Former soldier Lisa Smith, who was convicted earlier this year of membership of ISIS, was at the “lowest level” of the terrorist organisation and her sentence of 15 months was “excessive”, her counsel has told the Court of Appeal.
Appealing the sentence, Michael O’Higgins SC, for Smith, told the three-judge court that his client went to Isis-controlled Syria, “got married, kept house and that’s it.”
He said she went out of a religious conviction, “did not contribute to any state-building exercise and did no positive act in favour of Isis”.
He added: “There is nothing [in the evidence] beyond that she kept house for a man who did not even regard her as a person.”
Mr O’Higgins said the Special Criminal Court, which convicted and sentenced Smith, did not give enough regard to the mitigating factors, including that Smith is a mother of a young child.
He said the court had incorrectly placed her offending at the higher end of the lower-level for membership of a terrorist organisation and stated that the evidence showed that her involvement with Isis could not have been at a lower level than it was.
Mr O’Higgins also said that in sentencing, the Special Criminal Court should have taken into account the nine-and-a-half months Smith spent in two detention camps in Syria.
The conditions in those camps were appalling, he said, explaining that she was locked up “day and night” in a place where people held extreme views and where murder “routinely happens”.
The camp was policed by “women who are vicious, looking out for anything that indicates dissidence,” he said. Despite the risks, Smith spoke out against Isis when Professor Anne Speckhard, an expert in violent extremism, came looking to interview those in the camps.
The interview she gave was broadcast with Smith’s face pixelated, but Smith agreed to have the pixelation removed once she had returned to Ireland.
Mr O’Higgins said the court also failed to adequately consider the report written by Prof Speckhard, who said Smith had sincerely denounced Isis and did not support the group’s atrocities.
He added that Smith was convicted on the basis that she submitted to the jurisdiction of so-called Islamic State, adding that you could criminalise an entire nation on the same basis but that such offences would have to be considered at the lowest possible level of membership.
Sean Gillane SC, for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), said Isis was a terrorist organisation of “some notoriety which carried out acts of almost historically unprecedented bloodiness”. Smith knew of its “bloodlust”, counsel said, and discussed Isis atrocities with others in online conversations.
He added: “The very essence of the terror was known to her, discussed by her and in some situations explicitly approbated by her.”
Smith also knew that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, had been denounced by Islamic academics all over the world, but she still chose to travel to Syria. She rejected every entreaty not to go, counsel said, and when in Syria she rejected every call to return.
She rejected her own husband, who asked her not to go and divorced him when he refused to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, Mr Gillane said.
Counsel said the headline sentence of two years and six months set by the Special Criminal Court was appropriate.
The reduction from the headline to 15 months, he said, showed that the court did take into account mitigating factors including the hardship she had endured in the detention camps in Syria.
The Court of Appeal reserved judgement and Smith’s lawyers intend to appeal her conviction later this year.
Earlier this year, Smith became the first person to be convicted in an Irish court of an Islamic terrorist offence committed abroad when the Special Criminal Court found she joined Isis when she travelled to Syria in 2015.
The 40-year-old from Dundalk, Co Louth had pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful terrorist group, Islamic State, between October 28th, 2015 and December 1st, 2019.
Sentencing her to 15 months in prison, Mr Justice Tony Hunt noted that while Smith is a low risk for re-offending, she was persistent and determined in her efforts to travel to Syria and join Isis and has shown no remorse for her actions.
He said it was “serious” for an Irish citizen to take up allegiance with a terrorist organisation and persist with it.
He added “she may have been easily led by circumstances and other people” but had also shown resilience and determination to join and remain with Isis “to the bitter end”.
She had rejected her family and one of her husbands, who refused to swear allegiance to Isis, and had aligned herself with terrorists such as John Georgelas, an American Isis fighter and propagandist who was killed during fighting in Syria.
He said a custodial sentence was necessary to mark the seriousness of the offence and to deter others from offering support to dangerous organisations.
During garda interviews, Smith accepted that she travelled to Isis-controlled Syria in 2015 but denied she had ever joined Isis or any other group. She said she believed she had a religious obligation to live inside the so-called Islamic State created by terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Delivering the court’s verdict, Mr Justice Hunt said Smith went to Syria with her “eyes wide open”, having watched videos of Isis atrocities and having taken part in online discussions about Isis with jihadis from Germany, Australia, America and parts of the Middle East.