Teen stuck in Syria 'stranded' by Australian government

Australian teen Oliver Bridgeman says he has only been doing aid work since going to Syria but the Australian government charges him with having the intent to commit hostile acts.

Story highlights

  • Government has not contacted Bridgeman or his family, lawyer says
  • Over 120 Australians have gone to Syria and Iraq since the war began five years ago
  • Bridgeman denies going over with the intent to fight or commit hostile acts

(CNN)An Australian teenager stuck in Syria after his passport was canceled is being unfairly punished and has been left essentially stranded by the Australian government, his lawyer says.

Alex Jones has appealed Canberra's decision to cancel the passport of Oliver Bridgeman, 19. Bridgeman cannot return home unless he travels on the canceled document, a crime under Australian law that would see him face up to 10 years in prison.
    "For him to leave Syria he must commit a crime and that's his only way of getting out," Jones told CNN. "They're effectively forcing him to commit a crime (in order to come home). He's been offered no immunity or indemnity for that."
    Jones says the government has not been in contact with his family or legal team, other than when the Australian Federal Police (AFP) served an arrest warrant for Bridgeman to his parents home.
    The AFP refused to comment further on the case when contacted by CNN.
    "It's surprising no one from authorities has even contacted me about it. They're simply creating problems, not solutions. It's truly bizarre," he said.
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    Bridgeman, a converted Muslim, is accused of entering the war-torn country "with the intention of engaging in hostile activities." But he maintains he's not a foreign fighter and never intended to be. He says for the past year, he's simply been working to help give aid.
    The passport cancellation policy is aimed at deterring more Australians becoming foreign fighters.
    More than 120 Australians have gone to Syria and Iraq since the war began five years ago to join the war, according to an Australian government report last year.
    At least 30 have returned. Among them Ashley Dyball, who arrived home in December after fighting with Kurdish forces in Syria.
    Other young Australians, such as Reece Harding, killed by a landmine when he joined a Kurdish resistance group, never made it back.
    "Funnily enough, some of the other high profile ones who have admitted to fighting have been allowed back," Jones said. "Some of them have openly been bragging about the fact that they're fighting and yet they've come back. It's somewhat a double standard. When you deny fighting, you can't come back."

    'I'm only helping, not fighting'

    On Sunday, Bridgeman appeared on 60 Minutes Australia via Skype to tell his side of the story. He denied coming to the country for any reason other than to offer humanitarian aid.
    "I'm innocent. I've been doing aid work since day one. I've clearly stated the work that I'm doing here," he said.
    "I haven't picked up any guns. I haven't been in any training camps. I want nothing to do with them. So strictly my link here is humanitarian purposes. I have no links or anything to do with these terrorist organizations and participate in the fight or anything like that."
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    His parents, who also spoke to 60 Minutes, said they did not know their son had gone to Syria until after the fact and were shocked and frightened that he had.
    Although his father said the move was naive, he said his son is now being unjustly punished by the government.
    "We've done nothing wrong," Andy Bridgeman said. "We're a good family. We've been respectful. We obey the law. He was probably just a young naive kid who just wanted to change the world. Now if he's going to be penalized because he's helping people, then we haven't got a lot left in this world to celebrate, have we? If the government thinks that's a crime, then there's nothing left, really."

    'Shortsighted'

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    Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert and professor at Australian National University said the government's reaction is shortsighted and does not tackle the root of the radicalization problem it's meant to address.
    "I am concerned that the government is trying to trump up numbers to make it sound like a bigger problem than it is," he said. "It is a significant national security problem but compared to other crimes you've got it is a bit overstated."
    It could even have the opposite effect as Muslim communities in Australia feel alienated, he added.
    "If they realize there is no return to where they've come from -- in some cases, people are forced to remain in Syria -- and if they're treated badly by their home governments, it might actually confirm why some are going over there in the first place. It's creating an even larger threat."
    For now, Oliver and his family can only wait on the government to give them more indication.
    "To be quite honest, I'm not really sure (what the next steps are)," his lawyer said. "At some point we hope the government would contact us and let us know what they want us to do. As of yet we've not been offered an explanation. No one has contacted us.
    "Nobody has told us what they want him or us to do."