Human Rights Watch wants Trinidad and Tobago to bring home children, women in Iraq

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

In this file photo, Human Rights Watch children’s rights advocacy director Jo Becker, right, speaks during a press conference. At left is Human Rights Watch associate director Terrorism/Counterterrorism Crisis and Conflict Division Letta Tayler. – File photo by Ayanna Kinsale

INTERNATIONAL advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the Government to urgently bring home Trinidadian children and their mothers imprisoned in Iraq.

The call was made on May 6.

In a statement, HRW said four Trinidadian women and their seven children, ages seven to 15, have been imprisoned for nearly seven years because of their alleged association with the Islamic State (ISIS).

The group said on May 2, Iraqi prison authorities forcibly removed two brothers, ages 13 and 15, from their mother’s cell in Rusafa women’s prison in Baghdad and transferred them to a cell with other youths.

Their mother, in a voice recording shared with Human Rights Watch, expressed fear that the two boys would be transferred to another prison, the statement said. One of the boys, the mother said, suffered from asthma, anaemia, and malnutrition.

“Trinidad and Tobago has publicly promised that it would bring home its nationals from Iraq and Syria, but not a single Trinidadian has returned home in more than five years,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“These children, who are not responsible for any crime, should be in school in Trinidad and Tobago, not languishing in an Iraqi prison.”

The statement said the mother in the voice recording expressed further concern about her younger son with health problems: “They took my son from me, they told me he was too big to be staying in a cell with us. They put him in a cell with about ten boys. We have no education for our children. Nothing. We are going on our seventh year in prison and our children are growing up here.”

According to HRW, Iraqi authorities are holding an estimated 100 children with their mothers at Rusafa prison. Many of the women are foreign nationals who have been charged with or convicted of terrorism-related offences.

“The imprisoned women said that they are willing for their children to be returned to Trinidad and Tobago without them. They said the Red Cross has visited them and that they communicated with the repatriation committee established by Prime Minister Rowley in March 2023 but have had no response from the government regarding their or their children’s situation.”

The four women, the statement said, were convicted of ISIS affiliation by Iraqi courts. Human Rights Watch alleged “widespread flaws” in the prosecution of terrorism suspects.

“Three of the women are held with five of the children in Rusafa prison, where the women are serving 20-year sentences. A court in the Kurdistan region of Iraq convicted the fourth, who is being held with her two children in Erbil.

“She recently completed her six-year sentence and is technically free to leave the prison, but the Trinidad and Tobago government has made no effort to assist her return,” HRW said.

The statement further noted that the denial of the children’s rights to education, access to health care and adequate food should “galvanise” the Trinidad and Tobago authorities to seek their urgent repatriation.

The group also suggested having the mothers serve out their sentences in Trinidad.

“We are here just waiting, and time is wasting,” said one of the imprisoned Trinidadian women in a voice recording shared with Human Rights Watch on May 4. “Our children remain uneducated without any knowledge.”

The statement also said a February 2023 Human Rights Watch report documented the unlawful detention of Trinidadian nationals in life-threatening conditions in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria.

“Since 2019, at least 39 countries have repatriated well over 8,000 of their nationals from the region. Trinidad and Tobago have repatriated none of their nationals during that time.

“Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister has pledged to bring the Trinidadians detained in Iraq and Syria home,” Becker said.

“He shouldn’t wait any longer.”