Laying charges against Suhayra Aden would be unfair, says security expert

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Suhayra Aden (right)
Suhayra Aden (right) with a Turkish police officer ... in custody in Turkey with her two young children since February when she tried to illegally cross the border from Syria. Image: RNZ/Anadolu

RNZ News

A counter-terrorism expert says there is no reason to lay charges against a New Zealand-born woman linked to the Islamic State.

Suhayra Aden and her two young children have been in custody in Turkey since February when she tried to illegally cross the border from Syria.

New Zealand and Turkish authorities have stuck a deal for the 26-year-old to be repatriated.

Turkey had earlier accused her of being a terrorist but has dropped all charges.

A former counter-terrorism expert for the US government, Dr Paul Buchanan said it would be “grossly unfair” if police charged her based on current evidence.

“We have to remember she has committed no crime in New Zealand,” Dr Buchanan said.

“She left … to go to the battlefields of the Middle East as a concubine, as a camp follower, not as a fighter so she has committed no crimes as far as anyone knows, in Syria or in Turkey.”

Police, government silent
Police and the government are keeping mum on the plan for her return, but Dr Buchanan said the authorities would be keeping a very close eye on her.

“Her computer will be monitored, her daily movements will be monitored, she will be subject to considerable scrutiny.”

Terrorism control laws brought in in 2019 allow for electronic monitoring, restrictions around on where she can go, who she can talk to and what websites she can use.

Dr Buchanan said if she was found trying to spread radicalism she could be charged with inciting violence.

But he said her safety was likely more at risk than any danger she herself posed.

“There are Islamophobic people in New Zealand who have already made comments along the lines that they wish to do her harm or they wish that harm befalls her.”

Dr Buchanan said international evidence showed women who leave Islamic State were often traumatised and posed no threat to the community.

Australian passport
Aden was born in New Zealand but moved to Australia when she was six, travelling to Syria in 2014 on her Australian passport.

University of Waikato law professor Alexander Gillespie said Australia’s decision to cancel her citizenship – forcing responsibility for her onto New Zealand – was wrong.

“Ultimately because of Australia’s actions, which were not in good faith, they left us holding the ball, and New Zealand picked it up and we’ve done the right thing.

“It’s a difficult situation, but ultimately we’ve lived up to our legal responsibilities, and many would say our ethical ones as well.”

Dr Gillespie said the government would not have got involved – but for the children.

“Had it just been a man… or a woman over there who had gone to fight for Islamic State, then it’s very unlikely that the government [would be] going out of their way to repatriate that person.

“But having children involved meant that we had obligations to look out for the best interest of the children which means that we had to intervene.”

Children’s privacy protection
Dr Gillespie said in order to protect the children’s privacy and chances of reintegration the authorities have to be less transparent with the public about the family’s location and restrictions they would face on arrival.

Refugees As Survivors provides mental health and wellbeing services at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

Chief executive Sharron Ward said it has not been approached to care for Aden or her children so could not speak to the specifics of her case.

But she said Aden would likely need considerable mental health help.

“I can assure you that she will take a long time to adjust,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she had quite high rates of post-traumatic stress, she has been living in a war zone in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

“She’ll be a figure of hate in some parts of Western society, so she’s damned if she does and and she’s damned if she doesn’t in many ways.”

Not contacted over support
Islamic Women’s Council national coordinator Aliya Danzeisen said her organisation had also not been contacted to provide support.

But she said community members have survived similar trauma and, with support, flourished.

“We’ve had people who’ve lived 12, 15 years in refugee camps where rape and abuse and things are very common.

“And yet they come out and they’re able to live highly productive lives.”

Police have confirmed there was an investigation into Aden, but refused to give any more information.

It said it was making plans with a number of agencies about the family’s return, and that security measures would be in place.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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