x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UK presses for phone database to convict extremists fighters

International resource seen as necessary because of difficulty in getting evidence from conflict zones

ISIL militants parade in the city of Raqqa, the group's stronghold in Syria, in an undated image put out by its media centre. Britain is calling for an international electronic database to help prosecute the extremist group's fighters. AP Photo
ISIL militants parade in the city of Raqqa, the group's stronghold in Syria, in an undated image put out by its media centre. Britain is calling for an international electronic database to help prosecute the extremist group's fighters. AP Photo

Britain is pushing for the creation of a shared international database that would allow prosecutors to access data from the mobile phones of returning extremist fighters to secure convictions in their home countries.

Ninety people have been convicted in Britain over activities related to ISIL or the Syrian conflict, with the electronic analysis of phones and social media vital in many of the cases, the attorney general Jeremy Wright told an international law conference on London on Monday.

The government’s top law adviser cited the case of Imran Khawaja, who was jailed for 12 years in 2015 after he travelled to Syria and took part in ISIL recruitment videos to persuade other British Muslims to follow his lead. In one video posted on social media, he was seen posing with two severed heads.

Lack of evidence obtainable from Syria meant there was no way to prove that Khawaja was involved in fighting, killing prisoners or “any of the other atrocities we know to have taken place” and award a longer sentence, said Mr Wright.

Although some cases were forced to rely heavily on electronic data because of difficulty in getting evidence from conflict zones, those prosecutions brought their own difficulties, he said. In the average terrorism case, authorities retrieved electronic information that was equivalent to four million books of 500 pages each. More complex ones recovered five times that amount.

The move towards an international evidence database is in response to the deadlock at the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have blocked moves to allow the International Criminal Court to investigate human rights abuses in Syria, according to a government official. The UK proposal has gained traction in the last few months after several years of resistance to the plan, the official said.

Mr Wright did not address the UN plan in his speech but told The National that it was a “very tricky” and some way from being put into practice. “We’re at very early stages,” he said. “We want to see growing cooperation across the range of countries. It’s too early to say how specifically this will work.”

In the absence of an international court, countries, mainly in Europe and North America, have taken the lead in prosecuting cases, usually based on the presence of the alleged perpetrators or relatives of victims in those countries.

Officials from 12 countries have made 400 requests to an international group of lawyers which has amassed some 700,000 documents from the ground in Syria, said Stephen Rapp, a war crimes prosecutor and speaker at the law conference, which was part-sponsored by the Foreign Office.

The United Nations is also setting up a body in Geneva to prepare prosecutions for war crimes in Syria in the absence of a tribunal to carry them out.