London (CNSNews.com) – The British government said this week it is not ruling out charging citizens who fought with ISIS in Syria with treason.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid suggested that existing terrorism legislation would be adequate for dealing with returned ISIS fighters, but that he has asked officials in his department “to consider the case for updating treason laws.”
Earlier this year Javid estimated that about 360 British subjects who joined ISIS have now returned. As many of 900 people traveled from Britain to join the terrorist group, and more than 100 of them have been stripped of their citizenship.
Amid a larger debate about what to do with the returnees, a number of lawmakers and legal experts have called for laws to be amended, arguing that those dealing with treason are too antiquated to deal with modern terrorism.
Policy Exchange, an influential think tank in London, released a report last summer calling for new laws to recognize that betrayal of one’s country is a moral wrong and that those convicted of treason should be sentenced to life in prison.
Much of the current law is theoretically based on the Treason Act of 1351, which centers mainly around crimes against the monarch. The last person convicted of high treason in Britain was Nazi propagandist William Joyce (“Lord Haw Haw”), in 1945.
In February, Javid told the House of Commons that amending treason laws would be “worth considering.”
In a wide-ranging speech Monday on the threats facing Britain, he said he has asked department officials to look into the matter.
He said there was merit in possibly revising treason laws to deal with hostile states, and that a new Espionage Act would be introduced in Parliament in the fall.
However, Javid also suggested that returned ISIS fighters could be dealt with under existing terrorism legislation.
“Our definition of terrorism is probably broad enough to cover those who betray our country by supporting terror abroad,” he said.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question about revising the treason laws, junior Home Office minister Baroness Susan Williams said earlier this month current terrorism laws are “the most appropriate means of dealing with foreign terrorist fighters.”
“To prosecute terrorists for treason risks giving their actions a political status or glamor they do not deserve, rather than treating them merely as criminals,” she wrote.
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which became law this year, gave the government powers to designate any area outside the country as illegal for British citizens to enter – unless for a valid reason such as humanitarian work or visiting family.
In his speech, Javid said government officials would urgently review whether or not to use this power in the case of Syria.
Ewelina Ochab, a legal analyst who has worked extensively on Syria and Iraq, said revising the law of treason with regard to foreign fighters still remained possible.
She said Williams’ statement “does not mean that it’s not going to happen. However, before any changes are introduced, a review needs to be conducted to consider what are the shortfalls of the existing law, and how they could be addressed.”
According to the latest government figures, as of June last year around 40 people had been convicted upon return from Syria and Iraq, either because of crimes committed overseas or those linked to terrorism.
Ochab said one of the difficulties that the British government has is gathering evidence of crimes that occurred in Syria or Iraq.
“It may take a while before there is enough evidence to initiate prosecutions,” she said.