An ailing B.C. woman who had been stuck in a Syrian detention camp is back in Canada, sparking questions about what is being done about others in similar situations.
Global Affairs Canada said in a statement that a total of four Canadians — two women and two children — were transferred from the camp in northeastern Syria, thanking the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria for its co-operation and care of those detained, as well as the United States for its assistance.
Along with Quebec’s Oumaima Chouay and her two children, British Columbia resident Kimberly Polman was also returned to Canada early Wednesday, her lawyer confirmed.
Polman’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he spoke to her after she landed in Montreal and his understanding is that federal authorities will be seeking a peace bond imposing conditions on her release. He said she was en route to Vancouver.
“At that point, I expect she will be brought before a justice of the peace and will enter into a recognizance,” Greenspon said.
Greenspon said in an interview that his client was delighted to be back in Canada, adding that Polman’s poor health is the principal reason she was repatriated.
Polman’s family told The Canadian Press last year that she had been suffering from post-traumatic stress and other challenges about six years ago when she surprised them by turning up in Syria. She married an ISIL fighter but they soon separated. She was imprisoned and later denounced ISIL publicly.
Greenspon said there are now seven Canadians who have returned home from detention in Syria, with many others still waiting, including young children.
“Every time this happens, it demonstrates, once again, the capacity of the Canadian government to make this happen, and the other 23 Canadians that I represent are asking the question, ‘Well, if you can do this for Kimberly Polman … what are we doing rotting way in the detention camps in northeastern Syria?” Greenspon said.
Greenspon said more than 20 countries have repatriated 1,000 nationals to their respective countries, so Canada’s efforts are lagging. He plans to proceed with a Federal Court hearing scheduled for Dec. 5 on the matter.
“So I would hope that we can bring back all of the Canadian men, women and children before then and not need the hearing. That would be wonderful,” Greenspon said.
Meanwhile, Chouay — a Quebec woman who allegedly travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State terrorist group — has been repatriated from a detention camp in Syria and is facing terrorism charges, the RCMP said Wednesday.
Chouay faces charges of leaving Canada to participate in the activity of a terrorist group, participation in the activity of a terrorist group, providing property or services for terrorism purposes and conspiracy to participate in the activity of a terrorist group.
The RCMP said Chouay, 27, had been under investigation by the police force’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team since November 2014.
Insp. David Beaudoin told reporters that Chouay’s arrest is the culmination of the investigation triggered after the woman left Canada in 2014.
“According to the investigation, Ms. Chouay allegedly travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State terrorist group,” Beaudoin said outside RCMP headquarters in Montreal. “In Syria, it is alleged she participated in terrorist activities in the name of the Islamic State.”
In November 2017, the RCMP says, Chouay was taken prisoner by the Syrian Democratic Forces and held at the Roj camp in a region recaptured from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. That’s where she remained until her return to Canada, along with her two children who were born while she was overseas.
Beaudoin said the children have been an area of concern for investigators since the beginning of the probe.
“We have taken extensive measures to ensure they receive the proper support. At this point they are in the care of the CIUSSS (regional health board) and also the family has been solicited to take part in the response to ensure they get the best support possible,” Beaudoin said.
Chouay, from the western Montreal borough of Pierrefonds, was arrested by the Mounties at about 2 a.m. Wednesday after landing at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport.
She appeared briefly by video link on Wednesday from RCMP headquarters, wearing a chador that covered all but her face. Her lawyer, Audrey-Bianca Chabauty, asked the court that she be given access to medical service in detention.
Federal Crown prosecutor Marc Cigana objected to bail for the accused, telling reporters after the hearing that Chouay is considered a flight risk and poses a danger to society. The parties will return to court on Friday to set a date for a hearing.
Speaking before the Liberal caucus meeting in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the repatriation effort and charges.
“Fundamentally, travelling for the purpose of supporting terrorism is a crime in Canada. And anyone who travelled for the purpose of supporting terrorism should face criminal charges,” he said.
“I’m not going to speak directly to any given situation, because it’s in the hands of the police and eventually the courts. But it is important that we make sure that people know you cannot get away with supporting terrorism in this country, regardless of the circumstances.”
Asked if other repatriation efforts are underway, Trudeau said Canadian authorities continue to “engage responsibly” in the region.
—Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press