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Rights court condemns France over Syria repatriation refusals

By AFP - Sep 14,2022 - Last updated at Sep 14,2022

This file photo shows the Kurdish-run Al Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Daesh group fighters in the northeastern Hasakeh governorate, during a security operation by the Kurdish Asayish security forces and the special forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces, on August 26 (AFP photo)

STRASBOURG, France — The European Court of Human Rights condemned France Wednesday over its refusal to repatriate two women detained in Syria, where they had travelled with their partners to territory controlled by the Daesh terrorists group.

French authorities should promptly reexamine the request by the women’s parents to let them return home, the court said. There had not been sufficient reviews to ensure against “arbitrariness” of the refusal, said the ruling.

But it did not issue a blanket ruling that France return all citizens held in Syria since the fall of the Daesh “caliphate”, as sought by rights groups and Western allies including the United States.

“Neither domestic law nor international law required the state to act on behalf of its nationals and to repatriate them,” said the court based in Strasbourg, eastern France.

It did, however, say that safety and healthcare conditions at Kurdish-run camps in northeast Syria, where they are being held, “must be considered incompatible with applicable standards under international humanitarian law”.

As a result, the court said France’s refusal should have been reviewed “by an independent body, separate from the executive authorities of the state” to ensure the decision was not arbitrary.

Ahead of a review, the court ordered the government to pay one set of parents 18,000 euros ($18,000) and the other 13,200 euros in damages and costs.

“The law has triumphed,” said the father of one of the women, who gave only his first name, Albert, after the ruling.

“I hope that they are not going to spend another winter over there, my grandson is only three and a half years old and that’s all he’s ever known.”

Human Rights Watch France director Benedicte Jeannerod described the ruling as a “damning assessment” of France’s stance.

“France should take this judgement as a wakeup call and promptly repatriate all French children and their mothers still detained in the region, as well as other French nationals held there.”

She added: “All other countries under the court’s jurisdiction whose nationals are unlawfully detained in northeast Syria should do the same.”

Repatriations of citizens who left to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq are hugely controversial in France. The country has seen a wave of jihadist attacks since 2015 that have killed more than 250 people.

Other European countries, such as Belgium and Germany, have recovered most of their citizens from the Syria camps. The French government has long refused however, saying repatriating radicalised Daesh family members would pose security risks.

Until last July, when 51 women and children were brought back from Syria, France had returned only a handful of women and children, including many orphans, on a “case by case” basis.

Earlier Wednesday, sources confirmed to AFP that one of the women was the widow of one of the jihadist attackers who stormed the Bataclan concert venue in Paris in November 2015.

She and the other women have been charged with associating with terrorists and imprisoned.

The French foreign ministry said it “took note” of the ruling and added it was ready to “consider” further repatriations of nationals “whenever conditions permitted”.

The case before the ECHR was filed by two couples who had pleaded with the French government directly and via courts for the return of their daughters, as well as grandchildren born after their arrival in Syria.

Both women were among thousands of foreign nationals arrested and detained after the defeat of the IS “caliphate” by Western-backed Kurdish forces in 2019.

The parents said they were held at least initially at Al Hol camp in northeast Syria, where rights groups have denounced harrowing sanitary conditions, malnutrition and overcrowding.

The United Nations has also reported more than 100 murders at the camp in just 18 months.

Since the detainees’ health and lives were in danger, the parents argued, France had an obligation to return its citizens home, as ensured by articles in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court agreed, noting that the United Nations and other international bodies, as well as Syrian Kurdish forces themselves, have been urging European nations to repatriate citizens who left to join the terrorists.

On Monday, the head of the US armed forces’ Central Command urged nations around the world to repatriate their citizens from Al Hol, which holds some 56,000 people, mostly women and children.

Most are Syrians or Iraqis, but an estimated 10,000 are wives and children of Daesh fighters from other countries, many of whom are still thought to be highly radicalised.

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