Ottawa says it opposes the death penalty but is not committing to stop the potential transfer of Canadian citizens from Syria to Iraq, where other foreign nationals are facing capital punishment for supporting the Islamic State.
Global Affairs Canada said it is not aware of any Canadians who have been tried or are detained awaiting trial for terrorism in Iraq. The transfer of foreign nationals to Iraq from Syria has raised questions about how the federal government should handle the prosecution of Canadians who travelled to the Middle East to join the caliphate.
Barbara Harvey, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, said the department will not comment on hypothetical scenarios.
“Canadians who travel outside the country must follow local laws. If they fail to do so, they may face prosecution by local authorities in that foreign jurisdiction,” Ms. Harvey said in a statement.
“Canada opposes the use of the death penalty in all cases.”
There are 33 Canadians trapped in Kurdish-run camps and prisons in northeastern Syria, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who researches extremism.
In a statement, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Canadians who have travelled abroad to join the Islamic State must be held accountable.
“Investigating, arresting, charging and prosecuting any Canadian involved in terrorism or violent extremism is our top priority,” Mr. Goodale said.
Canada has convicted four individuals for terrorism-related offences after their return to Canada since 2016, despite the fact that about 60 have returned. Mr. Goodale has said that it is hard to find evidence from a foreign war zone that will stick in Canadian courts.
Mr. Goodale did not say whether Ottawa would consider other prosecution methods for Canadian foreign fighters, including what Human Rights Watch has described as the "outsourcing” of prosecution to Iraq. Kurdish groups have transferred hundreds of suspected Islamic State members, including foreign nationals, to Iraq from Syria.
In recent months, 11 Frenchmen were sentenced to death in Iraq for their affiliations with the terrorist group. A Belgian man was also sentenced to death by hanging in March for supporting the Islamic State.
Belkis Wille, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Iraq, said most cases of suspected Islamic State members that go to trial are based on confessions allegedly obtained through torture. She said the trials last five minutes, where the judge reads the confession, asks the defendant if they agree and sentences them.
Ms. Wille said foreign governments, including Canada, must prevent the transfer of their citizens to Iraq.
“Countries like Canada are much better to conduct proper investigations into someone to determine what exactly that person did and then prosecute them," Ms. Wille said.
Jessica Davis, a former senior intelligence analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and president of Insight Threat Intelligence, said the government should bring its citizens back to be tried in Canada, but said a successful conviction relies on the RCMP’s ability to collect enough evidence.
Phil Gurski, another former CSIS analyst, said that while Canada should repatriate the young children of Canadians who joined the Islamic State, their parents should face justice in the region.
“If they’re sitting in a jail in Iraq, you don’t have to worry about him, which means you don’t have to redeploy resources to figure out what he’s doing because he’s not your concern right now," Mr. Gurski said.
In the event a Canadian is convicted in Iraq, Mr. Gurski said Ottawa could try to strike an agreement with the Iraqi government to transfer them back to Canada, where they would serve their sentence.
Ms. Davis said that most foreign fighters are probably still radicalized and hold extremist views. “Very few have actually denounced the Islamic State … a lot of them have significant capabilities when it comes to weapons handling,” she said.
Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, said Canada should support an international response, such as a new tribunal to prosecute Islamic State fighters, rather than a “piecemeal approach” where every country deals separately with their citizens.
Mr. Matthews said Sweden proposed creating a new tribunal that could be based in Iraq and similar to courts set up after the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
With a file from Reuters.