Delegation to Syrian prison camps calls on Ottawa to swiftly help Canadian detainees

OTTAWA — A civil society delegation that visited Syrian prison camps is calling on Ottawa to give immediate consular assistance to Canadian detainees and to swiftly repatriate all citizens wishing to return to Canada.

The four-person delegation says it held meetings with officials and saw several Canadian men, women and children, as well as non-Canadian mothers of Canadian children.

The detained Canadians are among the many foreign nationals in ramshackle centres run by Kurdish forces that reclaimed the war-ravaged region from militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Delegation members, including Sen. Kim Pate, also want Canada to issue temporary residence permits to ensure that non-Canadian mothers and siblings of Canadian children can travel to Canada.

The members say Canada is complicit in a serious international human-rights failure through a policy of essentially warehousing thousands of foreign nationals, more than half of them children.

”We are extremely concerned by what we saw, what we experienced and what we heard on the ground while we were there," Pate told a news conference Thursday. "Nothing in my working life prepared me for the experience I would have over the last week."

Asked about the delegation’s urgent calls for action, Global Affairs Canada pointed to a 2021 policy framework for deciding whether to provide extraordinary assistance to Canadians in northeastern Syria.

The department said Canadian consular officials remain actively engaged with Kurdish authorities, international organizations operating in the region and the recently returned delegation for information and assistance to Canadian citizens.

The humanitarian mission also included Alex Neve, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa, retired Canadian diplomat Scott Heatherington and Hadayt Nazami, an immigration and human rights lawyer.

The delegation said it interviewed one Canadian woman and three non-Canadian women, who have 13 children among them, being held in the al-Roj camp.

The women have been told by the Canadian government they will not be allowed to travel to Canada, but that their children can go without them, the delegation said in a summary of its visit.

"They shared with the delegation a range of challenges they face in the camp, including schooling for their children, and a number of serious security and health concerns."

The delegation also met with two Canadian men held in Syria, Jack Letts and Muhammad Ali, saying both want consular assistance and to be able to return to Canada.

Both have significant health issues and have had no consular visit or direct support from Canadian officials during five years in detention, the delegation said.

"They made it clear that they are prepared and would welcome an opportunity to respond to any accusations that they have committed terrorism-related acts or face any other criminal charges, through fair proceedings in the Canadian legal system," the visit summary said.

It added that both men have been interrogated or interviewed on multiple occasions by U.S. intelligence officers or police, who they believe were primarily from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "One of the men has also been interviewed by intelligence officials from two other countries. To their knowledge neither man has ever been interviewed by Canadian intelligence officials or police."

Delegation members had hoped to see seven other Canadian men believed to be in custody in Syria, but they were not granted access.

"Many Canadians may be tempted to conclude that these individuals are the authors of their own misfortune," Heatherington said. "But what was clear to us is there is no common storyline as to how or why these individuals ended up in northeast Syria at the time that the region was in the cruel grip of (ISIL) control."

The delegation said authorities in the region want to ensure that detained Syrians and foreign nationals are dealt with through a justice system that meets international standards. They are preparing to begin trials of foreign nationals, a caseload of between 4,000 and 5,000 prisoners, with a complement of about 30 terrorism court judges, the summary said.

"It's almost impossible to imagine that this is remotely viable in a way that doesn't begin to stretch out for decades," Neve, a former secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said at the news conference.

Letts's mother Sally Lane said she was "overjoyed" to hear news of her son after years of silence.

Letts, 27, became a devoted Muslim as a teenager, went on holiday to Jordan, then studied in Kuwait before winding up in Syria. His family says he was captured by Kurdish forces while trying to escape the country with a group of refugees in 2017.

Lane, who has long been pressing Ottawa to help repatriate her son, said she cannot thank the delegation enough for what it achieved.

"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 told The Canadian Press.

"Jack is barely holding on. He and the other Canadian nationals have had to endure what no human being should ever have to endure."

Lane said she was told her son had a blunt question for the Canadian delegation. "He asked them to be frank with him and to tell him if he will still be there in 10 years' time."

The Canadian government must drop its "cruel campaign against families who simply want to end this nightmare and bring our loved ones home," Lane said. "We've all suffered enough."

Ottawa has helped bring home some women and children from Syria but it has shown no interest in repatriating Canadian men.

Lawyers for Letts and three other Canadian men held in Syria are telling the Supreme Court of Canada that Ottawa is "picking and choosing which Canadians to help out of a hellish situation, when it knows that the cruel conditions will continue indefinitely for anyone left behind."

In an application to the top court, counsel for the men say their foreign jailers will release them if Canada makes the request and facilitates their repatriation, as it has done for other citizens.

The lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to hear a challenge of a Federal Court of Appeal ruling, handed down in May, that said the federal government is not obligated under the law to repatriate the men.

The top court will decide in coming weeks whether to hear the case.

In a recent statement, Lane said her family's only hope to see Jack again "is for the Supreme Court to acknowledge that our son has the right to life and the right to return to his country of citizenship."

"Anything less is inhumane and against all Canadian values."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press