British citizens who go to designated conflict zones could face up to 10 years in prison under a new law.
Enacted on Friday, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 creates a criminal offence of entering or remaining in a “designated area” overseas.
The measure, unveiled by ministers last year, allows the United Kingdom home secretary to designate an area, subject to parliamentary approval.
According to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, the law gives “police the powers they need to disrupt terrorist plots earlier and ensure that those who seek to do us harm face just punishment”.
The Act also gives border guards the power to stop and search individuals without suspicion on the grounds of tackling “hostile state” activity. It also criminalises viewing “terrorist-linked” material online.
Exemptions have been included in the legislation for people with legitimate reasons for being in a designated area, including journalists, aid workers and those attending a funeral.
The measure won’t allow prosecutions retrospectively, so those who fought with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) are exempt.
However, officials have said the law will assist if a similar outflow of fighters is seen in a future conflict.
Human rights concerns
Human rights watchdogs and press freedom campaigners have raised serious concerns about the legislation.
In a joint statement signed last year by nine organisations, including Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders, the groups warned that the “vaguely defined” crime of hostile state activity would provide border guards wide-ranging powers to stop, search and detain British citizens.
According to UK Home Office estimates, more than 900 individuals “of national security concern” have travelled to take part in the conflict in Syria. About 20 percent of those people have been killed overseas, while about 40 percent have returned to the UK, according to the Home Office.
Figures disclosed in the House of Commons last year suggested about 10 percent of returnees have been prosecuted over “direct action” in Syria.
The enactment of the new law comes weeks after the UK decided to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a British teenager who travelled from London in 2015 to ISIL-controlled Syria.
Begum’s case created a media frenzy when the now 19-year-old appealed in a television interview in February to be allowed to return home with her newborn son.
Al Jazeera and news agencies