UK Govt. appears to have ‘walked back’ opposition to UK nationals being sent to Assad-controlled Syria

December 8, 2019

Image of Belhaj giving his apology to the parliament

Human rights NGO Reprieve has raised concerns that the UK Government appears to have ‘walked back its previous opposition to UK nationals being tried in Assad-controlled Syria’, in a letter sent to the Foreign Secretary and published in today’s Observer.

In April, a Foreign Office Minister confirmed to Parliament that “we would not view prosecution by the Assad regime as an appropriate means of justice”. However, as the letter from Reprieve lays out, the FCO failed to stand by that statement last month when asked about the issue directly. Instead, the FCO said only that:

“Any decision in relation to the continued detention, transfer or prosecution of detainees is ultimately a matter for authorities under whose jurisdiction the individuals are detained. The British Government is clear that those individuals who have fought for, or supported Daesh, whatever their nationality, should face justice through a fair trial in the most appropriate jurisdiction. The UK will work with international partners, as well as partners in the region who can assist in establishing an appropriate pathway to justice within their territory or legal systems.”

Although the FCO said it had human rights concerns about trials in Iraq and Syria, it stopped short of opposing such trials altogether. As the letter from Reprieve to the Foreign Secretary points out, the FCO’s statement also offers no clarity as to what the Government believes to be “an appropriate pathway to justice”.

There is no prospect that individuals currently held in Kurdish-run camps could be effectively tried within Bashar Al Assad’s Syria. Should UK detainees be handed over to the Assad Government, they will face torture, disappearance and death. The UK Government’s most recent Human Rights and Democracy report acknowledges reports of “widespread and systematic use of arbitrary detention, torture and execution of detainees” in Syrian prisons, while a Human Rights Watch investigation in 2015 revealed at least 6,700 killings in Syrian detention.

While the UK Government has committed to repatriating British “orphans and unaccompanied minors”, and has now done so in a number of cases, it has failed to take any action on behalf of the vast majority of British children and adults who remain in the camps.

The letter to the Foreign Secretary was sent on November 29th. At time of writing Reprieve has not received a response.

Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve, said: “Sending Brits to Assad’s Syria would be effectively sentencing them to torture, disappearance or summary execution – abuses that are directly opposed to fundamental British values and the law. Yet this Government appears unwilling to categorically rule this out as an option. They must do so at once, and begin efforts to repatriate British detainees to the UK where children may be given the support they require and adults may, if appropriate, face justice in British courts.”

ENDS