Canadian delegation to Syria calls on Ottawa to offer full consular support to detainees

Canadian delegation to Syria calls on Ottawa to offer full consular support to detainees
Canadian delegation to Syria calls on Ottawa to offer full consular support to detainees

اخبارالعرب 24-كندا:الخميس 31 أغسطس 2023 07:16 مساءً A civil society delegation that returned from northeastern Syria earlier this week says the federal government needs to immediately start providing full consular support to all Canadian citizens detained in the area.

The four-person delegation spent five days in the region and met with Canadian men, women and children who are being held in detention camps and prisons for suspected ISIS members and their families.

The federal government has said in the past that its ability to extend consular assistance to the detained Canadians is "extremely limited" due to security concerns.

But former Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve, who took part in the delegation, said the delegates' visit to Syria proved it's possible to gain access to Canadian detainees safely. He said it would be "beyond unacceptable" for Ottawa to continue to deny them consular access.

"I would be shocked and dismayed if that continues to be the Canadian government's response … to simply continue with lines around, 'Well it's too dangerous to go there,' or, 'It's too difficult to go there,'" Neve said. "None of that holds water anymore."

Other countries, including the U.S. and Germany, have been able to provide consular assistance to their citizens in the region.

Canada's civil society delegation, which included Neve, Sen. Kim Pate and former Canadian diplomat Scott Heatherington, said Canada needs to follow the lead of its allies.

Make shift shelters dot the horizon as a military truck drives by in the foreground.
Kurdish forces patrol al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group in Hasakeh province, Syria, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Baderkhan Ahmad/The Associated Press)

Pate admitted there were security concerns while they were in the region. She said she was confident that all possible steps were taken to mitigate risks.

"We were able to gain access that the Canadian government told us was probably not possible," she said. "Clearly, we showed that's not true."

The group met with two Canadian men held in Syria — including Jack Letts, who admitted in a 2019 interview to joining ISIS in Syria — and reported that both want consular assistance and to be able to return to Canada. They said both men claimed to have been questioned by the FBI but have never spoken to a Canadian security official since being detained.

Heatherington said that as a former diplomat, he was "puzzled" by the fact that the men hadn't received any consular visits from the Canadian government.

The delegation also called on the government to repatriate citizens who wish to return to Canada and provide temporary residence permits to ensure that non-Canadian mothers and siblings of Canadian children can travel to Canada.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that it "engaged" with the delegation for information on the detained Canadians but wouldn't say if the government is committed to following through on the delegates' recommendations. 

The prisons and camps are run by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which has asked that countries like Canada repatriate their detained citizens.

2 people in black burquas walk in the foreground of a tent encampment. A barefoot child is in the background.
Women walk in the al-Hol camp in Syria on May 1, 2021. The camp houses some 60,000 refugees, including families and supporters of the Islamic State group, many of them foreign nationals. (AP)

The delegates said AANES is intent on holding fair trials for the alleged ISIS members it's holding, but the judicial system the administration has set up is extremely overwhelmed.

Neve said thousands of foreign nationals are set to face trial but only 30 judges are available to oversee their cases.

"It's almost impossible to imagine that this is remotely viable in a way that doesn't begin to stretch out for decades," Neve said.

Repatriating Canadian detainees and putting them on trial in Canada would ease the burden on AANES and help stabilize the region, the delegates argued.

The delegates noted that detainees are living in inhumane conditions in the camps and prisons, in part due to overcrowding. 

"Nothing in my working life prepared me for the experience I would have over the last week," said Pate, who has spent nearly four decades working on issues involving Canada's penal system.

Heatherington described the situation as "people being warehoused."

The families of 23 Canadian detainees — four men, six women and 13 children — have brought the federal government to court to push Ottawa to repatriate their family members.

The government agreed to repatriate the women and children but went to court over the case of the four men.

Jack Letts in Syria with a beard and long brown hair looking toward the camera, wearing cargo pants and a camouflaged shirt, pointing his index finger toward the camera.
Jack Letts is one of the four men whose family members have brought the government to court. (Facebook)

At least five of those women have returned to Canada — three in April and two in July — and were taken into police custody upon arrival. They have all been released pending terrorism peace bond applications.

The Federal Court of Appeal ruled in May that the government is under no obligation to repatriate the four men. The lawyers for the family members have asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

Letts is one of the four men whose case has been before the courts. His mother, Sally Lane, said she was "overjoyed" to hear news of her son.

"To know that they managed to see and talk to Jack when he's been incommunicado for so long, and for him to know that there are people who care, is a massive development in our struggle to get him home," she said in a media statement. "He and the other Canadian nationals have had to endure what no human being should ever have to endure."

The delegates said they asked to see nine men being held in the prisons but were only able to see Letts and one other. Neve said both men indicated they would be willing to face a trial in Canada if they were repatriated.

Letts' family says he made his 2019 admission under duress and there is no evidence that he ever fought for ISIS.

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