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Belgium not obliged to repatriate Islamic State supporters and their children, court rules

Brussels appeals court's decision highlights ongoing debate over repatriation of foreign IS members
Human rights groups fear as many as 160 Belgian minors are trapped in Syrian conflict zone (AFP)

An appeals court in Belgium has overturned a ruling that would have forced the country to repatriate citizens who joined the Islamic State (IS) group, as well as their children, in the latest example of the global debate over how to deal with foreign IS members.

The Brussels Court of Appeal said in its ruling on Wednesday that the Belgian state was not forced "to undertake any act of repatriation".

The case centres around two Belgian women who joined IS in Syria and their six children.

A Belgian judge ruled last year that the government had to bring back Tatiana Wielandt, 26, Bouchra Abouallal, 25, and their children. At the time, they were being held at al-Hol camp in a Kurdish-majority area of Syria.

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Wielandt and Abouallal were convicted in absentia in Belgium for being members of the militant group.

The case highlights how Belgium and other countries, including Britain, France and the United States, are struggling to put policies in place to deal with citizens who are asking to come home after having joined IS in Syria or Iraq.

The issue has become more pressing in recent weeks after the US announced plans to pull its troops out of Syria.

Earlier this month, the British government revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, who left the country at the age of 15 to join IS in Syria.

The British government has argued that Begum can seek Bangladeshi citizenship, while her family and lawyer say the UK's decision has rendered her stateless. Bangladesh has also since refused to give her citizenship.

US President Donald Trump's administration recently said it would not allow a US-born woman, Hoda Muthana, to return to the country from Syria, where she had gone in 2014 to join IS.

Washington argued that Muthana was never a US citizen because she was born when her father held a diplomatic post. That claim was vehemently denied by her lawyer and family, however, and they have since filed a lawsuit against the US government's decision to block her return.

'International justice'

For its part, the Belgian justice ministry previously said it would repatriate all children younger than 10 years old from Iraq and Syria.

AFP reported that all six children affected by the Brussels appeals court's ruling on Wednesday are under six. Human rights groups say as many as 160 Belgian minors may be trapped in the Syrian conflict zone, the news agency also reported.

Last week, Belgium's national security council, headed by Prime Minister Charles Michel, said it was in favour of "a type of international justice" to judge detained foreign IS members for their crimes.

That could be led by the Iraqi government or by Kurdish-led forces in Syria, said a spokesman for the council, as reported by Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

"[Belgium's] preference is for a type of international justice in consultation with other countries," the spokesman said.