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Canada to repatriate 6 women, 13 children detained in Syria: sources

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The Canadian government has agreed to bring home six Canadian women and 13 children currently detained in prison camps in northeast Syria, according to Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer representing them in a federal court case.

Most of the Canadians have been detained in camps operated by Kurdish authorities since the fall of the Islamic State in 2019. Greenspon had argued that their detention is a breach of their constitutional rights.

Greenspon says the repatriation agreement does not include four men who are also applicants.

“This is terrific news for the families and most importantly for the women and children who are detained,” he said.

Greenspon says he received the signed confidential agreement with Global Affairs Canada on Thursday morning. The agreement calls for the return of the Canadians within a “mutually agreed upon timeframe,” but Greenspon did not provide further details.

Alexandra Bain, founder of Families Against Violent Extremists, is in regular contact with the six women who the government has committed to bringing home.

She told CTV News that some of the women were married in Canada before traveling to Syria. Others were married during Syria’s civil war. They all have children.

“I don’t think they’re dangerous. I think they are broken people,” said Bain. “They just want the chance to take care of their children and rebuild their lives.”

The conditions that these Canadians had to live with in the prison camps were “horrific” according to Leah West, an assistant professor at the Norman Patterson School for International Affairs at Carleton University, who traveled to Syria in 2019.

“At that time, these children and these women had only been in detention for less than a year,” she told CTV News Channel’s Power Play with Vassy Kapelos on Thursday. “And it was still horrific at the time. Makeshift living conditions, tents that were not weatherproofed for all seasons. Children playing with water bottles, essentially small children literally everywhere under foot.”

While she was there, West witnessed a riot break out at the camp.

“A place that I've walked and seen a number of children playing all of a sudden became a firing line,” she said. “So it was really atrocious, horrendous conditions that were unsuitable for any child.”

MALE DETAINEES EXCLUDED FROM REPATRIATION DEAL

In December, Greenspon and fellow lawyer Barbara Jackman argued in federal court that allowing Canadians to languish in these camps and prisons was a violation of their constitutional right to “life, liberty and security of person” under Section 7 of the Charter.

Meanwhile federal lawyers have argued Canada does not have a duty to repatriate because it does not have a diplomatic presence in Syria. The most recent report by Human Rights Watch published last December, estimates that more than 40,000 foreigners, mostly children remain in the camps. They are subjected to Turkish artillery strikes, disease, and violent attacks by Islamic extremists..

Justice Henry Brown is currently weighing the evidence following four days of hearings, including one in-camera session last Friday, which included top secret information from the Canadian Forces.

Jackman represents Jack Letts, one of four men who are part of the federal court case. She says government lawyers haven’t presented any evidence as to why the men should be excluded from repatriation.

“(The government) didn’t come to court and say that the men are dangerous and the women aren’t. They’re engaging in gender discrimination,” said Jackman.

Other than the 19 women and children covered by this agreement, there may be two dozen more Canadians in camps and prisons in Syria. Most are children, but there are at least four men among the detainees. The government suspects the detainees may have ties to ISIS, but have not presented any evidence. Greenspon says they should all be brought back to Canada.

“The Prime Minister has famously said a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian. These are Canadian men, women and children that none of them have been charged with any offenses. They're being unlawfully detained in detention camps and prisons for years. And our position always was that it's the responsibility of the Canadian government to bring them home.”

There have been calls to repatriate Canadian families living in these prison camps in Syria for years, but alleged ties to ISIS have caused hesitation on the part of the government.

The repatriation of these six women and 13 children is possible because of a policy instituted in 2021, West said.

“Under that policy, if there was a fundamental change in circumstances, the government would have to reconsider the starting point, which was no repatriations,” she explained. “We got word in December, that that had happened for these women and children. And under that policy, there are six factors that the government would then consider to make its ultimate determination on whether or not to extend what they call extraordinary consular assistance.”

Factors were “weighed in favour of repatriation” for these six women and 13 children in part because of the conditions they were facing in Syria and in part because the few repatriations that have occurred since 2021 have been carried out without any security incidents, West said.

Since 2021, three other Canadian women and four children have been repatriated. The women have either been charged with criminal offences or put on a peace bond and monitored by authorities since their return.

“We've seen repeatedly successful repatriations, without any security incidents to consular staff and security officials who are repatriating these individuals — not just to Canada, but we've also seen a number of other countries who have long-resisted repatriation, the United Kingdom and Australia, they have recently also repatriated their citizens,” she said.

She noted that the international community, including the Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have been leaning on Canada to “start to be part of the solution when it comes to ISIS detainees, rather than continuing to contribute to the problem.”

If Canadians detained in Syria did commit crimes, that’s not a reason to leave them languishing in these prison camps, West said.

She believes that they may face prosecution for certain offences, adding that there is “some evidence” that they did travel “to participate with ISIS, and that itself is a crime.”

But it’s “not justice” to avoid the issue by not bringing them home.

“If our belief is that they went over to engage in acts of terrorism on behalf of ISIS, it is our responsibility, and we've actually committed to that in a variety of international documents, to try them for their crimes, to put them on trial and hold them accountable for what they did,” she said.

“But just detaining them indefinitely without putting them on trial doesn't give any justice to the victims. The only way to actually do that properly is to repatriate them and to prosecute them here in Canada.” 

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