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Two Canadian women arrested after release from Syria detention camp


Two Canadian women have been arrested after arriving in Canada following their repatriation from a detention camp in Syria.

The RCMP said Wednesday that it arrested Oumaima Chouay, 27, at the airport in Montreal. Police said she had been "the subject of an investigation by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) since November 2014."

She appeared in court Wednesday and is facing four terrorism-related offences. The charges against Chouay, which have not been proven in court, include participation in activity of a terrorist group and leaving Canada to do so.

“The maximum penalty for these offences are 10 years in a penitentiary,” Crown prosecutor Marc Cigana said.

Canadian Kimberly Polman was also arrested after arriving in Montreal following her repatriation from the detention camp in Syria, according to her lawyer. Lawrence Greenspon told CTV News in an email that his client was arrested under Section 810 of the Criminal Code, a peace bond, and was en route to Abbotsford, B.C., while in police custody.

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada confirmed that four Canadians – two children and two women – were repatriated from northeast Syria.

"Canada thanks the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria for its co-operation and recognizes its efforts in providing care for the detained individuals under an extremely difficult security situation and adverse circumstances," the statement said. "The safety and security of Canadians, both at home and abroad, is a top priority of the Government of Canada. Canada conducted the operation on that basis and ensured the health and well-being of the 4 Canadians."

Global Affairs also thanked the United States for its assistance and said it cannot provide any details of the repatriation due to privacy and security concerns.

Polman was arrested by Kurdish fighters in Syria for her alleged association to ISIS in 2019, and had been detained there until her release. The camp is currently home to more than 2,600 internally displaced persons (IDPs) which allegedly include the wives, widows and families of ISIS members.

Polman has insisted she was lured to Syria in 2015 by her husband, an ISIS member whom she met online. In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch described Polman as a U.S.-Canadian dual citizen who converted to Islam as an adult and mostly lived in Canada before travelling to Syria to be an ISIS nurse.

Until her release, Polman was one of nearly 50 Canadians believed to be held in Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, more than half of those Canadians are children, many under the age of seven.

In an interview earlier in 2022, Polman described dire camp conditions and her deteriorating health.

"Mentally, I’ve gone downhill, especially the last year," Polman told CTV National News at the time. "I attempted to take my life several times and I can see serious signs of depression in some of the other Canadian women as well."

Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser maintained that repatriated Canadians who supported terrorist groups abroad should face criminal charges, regardless of their circumstances around their actions, detainment or repatriation.

"Fundamentally, travelling for the purpose of supporting terrorism is a crime in Canada, and anyone who travelled for the purpose of supporting terrorism should face criminal charges," Trudeau said. "I'm not going to speak directly to any given situation because it's in the hands of the police and perhaps eventually the courts, but it is important that we make sure that people know, you can not get away with supporting terrorism in this country, regardless of the circumstances."

U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who helped free a Canadian girl stuck in a Syrian camp, told CTV National News that he tried to get Polman out months ago, but says he was blocked by Ottawa.

“I was in a position to bring her out,” he said. “But that effort was obstructed by the Canadian government.”

Canada has brought only a handful of its citizens stranded in Syria home and dozens still remain, including children.

Fraser said Wednesday that the federal government is monitoring the wellbeing of Canadians in foreign detention camps and is aware children are "involved in these kinds of circumstances," as well.

“I think what people need to understand is that we rely on our law enforcement partners to ensure that anybody who's been travelling to take part in terrorist behaviour, to be part of a group, has committed a crime, whether they're abroad or in Canada, and they’ll be treated as such," Fraser said.

While European countries such as Germany, Denmark and France have repatriated their citizens in ISIS detention camps with the help of local Kurdish officials, Canada previously appeared hesitant to organize releases for adult citizens.

Global Affairs Canada did adopt a policy framework in January 2021 that may have allowed Polman – who a Doctors Without Borders examination found was suffering from conditions such as hepatitis – to qualify for "extraordinary assistance" and repatriation due to an "imminent, life-threatening medical condition, with no prospect of receiving medical treatment" in Syria. However, Human Rights Watch has accused the federal government of blocking subsequent attempts to bring Polman back to Canada.

In September 2021, Greenspon sued the federal government on behalf of 11 families in an effort to bring 26 Canadians home from Syria: 14 children, four men and eight women, including Polman.

"They are living in terrible, terrible conditions and we are going to federal court to try and require Global Affairs Canada to make an official request for their repatriation," Greenspon told CTV National News on Tuesday. "All that [Kurdish officials in Syria] require is an official request by Canada in order to make that happen."

Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Wednesday, Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino would not say whether the federal government and the RCMP will work to repatriate other Canadians currently detained in camps in northeastern Syria. In cases where a Canadian detainee is suspected of committing a crime, such as supporting or engaging in terrorism, he said the RCMP decide if, and when, to lay changes.

"There are principles that we do take a look at around that issue, so we take a look at the nature of the circumstances of whether or not there was any criminal conduct," Mendicino said. "But again, these are not decisions or choices that are made by elected members of government. We reserve those decisions for police, and for good reasons."

Mendicino would not say whether the government would decide to repatriate Canadian detainees without a warrant for their arrest by the RCMP.

With files from CTV National News Vancouver Bureau Chief Melanie Nagy, CTV National News Parliamentary Bureau Reporter Annie Bergeron-Oliver and CTV National News Chief International Correspondent Paul Workman Top Stories

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