France repatriates 35 children, 16 mothers from Syria camps

Above, the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp which holds relatives of suspected Daesh group fighters in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh governorate. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 05 July 2022

France repatriates 35 children, 16 mothers from Syria camps

  • The French government had long refused mass repatriations of the hundreds of French children detained in Kurdish-controlled camps, dealing with them on a case-by-case basis

PARIS: France repatriated 35 children and 16 mothers from camps in Syria holding family members of suspected Daesh terrorists on Tuesday in the largest such operation by Paris after pressure from campaigners.

The French government had long refused mass repatriations of the hundreds of French children detained in Kurdish-controlled camps, dealing with them on a case-by-case basis that rights groups criticized as deliberately slow.

“France has today undertaken the return to the country of 35 French minors who were in camps in northeast Syria. This operation also includes the return of 16 mothers from these same camps,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

It added that the minors were handed over to child protection services while the mothers would face judicial proceedings that lawyers expect to lead to their prosecution for terror offenses.

One of the women was 37-year-old Emilie Konig, a Muslim convert from northwest France who became a notorious recruiter for the group and urged supporters in the West to carry out attacks, a security source told AFP.

Family members of the returnees said that French officials had entered the sprawling and squalid Roj camp on Monday to select orphans and women with medical problems for the flight home.

“It’s a 180-degree turn from the French government to repatriate women as well. It gives us hope, but there are still a lot of children over there,” the aunt of one of the repatriated women told AFP, asking not to be named.

Western countries have faced a dilemma over how to handle their citizens detained in Syria since the end of military operations against the Daesh group there in 2019.

Thousands of extremists in Europe decided to join the group as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared in territory conquered in Iraq and Syria.

Until now, France had prioritized its security over welfare concerns for the detained, pointing to a series of attacks by Daesh militants, including the November 2015 assaults on Paris that left 130 people dead.

In a 2019 poll by Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting, seven out of 10 people surveyed were opposed to bringing back the children of jihadists to France.

Before Tuesday’s operation, Paris had repatriated 126 children since 2016.

The decision to return 51 people in a single operation points to a change in policy that came after Germany and Belgium announced that they would bring back all of their minors from Syria.

Around 150 remain in Syria, lawyers and campaigners said on Tuesday.

“Our country has isolated itself more and more by choosing inhumanity and irresponsibility, unlike Germany, Belgium and many other European countries,” the French campaign group Collective for United Families said in a statement on Tuesday.

A UN watchdog also increased  the pressure in February when it said that France had violated the rights of children by leaving them for years in inhuman and life-threatening conditions.

The president of the Seine-Saint-Denis region northeast of Paris, where many previous returnees have been housed, said it was important to make a distinction between Daesh fighters and children, many of whom are orphans.

“Whenever this issue becomes a news story, I’m aware of the fantasies that it can create,” Stephane Troussel told AFP recently. “The images of children indoctrinated by Daesh, weapons in their hands, are deeply ingrained.”

But “the children are not guilty. They are above all the victims of the deadly excesses of their parents and what they need more than anything is an opportunity to rebuild themselves if we want them to rejoin society,” he added.

A statement from France’s anti-terror prosecutor’s office said the mothers repatriated on Tuesday were aged between 22 and 39 and had been taken into custody.

In addition to Konig, there is also a mother-of-four with colon cancer whose mother, Pascale Descamps, went on hunger strike to campaign for her return on humanitarian grounds.

She left France in 2015 with her husband and three children. He was killed in combat, leading her to re-marry another Daesh extremist, who also died.

One of the minors, who is nearly 18, was also detained because “evidence exists likely to prove his association with a terrorist organization,” the statement from anti-terror prosecutors added.

Daesh declared a caliphate in 2014 in territory stretching across Iraq and Syria, but was progressively beaten back by a coalition of Western-backed local forces, losing its last territory in March 2019.


