Rights group blasts Ottawa for not helping detained ISIL members, families

Rights group blasts Ottawa for not helping detained ISIL members, families

OTTAWA — The federal government has been accused of violating its international human-rights obligations by refusing to help dozens of Canadian men, women and children detained in squalid camps in Syria because of their suspected links to the Islamic State.

The accusation by New York-based Human Rights Watch is in a scathing report released Monday that calls on Ottawa to immediately begin bringing the detainees home — starting with the 26 Canadian children known to be in the camps.

One of those children is a five-year-old orphan known as Amira who was found on the side of a road last year after her parents and siblings were killed in an airstrike 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 toward Canadians who are arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria,” reads the 92-page report, which included interviews with detainees, families and Canadian and foreign officials.

“The obligations that Canada has breached include taking necessary and reasonable steps to assist nationals abroad facing serious abuses including risks to life, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment.”

It goes on to paint a disturbing picture of conditions in the camps, with food and clean water in short supply while disease and violence are rife. Children were seen drinking worm-infested water while “morality police” hunted women who criticized ISIL.

The Human Rights Watch report is the latest to take aim at the federal government when it comes to Canadians detained in northeastern Syria following the collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly defended his government’s largely hands-off approach on Monday as he noted Canada does not have diplomats on the ground in Syria and emphasized the safety concerns associated with sending officials to the area.

“We have a responsibility as a government to ensure that Canadian citizens, particularly employees, are not put into danger, are not exposed to grave situations,” Trudeau said during his daily news conference outside his Ottawa home.

“Syria is an area where we do not have any diplomats or any Canadians on the ground and therefore we work through intermediaries to try and provide consular assistance as best we can.”

Yet Human Rights Watch noted Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and the United States had all repatriated children, and in some cases their mothers, since October. That included 10 French orphans and 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 known Canadians in the Syrian detainee camps include eight men, 13 women and 26 children.

“Although Canadian authorities do not cite potential political fallout as a reason, in 2017 Trudeau faced a backlash simply for supporting rehabilitation programs for Canadian (ISIL) suspects who return home,” the rights group wrote.

“To be sure, the repatriations are not always popular,” it added, noting an attempt to repatriate a Norwegian mother and child led to the collapse of that country’s government. “But the vast majority of repatriations have taken place with little or no controversy.”

The Canadian detainees in the camps administered by Kurdish-led organization include Mohammed Khalifa, who has been described as an ISIL propagandist, and Jack Letts, a dual British-Canadian national dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by British media.

The British government revoked Letts’s citizenship last year. Neither the Liberal government nor the official Opposition Conservatives have expressed enthusiasm for returning him to Canada despite repeated pleas from his family.

Human Rights Watch argued for repatriation as the best — and potentially 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 has been charged with any crime,” it added. “Nor have the Canadians been brought before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention, making their continuing captivity arbitrary and unlawful.”

At the same time, the group raised the question of whether Canadian authorities are withholding or limiting consular assistance from those in the camps because of their suspected links to ISIL, which it says would also violate international law.

Trudeau repeatedly sidestepped questions Monday about whether the government’s reluctance to intervene is because the Canadians in the camps were linked to ISIL, but did at one point note the potential for investigations and prosecution.

“We recognize that we need to try and help all Canadians,” he said, before adding: ”It is more complicated when we talk about the fact that a number of these people could face charges when they return to Canada, for their activities linked to terrorism.”

An annual federal report on extremism last year said some 190 people with connections to Canada are suspected of terrorist activity abroad and, in addition, approximately 60 had returned.

A small number of the 60 returnees had come back from Turkey, Iraq or Syria but many who remain abroad were said to lack valid travel documents, find themselves on a no-fly list or fear being arrested on Canadian soil.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 29, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owner found

Father and son found miniature horse while out for a walk at JJ Collett

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

Paula Law took the oath of office on Oct. 19 with Lacombe County Manager Tim Timmons. Photo courtesy Lacombe County.
Lacombe County re-elects Paula Law as Reeve

This will be Law’s eighth term as Reeve and tenth year on the county council

Rieley Kay owns both Moe’s Pizza and Cilantro and Chive which are businesses located in downtown Lacombe. (Alannah Page/Lacombe Express)
City of Lacombe announces updated plans for downtown redevelopment

The plan would see $1.7 million spent on the downtown over the next 10 years

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner, left to right, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen arrive to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No-confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP

From l-r., first lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden on stage at the conclusion of the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Trump, Biden fight over the raging virus, climate and race

Republican president declared the virus, which killed more than 1,000 Americans on Thursday alone, will “go away.”

Most Read