The British government has denied accusations it was “taking instructions from Assad” when it confiscated the passport of a Syrian journalist known to be critical of her country’s regime.
Zaina Erhaim, who won the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Journalism Award in April for her work covering the Syrian conflict, had her new passport taken off her by British authorities at Heathrow airport.
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The National Union of Journalists has called on the government to review its border policies after it was claimed the confiscation was carried out at the request of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
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Helen Goodman MP, chair of the NUJ parliamentary group, has written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP about the incident claiming the Home Office is “taking instructions from Assad”.
She said: “Of course the Assad regime doesn’t want reports of their bombardment of civilians reaching us – the British government should not collude with this censorship.
“She is being targeted by the Assad regime of which she has been critical. By removing her passport, the Home Office is complying with Assad’s wishes”
Goodman claimed the Assad regime was “seeking to turn her passport into a political weapon, to limit her movement, and to interfere with her work as a journalist and activist”.
Erhaim, currently living in Turkey, visited her native Syria in 2013 to report on the ground in Aleppo about the conflict ravaging the nation.
More than 250,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed and more than 11m displaced over the four-and-a-half years of fighting, which began with protests against Assad before escalating into a full-scale civil war.
Erhaim entered the UK in April using the same passport which was confiscated in order to collect her award from the Index on Censorship.
She was travelling to the UK again for an event in London about women on the frontline, alongside BBC veteran war reporter Katie Adie, hosted by the organisation on 24 September, but had her passport confiscated as she landed.
It is understood she is able to return to Turkey using an older passport which is still valid, having ordered the new one after filling up the other’s pages with stamps and visas, but may not be able to return to the UK.
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Clearly the move is an act of revenge for reporting what is happening on the ground in Syria,” she said.
“It is shocking that the British government is acting as a stooge for a barbaric regime, clamping down on press freedom in this way.”
Erhaim, a recipient of the UK government’s prestigious Chevening Award, told the Observer: “I expect to be harassed inside my country.
“I know that if I went home I would be killed, but now I find that Assad’s arm can even reach to the UK. This is a dictator pursuing a journalist.”
The Home Office has since claimed the confiscated passport had been identified as lost or stolen by the Syrian government and that as it legally belonged to the government of Syria they “had no choice but to confiscate it”.
A Home Office spokesperson told Press Gazette: “Our first priority is the security of our borders and it would be irresponsible to ignore warnings about lost or stolen passports.
“The British Government has no direct contact with the Assad regime due to the atrocities it has committed against the Syrian people.”