EU, US say they’re studying Iran’s response to nuclear proposal

Updated 41 min 18 sec ago

EU, US say they’re studying Iran’s response to nuclear proposal

  • US State Department: US is sharing views on Iran’s response with EU after receiving Tehran’s comments from bloc

WASHINGTON: The European Union and United States said on Tuesday they were studying Iran’s response to what the EU has called its “final” proposal to save a 2015 nuclear deal after Tehran called on Washington to show flexibility.
A US State Department spokesperson said the United States was sharing its views on Iran’s response with the European Union after receiving Tehran’s comments from the bloc.
“For the moment, we are studying it and we are consulting with the other JCPOA participants and the US on the way forward,” an EU spokesperson told reporters in Brussels, referring to the nuclear deal by the official abbreviation JCPOA.
She declined to give a time frame for any reaction from the EU.
After 16 months of fitful, indirect US-Iranian talks, with the EU shuttling between the parties, a senior EU official said on Aug. 8 the bloc had laid down a “final” offer and expected a response within a “very, very few weeks.”
Iran responded to the proposal late on Monday but none of the parties provided any details.
Earlier on Monday, Iran’s foreign minister called on the US to show flexibility to resolve three remaining issues, suggesting Tehran’s response would not be a final acceptance or rejection.
Washington has said it is ready to quickly seal a deal to restore the 2015 accord on the basis of the EU proposals.
Diplomats and officials have told Reuters that whether or not Tehran and Washington accept the EU’s “final” offer, neither is likely to declare the pact dead because keeping it alive serves both sides’ interests.
The stakes are high, since failure in the nuclear negotiations would carry the risk of a fresh regional war, with Israel threatening military action against Iran if diplomacy fails to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Iran, which has long denied having such ambitions, has warned of a “crushing” response to any Israeli attack.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump reneged on the nuclear deal reached before he took office, calling it too soft on Iran, and reimposed harsh US sanctions, spurring the Islamic Republic to begin breaching its limits on uranium enrichment.


Iraq’s Sadr backtracks on call for huge protest

Updated 16 August 2022

Iraq’s Sadr backtracks on call for huge protest

  • The populist cleric's announcement came amid behind the scenes talks aimed at steering Iraq out of crisis
  • Sadr wants parliament dissolved to pave the way for new legislative elections

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr backtracked Tuesday after earlier urging his supporters to join a massive rally as a standoff with his political rivals appeared to be getting worse.
The populist cleric’s announcement came amid behind the scenes talks aimed at steering Iraq out of crisis, with the country’s two branches of Shiite Islam jockeying for supremacy.
More than 10 months on from elections, Iraq still has no government, new prime minister or new president, because of disagreement between factions over forming a coalition.
Sadr wants parliament dissolved to pave the way for new legislative elections, but his rivals the pro-Iran Coordination Framework want to set conditions and are demanding a transitional government before new polls.
The cleric’s bloc emerged from last October’s elections as parliament’s biggest, but still far short of a majority.
Sadr, whose supporters have been staging a sit-in protest outside parliament in Baghdad’s high security Green Zone for more than two weeks, had called for a “million-man demonstration” in the capital on Saturday.
But on Tuesday he announced on Twitter “the indefinite postponement of Saturday’s protest.”
“If you had been betting on a civil war, I am betting on preserving social peace. The blood of Iraqis is more precious than anything else,” Sadr said.
Late on Monday, a committee organizing demonstrations in support of the Coordination Framework also announced new gatherings, but without setting a date.
The Coordination Framework launched their own Baghdad sit-in on Friday, camping out on an avenue in the capital.
The Coordination Framework comprises former paramilitaries of the Tehran-backed Hashed Al-Shaabi network and the party of former premier Nuri Al-Maliki, a longtime Sadr foe.
So far, the rival Shiite protests have been peaceful, with attempts at mediation ongoing.
Hadi Al-Ameri, leader of a Hashed faction, has also called for calm and for dialogue. He has had a series of meetings with political leaders including allies of Sadr.
Also on Tuesday, Finance Minister Ali Allawi who is in the current government submitted his resignation to the Council of Ministers, the INA state news agency reported.
Iraq has been ravaged by decades of conflict and endemic corruption.
It is blighted by ailing infrastructure, power cuts and crumbling public services, and now also faces water shortages as drought ravages swathes of the country.
Despite its oil wealth, many Iraqis are mired in poverty, and some 35 percent of young people are unemployed, according to the United Nations.

