TOP STORIES Changing policy, France brings French jihadist wives home

Changing policy, France brings French jihadist wives home


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PARIS — France on Tuesday returned home 16 jihadist wives from sprawling detention camps in northeast Syria, breaking a policy that for years ruled out the repatriation and trial of adult women who left to join the Islamic State.

The women were accompanied by 35 children – some traveling with their mothers, others orphans – the largest such group ever repatriated by France as the government responded to mounting pressure to change its approach.

France has long resisted calls from human rights groups and security experts to repatriate adult women, saying it sees them as “fighters” who should be tried where they are accused of crimes in Syria and Iraq.

Even though such local testing proved impossible, France stuck to its stance and refused to return home not only the adults but most of the children, repatriating only a few dozen over the course of three years, following a phased approach that came to contrast with most of its European neighbors. .

French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Tuesday that the welfare services took care of the children and that the mothers were handed over to the judicial authorities. The women are all French except for two who have French children, authorities said. They are expected to face charges in connection with joining the Islamic State.

Mark Lopez, the stepfather of a woman who is still incarcerated with her four children at the camp, said: “This is a complete change of policy.”

“I hope others will follow this summer because there is no reason to let a situation that has lasted for years continue,” he added, referring to the French citizens still in the camps.

International organizations, including the United Nations, along with lawyers and politicians, called on France to reconsider its approach, pointing to deteriorating living conditions and security in the camps.

On Tuesday, Julien Audoul, MP and spokesman for the National Rally, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, posted on social networks about repatriation. “Returning them to France is a crime against the security of our people,” he wrote.

About 165 French children and 65 women are still in stinking, disease-ridden detention camps run by Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, where they are in legal limbo.

Letta Tyler, senior counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, said more than 1,000 European citizens have been returned home since 2019, when the Islamic State lost its last foothold in Syria.

Repatriations to other European countries have accelerated since the start of the year, acknowledging the grim security and living conditions in the camps, with countries such as Belgium and Germany returning home more than 90 children and their mothers.

By contrast, France has not taken back any of its citizens since January 2021, following a case-by-case approach that limited repatriation to orphans and children whose mothers agreed to let them go.

Adult women, French authorities have long said, should be tried in Syria or Iraq. But judging them on the spot turned out to be impossible – the Iraqi government ruled it out, and the Kurdish administration holding them in Syria has no international recognition.

The repatriation on Tuesday of 16 women aged 22 to 39 shows that France is now poised to take a different approach.

Ms. Tyler of Human Rights Watch urged the country to repatriate all its citizens and hold them accountable properly. “Of course, this can provide due process for women who have already said they are ready to serve a prison sentence if they are returned home,” she said.

Ludovic Rivière, the lawyer for the woman brought home on Tuesday, said “France’s position has become ridiculous, dangerous and unjustifiable.”

Living conditions in the Kurdish camps have deteriorated sharply in recent months, making repatriation more urgent and prompting the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to criticize France.

“France violated the rights of French children detained for many years,” the committee said. said in a statement in February, adding: “Children live in subhuman sanitary conditions, lack basic necessities including water, food and medical care, and face imminent risk of death.”

Last year, about 10 French women in the Roj camp in northeastern Syria, where most European families were held, went on a hunger strike to protest the terrible living conditions and France’s refusal to return them home for trial.

A few months later, another French woman, also detained in Roger, died of health complications, despite repeated requests from her lawyer to the French authorities to return her for treatment for severe diabetes.

She is survived by a 6-year-old daughter who was among those repatriated to France on Tuesday, according to the United Families Collective, a group of families that are campaigning for repatriation.

Most security experts and human rights groups argue that leaving European citizens in the camps is more risky than bringing them home because they could join the resurgent Islamic State in the region.

In January, ISIS fighters attacked a prison in northeast Syria in an operation that Kurdish officials say was aimed at freeing jihadist prisoners before moving on to try to take control of nearby areas, including the Al-Khol camp. where hundreds of relatives of Islamic State militants are staying. held. Kurdish units regained full control of the prison after a 10-day battle, disrupting a wider militant operation.

Given the terrorism-related trauma in France, the massive repatriation of Islamic State families poses a political risk that Mr. Macron seemed unwilling to take for a long time. His government’s move last year to tighten legislation against Islamist extremism seems to signal a toughening of that stance.

At the beginning of 2019, the repatriation plan for at least 160 citizens, including adults, was canceled at the last moment. Officials said that conditions in the camp had become too volatile, but lawyers and human rights groups said the French government withdrew from participation out of fear of negative political repercussions.

As repatriation efforts were underway at the Roj camp near the Turkish border on Monday morning, the French woman detainee, whose lawyer Mr Riviere asked her to remain anonymous for security reasons, said she felt more optimistic.

In audio messages sent to The New York Times, the woman said that local authorities were primarily focused on identifying French orphans who they would bring back. But she said they also told some of the mothers, to their surprise, that they might also be leaving soon.

“It gives me some hope,” the woman said.

On Tuesday morning she was in France.

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