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Canada must bring home its Islamic State suspects and relatives from Syria, urges HRW

Report finds Canada has not repatriated any of an estimated 47 of its nationals held in overcrowded and filthy camps
Jack Letts is currently being held alongside suspected IS members by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria [Provided]

Canada is failing to take adequate steps to assist and repatriate dozens of Canadians unlawfully detained in dire conditions over alleged Islamic State (IS) links in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Monday.

The 92-page report says that Canada has not brought home any of the estimated 47 Canadians - eight men, 13 women and 26 children - detained for more than a year in "overcrowded, filthy, and life-threatening conditions". 

The report, entitled "Bring Me Back to Canada", said most of the children are under the age of six, including a five-year-old orphan.

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"Despite [Canada Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau's rights-friendly image, Canada has not repatriated even one - not even Amira, a war-shocked, five-year-old orphan," Letta Tayler, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW, told MEE. 

The US-based organisation points out that since March, Canada has repatriated 40,000 other citizens from 100 countries in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including 29 from Syria.

"If Canada can bring home tens of thousands of citizens from around the world in a matter of weeks, surely it can find a way to repatriate fewer than 50 others trapped in horrific conditions in northeast Syria," said Tayler. 

"The lives of Canadians are on the line, and the time to bring them home is now."

'We have had no proof of life'

Sally Lane, the mother of prisoner Jack Letts - a Muslim convert from Oxford who travelled to IS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq aged 18 in 2014 - appealed to the Canadian government on Monday to "lift a finger" and help secure his release.

Letts is currently being held alongside suspected IS members by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. 

Like many other British dual nationals in Syria, he has been stripped of his British citizenship because his family members are also Canadian nationals.

"Every single second of every single day we have to imagine the torment he is going through while knowing that his government is refusing to lift a finger to help him," Lane said during a HRW news conference on Monday.

"It is incomprehensible to us as parents that the Canadian government is allowing an innocent young man to remain in prison for three years without a single charge being laid against him," she said.

"We believe our son is innocent and that he deserves to tell his own story."

Earlier this year, MEE reported on how British police gathered intelligence on Letts through a liaison officer and a counter-extremism organisation who his parents understood to be supporting them in their efforts to persuade him to leave Syria through the UK government's Prevent programme.

Lane and her husband, John Letts, were subsequently convicted on a charge of funding terrorism for sending a payment of £233 to a Syrian man in Lebanon at their son's request.

They were cleared of two further charges after it was revealed that the police had given them permission - subsequently retracted and replaced with ambiguous advice - to send money.

In February, Letts' parents told MEE that they had not heard from their son since receiving a letter via the International Red Cross last August.

"We have had no proof of life since October," said Letts. "We are waiting for either bad news or a Red Cross letter."

'Unlawful discrimination'

HRW said Canada appeared to be withholding effective consular assistance to the detainees based on their suspected links to IS, which it said could amount to "unlawful discrimination".

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The Canadians are frequently ill and most are traumatised, family members and detainees told HRW. 

One said IS captors sexually assaulted her and that she is on a “kill list” for not supporting the group. 

Another said he was tortured in a prison run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a United States-backed, anti-IS armed force guarding the foreign detainees. 

None of the Canadians have been charged with any crime, or even brought before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention, the organisation said.

Appeal from Kurdish-led authorities

The Canadians are among an estimated nearly 14,000 non-Iraqi foreigners from more than 60 countries held in northeast Syria over suspected IS links.

The Kurdish-led authorities holding the detainees have urged countries to repatriate their nationals, saying they lack the capacity to properly guard and manage them. Hundreds have escaped.

"The local Kurdish-led authorities holding these Canadians want Canada to take its citizens home," Farida Deif, HRW's Canada director, said during the news conference on Monday.

"These authorities say that they're willing to work through intermediaries if Canadian officials can't get to northeast Syria," she said. "The US military has also offered to assist in repatriating foreign ISIS suspects and family members.

"In short, the problem here is not logistics, it is fundamentally one of political will."

In a letter to HRW, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Canada’s efforts to help the detainees are hampered because it has no consulate in Syria, and it deems northeast Syria too dangerous for government officials to enter.

However, at least 20 other countries, including Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the US, have repatriated some or many of their nationals from these same camps and prisons.

"Abandoning citizens to indefinite, unlawful detention in filthy, overcrowded and dangerous camps and prisons does not make Canada safer," Tayler said. 

"Instead, it can fuel despair and violent radicalisation, and punishes innocent children for any crimes of their parents."

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