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Court orders government to repatriate 4 Canadian men detained in Syria

People walk in the marketplace at the al-Hol camp that houses some 60,000 refugees, including families and supporters of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, on May 1, 2021. (Baderkhan Ahmad/The Associated Press - image credit)
People walk in the marketplace at the al-Hol camp that houses some 60,000 refugees, including families and supporters of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, on May 1, 2021. (Baderkhan Ahmad/The Associated Press - image credit)

The Federal Court has ordered the government to repatriate four Canadian men currently being held in northeastern Syria.

The Canadians are among a number of foreign nationals in Syrian prisons for suspected ISIS members that are run by the Kurdish forces that reclaimed the war-torn region from the extremist group.

Family members of 23 detained Canadians — four men, six women and 13 children — had asked the court to order the government to arrange for their return. They argued that refusing to do so would violate their charter rights.

The government agreed Thursday to move forward on repatriating the 19 Canadian women and children.

In the written decision, the judge cited the conditions of the prison and the fact that the men haven't been charged and brought to trial.

"The conditions of the … men are even more dire than those of the women and children who Canada has just agreed to repatriate," the decision reads.

"There is no evidence any of them have been tried or convicted, let alone tried in a manner recognized or sanctioned by international law."

The judge also noted that the court was not asked to rule on why the applicants went to the region and that the government didn't provide evidence that they took part in terrorist activities.

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer for most of the applicants, said that if there is any evidence the Canadians took part in terrorist activities, Canada should put them on trial here.

"These are Canadian citizens, they are being unlawfully, arbitrarily detained in either detention camps or in prisons, they haven't been charged with anything," Greenspon told CBC.

"There's no likelihood that they're ever going to be charged with anything over there. So bring them home."

Jack Letts, who has been imprisoned in Syria for more than four years after allegedly joining ISIS, is among the four men.

Letts admitted in a 2019 interview to joining ISIS in Syria. His family says he made that admission under duress and there is no evidence that he ever fought for the group.

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The former British-Canadian dual citizen, who was born and raised in Oxford, U.K., had his British citizenship revoked three years ago, leaving the Canadian government as his only viable means of escaping.

Barbara Jackman, the lawyer representing the Letts family, told CBC on Thursday that it is a violation of the detainees' human rights to hold them without trial.

"This case was based on the human rights that are detained abroad and whether Canada, as a country, is obligated to help them," she said.

Former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski told CBC News Network on Thursday that he doubts any of the adults returning would face justice for any crimes they may have committed.

"The witnesses aren't here, the evidence isn't here," he told host Natasha Fatah. "As a Canadian citizen, I'm outraged that people are going to get away with it."

Gurski said it would also put extra pressure on Canada's intelligence bodies to monitor the individuals that do return.

In a statement Saturday, Global Affairs Canada said the department is reviewing the decision.

"The safety and security of Canadians is our government's top priority. We remain committed to taking a robust approach to this issue."