‘System working’: Labor defends Syria repatriations following arrest of woman on terror charge

‘Anyone who knowingly went to aid Isis deserves the full weight of the law,’ says minister Bill Shorten

The government has defended its decision to repatriate 17 Australian women and children from a Syrian internment camp, saying the charging of one of the returned women with a terror offence is evidence of the “system working as it should”.

Mariam Raad, 31, has been ordered to surrender her passport and report to police, under strict bail conditions issued Friday. She has been charged with entering and remaining in a “declared area” – al-Raqqa province in Syria – when it was under the control of the so-called Islamic State in 2014.

Police allege Raad knowingly and willingly travelled to al-Raqqa to support her husband, Muhammad Zahab, a former Sydney maths teacher turned prolific Islamic State recruiter who is believed to have been killed in 2018.

She was part of a group of 17 Australian women and children repatriated by the Australian government in October from a Syrian detention camp holding the wives and children of slain and jailed Islamic state fighters.

Raad faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Police say there is “no current or impending threat to the Australian community” from Raad or arising from her arrest this week.

But the federal opposition has argued those repatriated present a threat to Australia.

“It is not in Australia’s national interest to have had these Isis brides repatriated,” the deputy opposition leader, Sussan Ley, said on Friday.

“The government has a list of questions to answer. How many Isis brides are going to continue to be repatriated? Those who might potentially be charged, like this woman, with serious terror offences, what communities are they in? And what assurances can the government give us? Because at the moment communities are confused and bewildered.”

The government minister Bill Shorten defended the repatriation decision, saying “national security has been paramount” in the government’s actions, as it was when the previous government brought Australian orphans back from the Syrian conflict.

“I think anyone who knowingly went to aid Isis deserves the full weight of the law,” Shorten said.

“When we talk about the brides, there’s also little children there, they didn’t have any say in the matter.

“Has information emerged about one of these women who went across there and she’s been charged? Yes. Is the system working? Well, it wouldn’t have been possible to charge her if she wasn’t here. I think that the system is working as it should be.”

Shorten said police were continuing to monitor all of the women and children who had been repatriated.

Moustafa Kheir, principal solicitor at Birchgrove Legal and Raad’s representative, told the Guardian that negative comments from politicians should cease.

“The damaging political dog-whistling needs to stop,” he said.

A spokesperson for Save the Children, which has campaigned for the repatriation of all the Australian women and children trapped in Syrian camps, said Australia had “a clear moral obligation and international legal requirement” to repatriate its citizens from the Syrian camps, as other nations such as the US, Germany and France have.

“Australia is showing that it is possible to repatriate its citizens while balancing any potential risks and ensuring the safety of the wider community. If there is evidence that any of the women have committed crimes then the appropriate place for them to be charged and prosecuted is in Australia, where we can put our faith in the country’s robust judicial and national security architecture,” the spokesperson said.

“No child is responsible for the alleged actions of their parents. It is now more important than ever that these children are given the appropriate support to ensure their safe integration into Australian society.”

Mariam Raad was arrested in Young, where she has lived since returning to Australia, on Thursday.

Raad is scheduled to re-appear at Young local court on 15 March.

It will be alleged in court that Raad travelled to Syria in early 2014 to join her husband, Muhammad Zahab, who left Australia in 2013 to join Islamic State.

It will be further alleged Raad was aware of her husband’s activities with Islamic State and willingly travelled to the warzone.

About 40 Australian citizens – the wives, sons and daughters of slain or jailed Islamic State combatants – remain held in Syrian camps. The majority are children, some of whom were born in the camps.

Conditions in the camps are dangerous and deteriorating. Over winter in particular, temperatures are regularly below freezing and Australian children, living in tents, have contracted severe frostbite.

Additional reporting by Mostafa Rachwani


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp