The government tabled a report in Parliament on Tuesday outlining the difficulties involved in collecting enough evidence to prosecute Canadians who have taken part in terrorism abroad.
In its response to an Opposition motion that called for a plan to bring ISIS members to justice, the government said that while putting them on trial was a priority, it was also challenging.
“Investigating, arresting, charging and prosecuting any Canadian involved in terrorism or violent extremism is the government’s main objective and priority,” the six-page report said.
“However, there are often challenges associated with the collection of evidence and the use of intelligence and sensitive information as courtroom evidence, particularly when alleged criminal offences took place on a battlefield abroad.”
“This is an issue that we face in common with all our democratic allies.”
Both the Liberals and NDP supported a Conservative motion on Oct. 23 that gave the government 45 days to table “a plan to immediately bring to justice anyone who has fought as an ISIS terrorist or participated in any terrorist activity.”
The motion was a response to Global News reports that a number of Canadians who had been part of ISIS had been captured by U.S.-backed forces in Syria and wanted to return to Canada — although none faced charges here.
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But rather than proposing changes, the government response described what it was already doing.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who introduced the motion, said she was disappointed with the report, which she said was rife with “platitudes and excuses” for non-action.
She said almost a full page of the report was devoted to explaining why terrorists could not be prosecuted for their crimes.
“And that’s unacceptable,” she said.
“Today, the Prime Minister had the opportunity to follow through on his word and present a real plan to immediately bring ISIS terrorists to justice. Instead, he’s waving the white flag,” Rempel and public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said in a statement.
They called for a focus on prosecutions over reintegration programs, greater use of terrorism peace bonds to restrict the movements of known terrorists and “surveillance of returning ISIS terrorists.”
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Roughly half the estimated 190 Canadians who have left to join terrorist groups went to the Syria-Iraq-Turkey region. The report acknowledged that only four of those who returned have been charged.
Two were convicted. Two others, Pamir Hakimzadah and Rehab Dughmosh, are awaiting trial.
While Canadian terrorism law allows for the prosecution of crimes committed outside the country’s borders, “this exceptional extra-territorial jurisdiction does not change the fact that any prosecution undertaken in a Canadian courtroom must meet Canadian constitutional and legal standards,” said the report, tabled by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
“In cases where evidence is still being collected or assessed or where charges cannot ultimately be laid, all other options are pursued,” the report added.
That includes surveillance, interviews, investigations, gathering and sharing intelligence, threat assessments, no-fly lists, refusal and revocation of passports, threat reduction measures and peace bonds, it said.
“The suite of measures to be used in respect of any particular individual or situation is determined in a professional manner by Canada’s expert police, security and intelligence agencies.”
The report also repeated Goodale’s view that, because it did not participate in their detention, Canada is under no legal obligation to facilitate the return of the Canadians captured in Syria.
But a 2017 Briefing Note for Goodale took the opposite view, saying that Canadians had the constitutional “right to enter” the country. “Therefore, even if a Canadian engaged in terrorist activity abroad, the government of Canada must facilitate their return to Canada,” it said.
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Officials do not expect “a significant influx” of returning ISIS fighters, according to the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, released by the government Tuesday afternoon.
“Many of these individuals have been killed or captured in Syria and Iraq, and many will remain abroad due to their ongoing commitment to the cause,” it said, adding “only a few” want to come back.
Nonetheless, it said the threat posed by those it calls Canadian Extremist Travellers was “significant and presents difficult challenges to both Canada and its allies.”
Attackers inspired by “violent Sunni Islamist ideology” remain Canada’s top terrorist threat, the threat report said. Other threats include right-wing extremism, “Shia Islamist” extremists such as Hezbollah and Sikh extremists, it said.