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UK aid workers stripped of citizenship should be treated as heroes

The removal of passports from British aid workers in Syria is a stark reminder that anti-Muslim bias is practiced by governments that claim to oppose it

Citizenship removal for British aid workers in Syria reminds me how Bosnia's lessons haven't been learned. As a young man during the 1990s I was terribly moved by the plight of the Muslims of Bosnia who were facing torture, mass-interment, mass rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

At a time when I was rediscovering my own Muslim identity, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Muslims had lived and contributed to the identity of Europe for over a thousand years. 

Exclusive: British aid workers in Syria  stripped of citizenship
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But now, that identity had become its own death warrant.

Travelling to Bosnia

I joined many land aid convoys to Bosnia and saw first-hand what was happening to the victims. What made it worse was that all along the way I encountered the United Nations armed forces from all over the world, including Britain, who literally sat by and watched as the massacres happened. However, many of them did assist in the aid effort.

Listening to some of the soldiers' own frustration at their own inaction and shocked at the increasingly brazen attacks by Bosnian Serb forces, I decided to join the 3rd Corps of the Armija Bosanksa (Bosnian Army) just as several others did from all over Britain and Europe. It consisted of both foreign volunteers and local Bosnian Muslims. 

I was there during a very harsh winter when there was little fighting and soon enough I returned home. I was neither questioned, interrogated or harassed and was free to travel back and forth unhindered.

Victims' relatives watch a live TV broadcast from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of the verdict in the genocide trial of former Bosnian Serbian commander Ratko Mladic, on 22 November 2017 (AFP)

Syrian revolution

In 2012 I made the first of two trips to Syria. My primary reason had been to look into several cases of extraordinary rendition and interview terror suspects that had been handed over by the Americans to the Syrian government. However, several of them were now themselves involved in leading the fight against the government.

During one meeting with the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Hassan Abood, I spotted a familiar face. It had been a very long time but I recognised the Bosnian man who came to offer support and advice to Abood based on his own military experiences nearly two decades ago. He too had been part of the Bosnian Army.

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Abood described to me his vision of the Syrian revolution and his belief in protecting the rights of all - including minorities who might have traditionally sided with the government.

At least that was the theory.

He was also amongst the very first voices to challenge, reject and eventually, fight against the Islamic State (IS) group. Abood and almost the entire leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, several of whom I knew, were killed in a bombing during a meeting. The suspects include both the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State.

Aid from Britain’s Muslims

During these first years of the Syrian uprising, numerous people came from all over the world bringing in food, aid and medicine to assist against another genocide occurring while the rest of the world watched.

The British Muslim community has been at the heart of this effort and you can still see British fire engines, ambulances, rubbish trucks and medical centres, schools, orphanages, housing projects and hospitals built and run by Muslims from Britain right across northern Syria.

Some Britons, like doctors Isa Abdur Rahman and Abbas Khan, paid with their lives.

Despite facing significant harassment under Schedule 7 anti-terror powers, people were generally free to travel to Syria to assist in the aid effort and Britain should have been proud of its contribution to the aid effort. But that was before IS came along.

Al-Qaeda affiliates and links

British government policy has steadily changed over the years from one of support to the Syrian opposition to opposing and criminalising those British Muslims who support it. Before my arrest for Syria-related terrorism charges in 2014 I wrote about how the government had already revoked the citizenship of 41 individuals - most of whom were Muslims.

That number now has greatly increased and includes several British aid workers that I have spoken to. None of them are with IS; one of them even told me how he was being threatened with extortion by them even as they face defeat.

All of them, whilst sympathetic to cause of the opposition, say they were not involved in fighting. In each case, the letters received at their family homes in the UK accuse them of being linked to groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda (AQ).

The argument that these aid workers are not left stateless is inhuman, cruel and racist

These nebulous assertions do not specify details and are based on the government's "assessments", beliefs" and "understanding".

Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, has distanced itself from Ayman al-Zawahiri and removed officials tied to al-Qaeda central in the AfPak region and attempted reform, not only in name, twice - once as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and currently as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - but also in actions, methodology, alliances and aims.

Internally displaced Syrians in the Aleppo countryside waiting for food (Reuters)

It is hard to see how such an allegations could stand the scrutiny of open court.

Hence, these determinations are made in Special Immigration and Appeals Commission (SIAC) where evidence is presented and heard in secret.

The British government was backing the FSA and providing it with non-lethal aid until January 2014, it, too, by necessity, was linked to al-Qaeda associated groups

Further, in a 2013 interview, the founder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Riyad al-Asaad, said: "The Al-Nusrah Front has proved that it is proficient in fighting and has treated the people very nicely…the majority of the people are looking with admiration toward the Al-Nusrah Front."

Meanwhile, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the respected former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said: "The decision to blacklist one of the groups fighting the regime [Jabhat al-Nusrah] as a terrorist organisation must be re-examined."

Considering the British government was backing the FSA and providing it with non-lethal aid until January 2014, it, too, by necessity, was linked to al-Qaeda associated groups.

Left stateless?

As the situation on the ground rapidly changes in favour of the Syrian government, those who chose to stay in Syria are now facing life as effectively stateless people.

The move is not only destructive and perilous for the individuals and their families - where they face mounting threats from an ever-desperate IS intent on taking revenge against those who rejected it and, an emboldened regime that recognises that no one is prepared to stop its advances or abuses.

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The argument that these aid workers are not left stateless is inhuman, cruel and racist. It is claimed that since they have a parent or grandparent who had the right to nationality of another country then they too have the right to that nationality - even if they have never resided or been to that country.

This by definition can only apply to those who hail from direct descendants of migrants. These measures are unlikely to apply to Britons deemed "indigenous".

Despite today's decision on the genocide committed against Europe's Muslims, it is a stark reminder that anti-Muslim bias is practiced by governments that claim to oppose it.

The lessons of Bosnia were not simply to convict war criminals 22 years after the fact. They must be that circumstances that lead up to such crimes are recognised and prevented.

Instead of being excommunicated as British citizens, these aid workers, who have risked everything to bring ease and relief to the lives of refugees and dispossessed, should be welcomed and applauded.

 - Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. Follow him on twitter: @Moazzam_Begg

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.that circumstances that lead up to such crimes are recognised and prevented.

Photo: A Syrian man cries as rescuers look for victims under the rubble of a collapsed building following a reported air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Sakhur in the northern city of Aleppo on 19 July 2016 (AFP)

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