Léa Pelard reports on the French government’s position on the repatriation of French nationals who have travelled to fight with Isis in Syria and Iraq.
Isis and jihad are no longer strangers to French people, as the country has experienced several terrorist attacks since January 2015. France has become one of the main targets of Isis violence outside of the group’s territory in Syria and Iraq.
A 2017 French Senate report stated that French represented 47% of the number of European recruits fighting with Isis.
According to France’s top anti-terrorism prosecutor, 690 French nationals, 295 being women, are currently fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. An estimated 400 children have either been born into French jihadist families in Iraq and Syria or have been brought to these countries by their parents.
The fate of Islamic State French fighters arrested by Kurdish forces after the fall of Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State, raise legal, political and diplomatic questions. Isis was completely driven out of the city last October by US-backed forces.
The issue of what to do with European nationals who left to fight with Isis in Syria and Iraq has brought intense debate in Europe. Governments from London to Berlin have made no secret of their reluctance to take back Isis fighters.
However, the question still divides the French Government, leading to an ambiguous official position.
French Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet said last month that local authorities in Syrian Kurdistan could “eventually proceed to trials,” given the French nationals accused of terrorism were guaranteed access to a lawyer and if necessary consular services.
The announcement appeared to give the Kurdish “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” diplomatic recognition, although the Minister highlighted that Syrian Kurdistan, was not a state recognised by her country.
Belloubet also stated that France would intervene if a French jihadist were condemned to death in Iraq or Syria.
“The French state would intervene, by negotiating with the other state in question”, said Belloubet.
Such negotiations would involve requests for extradition, which would be examined case by case. The European Union has a long-standing policy against capital punishment promoting respect for human rights in all countries.
Belloubet’s speech comes after an Iraqi court handed down a death sentence to a German woman for membership of Islamic State last month. According to Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, spokesman for Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council in Baghdad, she was “convicted of participating in attacks on Iraqi security forces and offering the militant group logistical support”.
She is the first foreign woman to be sentenced to death in Iraq for joining the terrorist group.
Marie Dosé, a French lawyer defending a Jihadi woman currently held by Kurdish forces, pressed charges against the French Government for arbitrary detention. Dosé says that the state prefers to leave her client “in the hands of a state who doesn’t even exist and thus can’t ensure a fair trial”.
A week after Belloubet’s statement, Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated on BFMTV that French nationals captured and held in Syria will be judged by local authorities, “and won’t be repatriated to France because they are fighters and enemies”.
The situation is different for children. “We want to repatriate children via The Red Cross, but for now it is difficult to localise them all at the moment, as the country is still in war.”
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Sixty children from Syria and Iraq have already been brought back to France. Most of them are less than six years old, and flew back with their parents, usually their mother as most fathers had been killed. As soon as they land in Paris, parents are put into custody and children are hospitalised and psychologically evaluated.
Children under the age of 13 are placed in foster families. They are considered as victims who need protection and not as soldiers.
Minors above 13 years of age who are suspected to have fought for Isis are incarcerated. There a currently eight children imprisoned due to this decision.
Sheltering Daesh children in France is a serious challenge, as well as integrating them in the society. Those children, who were born in Syria and Iraq or who moved there with their family, lived for years within a terrorist organisation.
Allowing children of terrorists to back come to their native country has divided public opinion, with the fear that they could carry their beliefs back home and act on them in the future.
Returning children are psychologically monitored and accompanied in the long term, to ensure that they are not a potential threat.
The prospect of taking back extremists poses obvious security risks on a continent that has suffered a wave of jihadist attacks in recent years.