Should terrorists lose their British citizenship?

Isis fighter Jack Letts is stripped of UK passport, prompting condemnation from Canada

Jack Letts
Facebook photo of Jack Letts near Raqqa, the Islamic State's stronghold in Syria
(Image credit: Facebook)

The UK Government is once again facing criticism for stripping another British national of citizenship as punishment for joining Islamic State (Isis).

Jack Letts, 24, who left his home in Oxfordshire to join the militant group five years ago, has spent the last two and a half years in a Kurdish-run prison in northern Syria.

In an interview with ITV News this week, Letts, who is known in the tabloid press as “Jihadi Jack”, said he had been “expecting” the British Government’s decision after former home secretary Sajid Javid did the same to Shamima Begum earlier this year.

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“It’s just a piece of paper at the end of the day,” Letts told ITV. “Stripping me of British citizenship and not stripping me is the same thing because they’re not going to help me anyway.

“They haven’t helped me at all. It’s almost as if I’m not a British citizen anyway.”

Letts, who has Canadian nationality through his father, expressed hope that Canada will take him in.

However, the Canadian government has accused the Home Office of trying to “offload their responsibilities”, Channel 4 News reports.

The UK Government has defended its decision. A Home Office spokesperson stated that decisions on depriving a dual national of British citizenship “are based on substantial advice from officials, lawyers and the intelligence agencies and all available information.

“This power is one way we can counter the terrorist threat posed by some of the most dangerous individuals and keep our country safe.”

But how does being stripped of one’s citizenship work?

How can you lose your British Citizenship?

Revoking citizenship is allowed in instances where doing so would be “conducive to the public good”. However, this power “can only be used where the person concerned has dual nationality, as leaving an individual stateless is a breach of international law”, says the London Evening Standard.

These powers were extended in 2014 by then-home secretary Theresa May.

In an article for The Daily Telegraph at the time, May wrote: “Following the recent Immigration Act, I can, in certain circumstances, remove citizenship from naturalised Britons who are fighting overseas and exclude them too. And while it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless, any British national who returns from Syria and Iraq faces prosecution here for participating in terrorist activities abroad.”

Why can’t a person be stateless?

As individuals have no choice but to live under the authority and power of a state, to render someone stateless would mean they “continued to be subjected to state power but without the basic protections against it offered by citizenship, including security of residence (protection from deportation), political rights, and a host of entitlements and privileges (including access to education and employment) often reserved solely for citizens”, writes Dr Matthew Gibney, associate professor of politics and forced migration at the University of Oxford, in an article on The Conversation.

In the wake of the decision regarding Letts and his citizenship, Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, told The Independent: “Whenever there are reasonable grounds to suspect that someone who is entitled to return to this country has either committed or facilitated acts of terrorism, they should be fully investigated and where appropriate prosecuted.”

She added: “We are not in favour of making people stateless, that’s a punishment without due process.”

But despite the unprecedented nature of the decision to revoke the citizenships of Letts and Begum - and the intense criticism Downing Street now faces from the international community - public opinion appears to side with the Government.

Writing for The Conversation, Kim McGuire notes that although Begum’s case gained widespread media attention and generated debate in legal circles, there was “little, if any, public outcry over the decisions to revoke her British citizenship”, with one YouGov poll in February finding that “76% of those surveyed supported the decision”.

This sentiment is also echoed by some media commentators, with The Daily Telegraph’s Julie Lenarz taking a harsh stance against Letts.

“In a cynical betrayal of reality, the perpetrators – from Jack Letts to Shamima Begum and other individuals who chose to travel to Syria at their own free will and proudly joined a genocidal terrorist organisation – are now being shopped around as victims, abandoned by a ruthless government and deprived of their basic human rights,” she writes.

“Cry me a river, enough of it already!”

What will happen to Letts?

Jack Letts, who was raised in the UK and went to school in Oxfordshire, left the country to join Isis when he was 18.

He was jailed after being captured by Kurdish forces while attempting to flee to Turkey in May 2017.

Interviewed in captivity earlier this year, he said: “I’m not going to say I’m innocent. I’m not innocent. I deserve what comes to me. But I just want it to be … appropriate … not just haphazard, freestyle punishment in Syria.”

Letts said he had hoped that Canada would intervene and “transfer him to a prison in North America”, The Independent reports.

“My whole life, despite the fact that I lived in Britain, I speak with a British accent and I’ve never even lived in Canada, I’ve always felt that I’m Canadian,” he said. “My dad’s Canadian. I’ve been to Canada seven times. I’ve no relatives in Britain, everyone’s in Canada.”

However, he also added that Canada “has done nothing” to help him so far. “I had this idea that Canada was a better country. I don’t think anyone is going to help me,” he said.

Canada has stated that it has “no legal obligation to facilitate” the return of Canadian Isis fighters. "We will not expose our consular officials to undue risk in this dangerous part of the world,” a government official said.

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