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Iraq’s finance minister resigns over political crisis

Updated 16 August 2022

Iraq’s finance minister resigns over political crisis

  • The officials said Finance Minister Ali Allawi resigned during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday to protest the political conditions
  • Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul-Jabbar will become acting finance minister

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s finance minister resigned Tuesday, two government officials said, over the country’s worst political crisis in years involving an influential Shiite cleric and his Iran-aligned rivals.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said Finance Minister Ali Allawi resigned during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday to protest the political conditions. They said Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul-Jabbar will become acting finance minister.
Allawi’s decision came weeks after members of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc resigned from parliament and his supporters stormed the parliament building in Baghdad. Al-Sadr later demanded that parliament be dissolved and early elections held.
Al-Sadr won the largest share of seats in the election last October but failed to form a majority government that excluded his Iran-aligned rivals.
Al-Sadr’s political rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-backed parties, said earlier that parliament would have to convene to dissolve itself. They called the Al-Sadr supporters’ storming of parliament a “coup” and have held demonstrations in support of the government.
Iraq’s political impasse, now in its 10th month, is the longest in the country since the 2003 US-led invasion reset the political order.


Palestinian hunger striker to appeal to Israel’s high court

Updated 16 August 2022

Palestinian hunger striker to appeal to Israel’s high court

  • Khalil Awawdeh is protesting being held without charge or trial under what Israel refers to as administrative detention
  • Around 670 Palestinians are currently being held in administrative detention

JERUSALEM: The lawyer for a Palestinian prisoner said Tuesday that his client will appeal his case to Israel’s Supreme Court as he continues what his family says is a 165-day hunger strike against his detention.
Also Tuesday, an Israeli military court extended the sentence for a second Palestinian prisoner by six days.
The release of both men — hunger striker Khalil Awawdeh and Bassam Al-Saadi, a West Bank Islamic Jihad leader — was among the demands of the Islamic Jihad militant group for a cease-fire to last week’s intense fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Khalil Awawdeh is protesting being held without charge or trial under what Israel refers to as administrative detention. Ahlam Haddad, Awawdeh’s lawyer, said her client’s health is deteriorating and that they asked that he be released. An Israeli military court on Monday rejected an appeal.
“Justice was not done with that man,” Haddad said. “We turn to ... the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, in order maybe to get the relief requested, which is his release from administrative detention.”
Awawdeh, a 40-year-old father of four, is one of several Palestinian prisoners who have gone on prolonged hunger strikes over the years to protest administrative detention. Israel says the policy helps keep dangerous militants off the streets and allows the government to hold suspects without divulging sensitive intelligence. Critics say the policy denies prisoners due process.
Israel says Awawdeh is a militant, an allegation he has denied through his lawyer.
The Islamic Jihad militant group demanded his release as part of an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire ending three days of heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip earlier this month but did not identify him as its member. Israel arrested Al-Saadi in the days leading up to the Gaza flare-up.
Haddad said her client has not eaten during the strike, except for a 10-day period in which he received vitamin injections, according to his family. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service has not commented on his case.
Israel is currently holding some 4,400 Palestinian prisoners, including militants who have carried out deadly attacks, as well as people arrested at protests or for throwing stones. Around 670 Palestinians are currently being held in administrative detention, a number that jumped in March as Israel began near-nightly arrest raids in the occupied West Bank following a spate of deadly attacks against Israelis.
Israel says it provides due process and largely imprisons those who threaten its security, though a small number are held for petty crimes.
Palestinians and human rights groups say the system is designed to quash opposition to Israel’s 55-year military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state, which shows no sign of ending.


