The federal government has been charged with violating its international human rights obligations by refusing to assist dozens of Canadian men, women and children detained in squalid camps in Syria because of their alleged ties to The Islamic State. The New York-based Human Rights Watch charge is contained in a scathing report released Monday that calls on Ottawa to immediately start bringing the detainees home – starting with the 26 Canadian children known to be in the camps.
One of these children is a five-year-old orphan known as Amira who was found by the side of a road last year after his parents and siblings were killed in an air strike and whose case has been raised with the federal Liberal government in the past.
“The Government of Canada is flouting its international human rights obligations to Canadians who are arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria,” reads the 92-page report, which includes interviews with detainees, families and Canadian and foreign officials.
“Obligations that Canada has breached include taking necessary and reasonable measures to assist foreign nationals to cope with serious abuse, including risk to their lives, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. ”
He then painted a disturbing picture of the situation in the camps, with insufficient food and drinking water as illness and violence raged. Children have been seen drinking worm-infested water while “morality police” chased women who criticized ISIL.
The Human Rights Watch report is the latest to target the federal government over Canadians detained in northeast Syria after the collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Ottawa has previously cited the lack of Canadian diplomats in Syria and the security concerns of sending officials to the camps where an estimated 100,000 suspected ISIL members and their families are detained as reasons for not doing more.
However, Human Rights Watch noted that Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, and the United States have all repatriated children, and in some cases their mothers, since October. This included 10 orphans and French children in June.
The federal government also recently helped 40,000 Canadians return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization said, including 29 from Syria. The 47 Canadians known to be in Syrian detainee camps include eight men, 13 women and 26 children.
“Although Canadian authorities do not cite the potential political fallout as a reason, in 2017 (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau faced a brutal reaction simply because he supported Rehabilitation Programs for Canadian Suspects (ISIL) who are going home, “the rights group wrote.
“Admittedly, repatriations are not always popular,” he added, noting that an attempt to repatriate a Norwegian mother and child had led to the collapse of the country’s government. “But the vast majority of the repatriations took place with little or no controversy. ”
Canadian detainees in camps administered by a Kurdish-led organization include Mohammed Khalifa, who has been described as an ISIS propagandist, and Jack Letts, a double Canadian-British national dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the British media.
Last year, the British government revoked Letts’s citizenship. Neither the Liberal government nor the official opposition Conservatives have expressed their enthusiasm for sending him back to Canada despite repeated calls from his family.
Yet Human Rights Watch has argued for repatriation as the best – and potentially the only – way to hold Canadian ISIL members to account, as there is no process in Syria to investigate and prosecute those suspected of crimes. .
“None of the Canadians have been charged with any crime,” he added. “Nor have Canadians been brought before a judge to review the lawfulness and necessity of their detention, which makes their continued captivity arbitrary and illegal. ”
At the same time, the group raised the question of whether Canadian authorities refuse or limit consular assistance to people living in camps because of their alleged ties to ISIL, which it claims would also violate the law. international law.
While Trudeau expressed confidence last year in the RCMP to investigate Canadians who have moved to fight alongside extremists in Iraq and Syria, he said it was difficult to present the information gathered to the foreigner in court as proof of crimes.
The government is ensuring that Canadian agencies have the resources and opportunities to collaborate with foreign allies in such cases, he added.
An annual federal extremism report last year indicated that 190 people with ties to Canada were suspected of terrorist activities abroad and that approximately 60 had returned.
A small number of the 60 returnees had returned from Turkey, Iraq or Syria, but many of those who remain abroad would not have valid travel documents, would be on a no-fly list or feared d ” be arrested on Canadian soil.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 29, 2020.