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Court orders Canada to repatriate suspected ISIS affiliates held in Syria


Canada’s government must work to bring back four Canadian men detained in Syria, a judge has ruled, a victory for families who say Canada violated their relatives’ rights by leaving them there in squalid prisons and camps for years .

Judge Henry Brown of the Ottawa Federal Court on Friday ordered the Canadian government to provide the men with emergency travel documents and to request the Kurdish authorities – which oversee the detention centers – to repatriate them.

The men are among the tens of thousands of foreigners detained by Kurdish authorities for alleged links to the Islamic State. They continue to languish in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria more than three years after US-backed Kurdish forces declared military victory over the extremist group. The prisons and camps where alleged former Islamic State fighters, their wives and children have been held are overcrowded, unsanitary, and plagued by violence and disease. Human rights groups say conditions are life-threatening.

Kurdish authorities and detainees’ relatives have pleaded with governments to take back their citizens. Citing security concerns, many countries have dragged their feet — or, in some cases, revoked detainees’ citizenship.

According to Letta Tayler, deputy director of the crisis and conflict division of Human Rights Watch, 36 countries have repatriated at least some of their nationals from northeastern Syria since 2019. Canada brought home its first returnee in October 2020 – a 5-year-old orphan. Ottawa has since repatriated at least five more, but more than 40 Canadian nationals remain trapped in Syria.

Courts in Germany and the Netherlands have ordered governments to repatriate women and children. But Friday’s Canadian ruling is “potentially groundbreaking,” Tayler said.

“This is the first court case I know of where a court has ruled — and firmly — in favor of male repatriations,” she said. “This is a major crack in the wall of resistance from countries that prefer to outsource responsibility for their nationals to a non-state actor in a war zone.”

In the case, relatives of 23 detained Canadians argued that the government’s refusal to facilitate the return of their relatives violated the Canadian Constitution.

The court order comes after Canadian authorities reached a deal on Thursday to repatriate six women and 13 children who were part of the case, said Lawrence Greenspon, a lawyer representing the families. The government had previously sent letters to the women informing them that they and their children may be eligible for assistance due to deteriorating conditions in Al-Hol and Roj, the open-air camps where women and children are being held.

Syrian detention camp rocked by dozens of murders attributed to women of Islamic State

The identities of most of the detainees and their relatives have been kept secret due to the sensitivity of the case. Greenspon said the family members he represents are “overjoyed” with the agreement and ruling.

The court’s verdict “reaffirms the principle that if a Canadian’s constitutional rights are violated, no matter where they are in the world, and the Canadian government has the ability to do something about it, they should do so”, said Greenspon.

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

The men are held in prisons separate from the women and children. One appears to have been crammed with as many as 30 other men in a cell built for six and claimed he had been tortured, Brown wrote. There is “overwhelming evidence” that the male prisoners lack food and medical care, he added.

Life in the detention centers has become more dangerous in recent months after Turkey launched a bombing campaign on Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria.

Greenspon said only one of the men has been in contact recently. “As for the other three, we don’t even have evidence of life that’s recent,” 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 traveled to Syria in 2014 at the age of 18. 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 both in June of financing terrorism by sending money to their son to help him escape Syria.

Lane and John Letts have launched a highly publicized campaign in the UK 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 deflecting responsibility. Conservatives, who had a tough election campaign that year, said they would refuse to help Letts. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau largely evaded the question, though he pledged to prosecute people who participated in terrorist activities.

Shortly after Trudeau was elected in 2015, his Liberal party rescinded a law passed by conservatives that allowed the government to strip the citizenship of dual nationals convicted in Canadian courts of terrorism-related crimes.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” he had said during his campaign. “And you devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country if you tear it down and make it conditional for everyone.”

But his government has stopped repatriating its citizens trapped in northeastern Syria.

“We are over the moon with this news, which means we will finally see our son again after 9 long years,” Lane wrote in a text following the ruling. “The judge recognized the horrible way the Canadian [government] acted on the treatment of its citizens and made the decision on human rights grounds. He has said repatriation should be done ‘as soon as possible’ so we will hold the government to this.”

Some officials and legal experts fear that authorities will fail to detain returnees and that they may radicalize others or carry out attacks in Canada.

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

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

“We take note of the Federal Court’s decision,” Grantly Franklin, 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 remain committed to a robust approach to this issue.”

Amanda Coletta and Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report.

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