Judge: Lebanon can’t intervene in suit and can’t be sued

Updated 16 August 2022

Judge: Lebanon can’t intervene in suit and can’t be sued

  • The family had sought to expand the lawsuit to also target Lebanon
  • The Fakhourys’ lawyer, Robert Tolchin, had asked for permission to formally sue Lebanon

CONCORD, New Hampshire: A judge on Monday denied a family’s attempt to sue Lebanon on allegations that the country’s security agency kidnapped and tortured their family member before he died in the US, and that the agency could not intervene in the case.
Amer Fakhoury, a Lebanese American man, died in the US in August 2020 at age 57 from stage 4 lymphoma. His family’s lawsuit, filed in Washington last year against Iran, says he developed the illness and other serious medical issues while imprisoned during a visit to Lebanon over decades-old murder and torture charges that he denied.
The family had sought to expand the lawsuit to also target Lebanon.
Fakhoury’s detention in 2019 and release in 2020 marked another strain in relations between the United States and Lebanon, which finds itself beset by one of the world’s worst economic disasters and squeezed by tensions between Washington and Iran.
Lawyers representing Lebanon’s security agency, the General Directorate of General Security, had first asked to intervene in the Fakhoury family’s wrongful death lawsuit against Iran to have the allegations against Lebanon stricken. That request also was denied by US District Judge John Bates in his order Monday.
The Lebanese security agency had claimed the lawsuit falsely accuses it and its director of “serious crimes of kidnapping, torture and killing at the direction or aid of alleged terrorist organizations.”
In turn, the Fakhourys’ lawyer, Robert Tolchin, had asked for permission to formally sue Lebanon.
The family’s lawsuit initially argued it was possible to sue Iran under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, as it has been designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism” since 1984. The suit also described Hezbollah, now both a dominant political and militant force in Lebanon, as an “instrument” of Iran.
Tolchin had said the Fakhourys interpreted the Lebanon security agency’s request to intervene as a wavier of sovereign immunity. An attorney for the agency denied that, and the judge agreed.
Bates wrote that there is “insufficient evidence for the court to conclude” that the agency intended to waive its sovereign immunity.
Bates also wrote that the allegations about Fakhoury’s detention in Lebanon that the security agency wishes to strike “are central to this lawsuit.”
Messages seeking comment were sent to the lawyers.
Iran has yet to respond to the lawsuit. It has ignored others filed against it in American courts in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and US Embassy hostage crisis.
Fakhoury’s imprisonment in Lebanon took place in September 2019, not long after he became an American citizen. Fakhoury, a restaurateur in New Hampshire, visited his home country on vacation for the first time in nearly 20 years. A week after he arrived, he was jailed and his passport was seized, his family has said.
The day before he was taken into custody, a newspaper close to the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah published a story accusing him of playing a role in the torture and killing of inmates at a prison run by an Israeli-backed Lebanese militia during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon two decades ago. Fakhoury was a member of the South Lebanon Army.
The article dubbed him the “butcher” of the Khiam Detention Center, which was notorious for human rights abuses. Fakhoury’s family said he had worked at the prison as a member of the militia, but that he was a clerk who had little contact with inmates. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Fakhoury left the country like many other militia members who feared reprisals. He arrived in the US in 2001.
As early as 2018, Fakhoury had sought assurances from the US State Department and the Lebanese government that he could visit Lebanon freely. His family said he was told there were no accusations against him in Lebanon or no legal matters that might interfere with his return.
Upon his return to Lebanon, Fakhoury was held for five months before he was formally charged, his family said. By then, he had dropped more than 60 pounds, was suffering from lymphoma, and had rib fractures, among other serious health problems, they said.
Eventually, the Lebanese Supreme Court dropped the charges against Fakhoury. He was returned to the United States on March 19, 2020, on a US Marine Corps Osprey aircraft. He died five months later.