Activists call on Trinidad to repatriate citizens in Syria

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on Trinidad & Tobago to repatriate more than 90 of its citizens who have been detained as Islamic State suspects and family members in war-torn Syria, noting that at least 56 of them are children.

Some of them were whisked to Syria as children by relatives, while others said they erroneously thought they were going to visit a Muslim utopia.

“These children never chose to live under ISIS, yet they are suffering because of their parents’ decisions,” said Jo Becker, the Human Rights Watch child advocacy director.

Most of the Trinidadians were detained in late 2018 and early 2019 by U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group in northeast Syria and are currently held in makeshift camps that activists say are dangerous and lack food, water, medical care and education.

Of the more than 90 Trinidadians detained in Syria, some 21 are women, and 44 of the at least 56 children detained are 12 years old or younger, according to the human rights organization, which said it interviewed six Trinidadians held in camps.

Among them is a 17-year-old boy whose father took him to Syria in 2014.

“My father lied to me. He told me that we were going to Disneyland,” the organization quoted the boy as saying. “It’s not my fault. It’s my father’s fault. …. I just want to come back home.”

A 19-year-old Trinidadian man said: “My dad told me I was going to go to a hotel in Egypt and swim in a pool. I was 11 years old,” according to the organization.

Trinidad & Tobago has repatriated only a handful of its citizens in recent years despite at least 130 of them traveling to ISIS-held territories from 2013 to 2016, the most people per capita of any country in the Western Hemisphere, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of them came from three communities in Trinidad: Rio Claro, Chaguanas and Diego Martin. One of them was even featured as a fighter in an ISIS online magazine.

Links to terrorism are not rare for the twin-island nation, which was the site of the only Islamic revolt in the Western Hemisphere when a radical group launched a violent coup attempt in 1990. Some of the veterans of that coup have since helped to radicalize families, which in turn have radicalized communities, according to experts.

With no courts available in northeast Syria to prosecute suspected foreign ISIS members, Human Rights Watch argued that authorities in Trinidad could prosecute citizens once they’re repatriated, noting that a 2005 anti-terrorism act gives officials jurisdiction over those offenses even if they’re committed abroad.

The office of Trinidad’s prime minister did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2018, the government created a committee to repatriate and reintegrate Trinidadians from conflict areas, but officials are still working on draft policy and legislation.

At least 10 countries including neighboring Barbados have repatriated some of their citizens since October last year, according to Human Rights Watch.