The 'heavy burden' of ISIS detainees in Kurdish jails
QAMISHLI, Syria - Syria's Kurds are holding hundreds of alleged foreign fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) but say they will not put them on trial and urged their home countries to repatriate them.
Kurdish forces who have been fighting ISIS in Syria with backing from the US-led coalition said they hold about 900 of the organisation's foreign jihadists from 44 countries.
The best-known captives include Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, two survivors of the ISIS kidnapping quartet dubbed "the Beatles" due to their British accents. The group was notorious for videotaping beheadings.
Among the detained French jihadists is Adrien Guihal, who is said to have claimed a truck-ramming attack in the French city of Nice in which 86 people were killed in 2016.
Kurdish Foreign Affairs official Abdel Karim Omar said Syrian Kurds also hold 550 women and approximately 1,200 children from the families of ISIS members. "Some of the women have four children, each from a different father and each father from a different country," he said.
Many of the detainees do not have identity papers, Omar said.
Alleged fighters are usually detained in jails, while women and children are held separately in camps.
ISIS once occupied large parts of Syria and Iraq but forces from those countries, with international help, virtually eliminated the self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Iraq has since sentenced dozens of foreigners to death or life in jail over belonging to ISIS but Kurdish authorities in north-eastern Syria have repeatedly said they woul not put foreign fighters on trial.
"We try the local Syrian ISIS mercenaries but we won't try the foreigners," Omar said. "There are too many of them. It's a heavy burden we can't carry on our own."
"We don't have any laws for capital punishment. If we did try them and their jail sentence ended, then where would they go?" he asked.
The Kurds were trying to exert "pressure on the international community and countries that have nationals in our region," Omar said. "We are trying by all means for those countries to take back their nationals."
Russia, Indonesia and Sudan have agreed to take some nationals -- mostly women and children -- back, Omar said but Western countries, reeling from attacks claimed by ISIS on home soil, have been reluctant.
US Marines Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on October 23 said the delay in repatriating the foreign captives for prosecution was due to "political considerations and inconsistent legal frameworks."
Concerns included "how we identify, prosecute, deradicalise and reintegrate foreign fighters," he said.
Two Americans -- a man and a woman -- were transferred to the United States in July to be tried.
France has insisted any French adults held by Kurdish authorities should be tried where they are, so long as they face a "fair trial."
Britain has reportedly stripped Kotey and Sheikh of their citizenship and made no efforts to repatriate them. American media reported in August that the US administration was considering sending them to Guantanamo Bay.
Omar said the Kurds "have been in touch with the Danish, Dutch and Canadian governments" but so far without results.
"After advancing past many stages, the Canadian government halted everything," he said. Canadian official Stefano Maron said that "any information on an understanding towards repatriating Canadian citizens from Syria was unfounded."
Beyond those three countries, the Kurds appear to be showing more leniency with two key member states of the anti-ISIS coalition.
In recent months, the Kurds have selected several captives for interviews with the international media but a Kurdish military commander, who asked to remain anonymous, said an agreement had been reached so "no French or American ISIS fighters were brought out in front of the media to avoid pressure" on those governments.