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Canada: Supreme Court rejects appeal bid by men held in Syrian prisons

Campaigners and families accuse country's top court of abandoning men and other detainees by refusing to hear their case
Lawyers for Jack Letts and three other men accused the Canadian government of "picking and choosing which Canadians to help" (Supplied)

Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed an appeal application in the cases of four men seeking to be repatriated from Kurdish-controlled prisons in northeastern Syria.

The appeal application was launched after an appeal court in May overturned a previous court judgment in January which had ordered the Canadian government to repatriate the men.

No reason was given by the Supreme Court for why it had declined to hear the appeal.

Campaigners and family members accused the court of abandoning the men and other Canadians still detained in Syria.

“We see a disturbing trend of two-tiered citizenship in which your alleged political or religious beliefs determine whether the Canadian government will assist you in times of trouble,” said Matthew Behrens of the campaign group, Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture (Tasc).

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The four men are among tens of thousands of foreign nationals who have been held in detention camps and prisons in northeastern Syria since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Conditions in the prisons and camps have been condemned by human rights organisations, and Canada is among a number of western countries which have faced criticism for their reluctance to repatriate their own citizens.

They include Jack Letts, a British-Canadian man originally from Oxford who travelled to IS-controlled Iraq and Syria in 2014 aged 18 and was detained by Kurdish forces in 2017.

Letts, like many British nationals with dual citizenship who travelled to Syria, has been stripped of his British citizenship.

Sally Lane, Letts’ mother, said on Thursday: “We’re not giving up, but today it is difficult to maintain hope when my son, the other men, and the additional women and children who remain detained have been told their lives do not matter.”

The other three men who brought the case remain anonymous.

After the families of detainees launched legal action, the Canadian government agreed earlier this year to start repatriating women and children being held in the detention camps.

In April, four women and 10 children returned to Canada from the camps.

But in June, the Canadian government was accused of “unyielding cruelty” after a lawyer for women still being held in Syria said they had been told their children could be repatriated but they must remain behind.

In their application to appeal, lawyers for the four men said: “Canada 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.”

The Canadian government has refused to repatriate the Canadian men, citing the security situation on the ground in Syria.

Syria: Canadian delegation meets Jack Letts and other detainees held in camps
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In August, a Canadian civil society delegation was able to meet a number of detainees, including Jack Letts, during a five-day visit to Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria.

Following that trip, members of the delegation urged the Canadian government to repatriate the detainees, and said their visit to the region proved it was safe and possible to do so.

Scott Heatherington, a former senior diplomat who was part of the delegation, said: "Our visit makes it clear that on-the-ground access and attention is possible, including in prisons. We expect to see Canadian consular officials follow suit, with no further delays.”

Ruling in favour of the government in May, the Federal Court of Appeal said the men, as Canadian citizens, did not have a “golden ticket” obliging the government to repatriate them.

Commenting on the Supreme Court's decision, Letta Tayler, associate director and counterterrorism lead at Human Rights Watch, said its inaction sent a dangerous message that the Canadian government could "pick and choose which citizens to protect from risk to life and limb when they are trapped abroad".

Writing on X, Tayler said: "Canada does not need a court ruling to bring these men home. It just needs political will. Canada should repatriate all its nationals still held in NE Syria ASAP, regardless of gender or age. It can monitor or prosecute adult suspects once they're back if appropriate."

The case is the latest legal blow for families seeking the repatriation of foreign nationals held in Syria after an Australian court earlier this month ruled that the Australian government could not be held responsible for the continuing detention in northeast Syria of 20 Australian children and 11 women.

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