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Opposition wants Ottawa to repatriate Canadians taken prisoner in Syria

OTTAWA — The New Democrat Foreign Affairs Critic acknowledges that repatriating Canadians held prisoner in northern Syria is not straightforward, but she maintains that the federal government must do more to bring its citizens in the country.

NDP MP Heather McPherson pointed out that arbitrarily detained Canadians, including many young children, are struggling to survive in harsh conditions. Nothing suggests that their situation will improve, according to her.

Ms. McPherson held a press conference along with several human rights defenders on Thursday to call on Ottawa to take responsibility for its citizens languishing in squalid camps.

Nearly 40 Canadians are among thousands of foreign nationals detained in Syrian camps manned by Kurdish forces, who have taken over the conflict-torn region.

The federal government explained that Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited due to the dangerous situation on the ground.

Several families have therefore turned to the Federal Court, arguing that the government’s refusal to intervene violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Citizenship Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Ms. McPherson said Canadians should not have to go to court to obtain the consular services to which they are entitled.

“Yes, it’s a big challenge, but that’s no reason for the government to do nothing,” argued the MP. A government has no right to let its citizens down and it cannot make decisions based on fear.

“All Canadians held prisoner in northeast Syria must be repatriated. And those who commit crimes should be prosecuted here under our justice system. Other countries have done it, but Canada has yet to demonstrate its political will.”

Green Party MP Elizabeth May also mentioned that she does not understand why Canada is not urgently repatriating all of its citizens.

“How can we turn our backs on these Canadians?” she lamented.

The current situation has allowed Monia Mazigh to draw a parallel between the plight of detainees and what her husband, Maher Arar, taken prisoner in Syria two decades ago, experienced.

“They are not charged with any crime, their families want them to go home, but the Canadian government is preventing them from doing so,” she said on Thursday.

Arar, a Syrian-Canadian, was detained in New York in September 2002. Shortly after, he was deported by US authorities and ended up in a cell — more like a grave — in Damascus. .

In order to escape torture, the Ottawa telecommunications engineer made false confessions to Syrian military intelligence officers about alleged collaboration with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

A federal investigation concluded that misinformation passed by the RCMP to the United States most likely led to Arar’s arrest.