One of Britain’s top prosecutors today warned that Britons who travel to join the Syrian conflict will face prosecution and potential life sentences on their return.
Sue Hemming said it was a crime to fight in another country even if it was to topple a “loathsome” dictator such as president Bashar Assad.
The head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service said Britons could also face charges for attending rebel training camps.
She added that further prosecutions would be brought against those yet to depart if police found evidence that they were planning to fight.
Her comments, in an interview with the Evening Standard, come as seven British residents including two London women await trial over charges connected to the Syrian conflict.
They follow a recent surge in arrests by police and a warning by the Met’s counter-terrorism chief about the growing number of young Britons either travelling to Syria or attempting to go.
Some observers have expressed surprise that “freedom fighters” seeking to oust Assad are being arrested. But Ms Hemming said the law made it clear that participation in an overseas conflict was illegal. “It is a crime for people from this country to go out and get into a conflict or go out for terrorist training,” she said, adding: “We will look at the facts in each case, but ultimately it is potentially an offence and if it’s right to prosecute then we will.
“The message for people who are considering going out there and getting involved in terrorist training or getting involved in the conflict is that they will be potentially breaking the law in this country.”
The most serious offence facing those going to Syria is Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006. It outlaws acts preparatory to terrorism and assisting another person in such activities. The maximum penalty is life.
Sections 6 and 8 of the legislation also make it illegal to train as a terrorist or to attend a training camp. Both offences carry up to 10 years in prison.
Ms Hemming said that terrorism was defined in law as any action driven by political, ideological, religious or racial motive which seeks to influence a government or intimidate a section of the public. This meant that attempting to topple Assad was covered. She added: “Potentially it’s an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are.
“People have got views about all sorts of conflicts and all sorts of places, but our government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflict they have views about. We will apply the law robustly.”
One Syrian rebel group, the al-Nusra Front, has been outlawed by the Government for its links to al Qaeda. At least one other, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, is also connected to al Qaeda.
Training camps to prepare their fighters operate in Syria, Turkey and elsewhere. Ms Hemming said that three of the seven Britons charged with Syria-related offences would be accused of training in such camps, including one who would face an allegation of involvement with al-Nusra.
She added: “In three of the cases that we are prosecuting we allege that they have travelled there, got themselves involved in training and come back again. In one of those cases we will allege that they were going to join al-Nusra.”
Ms Hemming emphasised that it was not a crime to take part in humanitarian relief. But she warned that the flow of Britons to Syria had “all the hallmarks” of creating a terrorist danger in this country which prosecutors had a duty to tackle.
“They can meet people from terrorist organisations, particularly if they are going to join someone like al-Nusra, and they can then be a threat to this country,” she said.
“The groups fighting for the opposition are very diverse in nature: terrorist groups and other sorts of extremists.”
Scotland Yard revealed last month that Syria-related terrorism arrests are soaring with 16 so far this year, compared with 24 for all of 2013. The total number of British participants in the conflict is estimated to be in the “hundreds”, with as many as 20 thought to have died in the fighting.
Since March 2011, more than 130,000 people across Syria have been killed and nearly six million forced from their homes sparking humanitarian crises in neighbouring countries.
The conflict began with protests against four decades of Assad family rule but turned into a civil war after a crackdown by security forces.