Kurdish forces holding captured ISIS fighters and families, including more than a dozen Canadians, are considering handing them to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, a group representing the detainees’ families said Tuesday.
At a news conference on Parliament Hill, Alexandra Bain, the director of Families Against Violent Extremism, said there was “now a decision being mulled over by the Kurdish authorities to hand these prisoners over to Assad.”
The group, which said it was helping nine Canadian families repatriate detainees held in northeast Syria, was to meet with Global Affairs Canada officials in the afternoon to discuss a proposal to return them to Canada.
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At least 10 of the Canadian detainees are children, and they face malnourishment and spreading Tuberculosis, Bain said. Some of the children were taken to Syria by their parents and others were born there, she said.
Kurdish authorities want countries to take back their foreign fighters and Bain said if Ottawa would provide travel documents, a British affiliate was prepared to bring them to northern Iraq, where they could fly to Canada.
“Therefore we ask the government of Canada to fulfill its responsibility to these Canadian citizens and work with us to diligently and quickly bring these families home,” said Bain, a professor who works with families whose loved ones have joined extremist groups.
Asked what would happen to them if Canada did not bring them back, Bain said some detainees had been returned to ISIS and there were now concerns the Kurds would transfer them to the custody of the Assad regime.
“It’s a horrifying thought,” said John Letts, a Canadian living in the United Kingdom whose son Jack is among the detainees. “It’s why I’m here and why we need to do something soon because if we don’t, who knows what the options are?”
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A series of Global News reports about the capture of the Canadians affiliated with ISIS has raised questions for the government about what to do with them. At least three Canadian men, three women who had married ISIS foreign fighters and their seven children were being held by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria.
Among them is Mohammad Ali, a former Mississauga resident who joined ISIS in 2014 and told Global News he had served in a sniper unit. He said he was caught while trying to flee to Turkey. He does not yet face any charges in Canada.
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Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said there were no plans to return the detainees to Canada, but his parliamentary secretary Karen McCrimmon said on the weekend Canada would bring them back and put them on trial.
Last week, the Liberals supported an opposition motion tabled by the Conservatives giving the government 45 days to put forward a plan to bring former ISIS members to justice instead of trying to reintegrate them or “paying terrorists with taxpayer dollars.”
Bain said it was better for the government to bring back and investigate Canadians who had been with ISIS than to leave them “wandering around the Middle East.” Asked why the government was reluctant to return them, she said, “I think they’re afraid and I think they’re not sure how to do it and we would really like to help them.”
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Letts, who insisted his son was innocent, said the government’s approach “obviously has something to do with the upcoming election” and that the British had “cracked the whip” about not letting ISIS fighters return to their home countries. “And I think Canada is responding to that,” he said.
He said there had been a “distinct change in tone” from the government beginning in about May, when Canadian officials became more reluctant to assist and said there was nothing they could do because it was too dangerous.
That same month the government was criticized in the House of Commons over a New York Times podcast interview with a Toronto-area man who said he had been an ISIS executioner but had not faced any charges since returning to Canada.
“I’m sure that’s had an effect,” Letts said.