This case could have widespread repercussions for thousands of people, and more broadly for how the government uses dramatic powers to take away fundamental rights.”



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