LONDON — A woman who was 15 when she left home to join the Islamic State militant group in Syria should be allowed to return to the United Kingdom to challenge the removal of her British citizenship, judges in London ruled Thursday.
Shamima Begum, 20, is one of three British schoolgirls who together left their lives in east London in 2015 to travel to join ISIS in Syria. Her fate was largely unknown until she was found in February last year by the British newspaper, The Times, in a Syrian refugee camp.
Shortly afterward, her British citizenship was revoked on national security grounds.
However, three judges from England’s Court of Appeal unanimously agreed Thursday that the only way Begum would be able to have a fair and effective appeal of that decision would be if she was to be permitted to come back to the U.K.
“Fairness and justice must, on the facts of this case, outweigh the national security concerns, so that the LTE [Leave to Enter] appeals should be allowed,” Lord Justice Julian Flaux wrote in the judgment.
The judgment appears to mean that the British government must now find a way for Begum to return to the U.K. to challenge its decision in court.
A spokesperson for Britain’s Home Office described the court's decision as “very disappointing.”
“We will now apply for permission to appeal this judgment, and to stay its effects pending any onward appeal,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The government’s top priority remains maintaining our national security and keeping the public safe.”
Western nations have been reluctant to take back citizens who had joined ISIS as it sought to establish a state in Iraq and Syria. Several European countries, including Britain, have stripped ISIS fighters of their nationalities to prevent their return.
Five years after she left Britain, it remains unclear what exact roles Begum and her school friends played within the ISIS or how deep their support for the militant group went.
In the interview with The Times last year, Begum appeared to show little remorse for joining the militant group, which is responsible for atrocities across the Middle East and has claimed numerous terror attacks in Europe.
She later pleaded to be repatriated to rejoin her family in London and said she was not a threat.
In an interview with the BBC her father, Ahmed Ali, said his daughter had "done wrong," adding: "I am sorry for Shamima's doing. I request to the British people, please forgive her."
British rights groups Thursday welcomed the court's decision that Begum should be able to return to the U.K.
“The right to a fair trial is not something the government can take away on a whim. It is a fundamental part of our justice system and equal access to justice must apply to everyone,” said Katie Lines, a lawyer for the London-based human rights group Liberty, which said it had been involved in the case.
The human rights organization Reprieve said it was advocating for all Britons currently held in camps in northeast Syria to be repatriated to the U.K.
A very small fraction of the detainees currently held there are British, of which the majority are children, according to the organization. Reprieve estimates that there are between 15 and 20 family units in total.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.