Court orders Canada to repatriate suspected ISIS affiliates held in Syria

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The Canadian government must work to bring home four Canadian men detained in Syria after a judge ruled that Canada violated the rights of their relatives by keeping them in squalid prisons and camps there for years.

Federal Court Judge Henry Brown in Ottawa on Friday ordered the Canadian government to provide emergency travel documents and a request for their repatriation — to Kurdish officials overseeing the detention centers.

The men are among tens of thousands of foreign nationals detained by Kurdish authorities for alleged links to Islamic State. Three years after US-backed Kurdish forces declared military victory over the extremist group, they continue to decline in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. Prisons and camps where former Islamic State fighters, their wives and children are detained are overcrowded and unsanitary, and plagued by violence and disease. Rights groups say there are life-threatening conditions.

Kurdish officials and relatives of the prisoners have urged governments to readmit their citizens. Citing security concerns, many countries have dragged their feet — or in some cases, revoked the prisoners’ citizenship.

Since 2019, 36 countries have repatriated at least some citizens from northeastern Syria, according to Letta Taylor, associate director in the crisis and conflict division of Human Rights Watch. Canada brought home a repatriated 5-year-old orphan in October 2020. Ottawa has repatriated at least five, but more than 40 Canadian citizens remain detained in Syria.

Courts in Germany and the Netherlands have ordered governments to repatriate the women and children. But Taylor said the Canadian ruling Friday was “potentially groundbreaking.”

“This is the first court case where the court has ruled in favor of – and strongly – the men’s repatriation,” she said. “This is a major crack in the wall of resistance of countries willing to outsource responsibility for their nationals to a nonstate actor inside a war zone.”

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In the case, family members of 23 detained Canadians argued that the government’s refusal to allow their relatives to return violated Canada’s constitution.

The court orders came after Canadian authorities reached a deal Thursday to repatriate the six women and 13 children involved in the case, said Lawrence Greenspan, who is representing the families. The government had previously sent letters to women informing them that they and their children were eligible for aid based on the worsening conditions in al-Hol and Rose, the open camps where women and children were kept.

A Syrian detention camp has been rocked by dozens of murders of women blamed on the Islamic State

The identities of many of the detainees and their relatives have been kept secret due to the sensitivity of the case. Greenspan said the family members he represents are “very pleased” with the deal and the ruling.

Greenspan said the court ruling “if a Canadian has their constitutional rights violated, no matter where they are in the world, and the Canadian government has the ability to do something about it, then they should.”

In his decision, Brown cited “appalling” prison conditions and the fact that the men had not been charged or brought to trial.

Men and women are kept in prisons separately from children. Brown wrote that one was crammed with 30 other men in a cell built for six, and that he was allegedly tortured. He added that there was “overwhelming evidence” that male prisoners were not receiving adequate food and medical care.

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Life in the detention centers has become more dangerous in recent months after Turkey began bombing Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria.

Greenspan said only one of the men had been in recent contact. “For the other three, we don’t even have evidence of recent life,” he said. “We hope it’s not too late to repatriate them.”

Among the men is Jack Letts, who was born and raised in England and moved to Syria in 2014 at the age of 18. He has been dubbed “Jihadi Jack” in the British media for allegedly joining Islamic State. Kurdish forces confirmed his capture in 2017.

His Canadian father, John Letts, and British mother, Sally Lane, say he is innocent. A British court convicted the pair in June of financing terrorism by sending money to their son to escape Syria.

Lane and John Letts campaigned hard in the United Kingdom and Canada to get their son out of Syria. But in 2019, the British government revoked his citizenship, leaving him with only Canadian nationality.

Canadian officials accused Britain of passing the buck. The Conservatives, fighting a tough election campaign that year, said they would refuse to help Letts. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has largely avoided the question, despite promising to prosecute people involved in terrorist activities.

Shortly after Trudeau’s election in 2015, his Liberal Party overturned legislation passed by the Conservatives that allowed the government to strip citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism-related crimes in Canadian courts.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” he said in his campaign. “And you devalue every Canadian citizenship in this place and in this country when you break it down and condition everybody.”

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But his government has stopped short of repatriating civilians trapped in northeastern Syria.

“We are over the moon at the news that after 9 years we get to see our son again,” Lane wrote in a text message after the verdict. “The judge recognized the Canadian’s terrible course [government] Acts and takes decisions on the basis of human rights in the treatment of its citizens. He said we will hold the government to this as repatriation should be done ‘as soon as possible’.

Some officials and legal experts worry that authorities may not be able to detain returnees and that they may turn others into terrorists or carry out attacks in Canada.

Rights groups argue that Canada’s law enforcement and judiciary are well equipped to monitor returnees and prosecute adults.

For the detainees in the case, much depends on the government’s speed in issuing identification documents and working out travel logistics, Taylor said. Canada could get help from the United States, which has stepped up efforts in recent months to help and persuade other countries to repatriate their nationals, she added.

“We note the Federal Court’s decision,” Grantley Franklin, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement Saturday. “We are currently reviewing the decision and will have more to say in due course. The safety and security of Canadians is our government’s top priority. We are committed to taking a strong approach on this issue. “

Amanda Coletta and Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report.

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