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UN group calls for return of sick woman who joined Islamic State

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Kimberly Polman, now 49, traveled to Syria in 2015 at the behest of her future husband, whom she had met online. She has since repudiated the Islamic State

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A woman who jumped on a plane in Vancouver to join the Islamic State in 2015 should be allowed to return to Canada because she is now seriously ill, according to United Nations human rights experts.

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Kimberly Polman, now 49, traveled to Syria that year at the request of her future husband, whom she had met online.

A dual Canadian-American citizen, she told The New York Times in 2016 that she had repudiated the militant Islamic movement and wanted to return home. His appeals to US authorities were denied.

According to the UN, Polman is being held in a camp in northeast Syria “in conditions reaching the threshold of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. He said in a statement that she was arrested in March 2019 and is still being held without charge.

“Victims or potential victims of trafficking should not be placed in situations that expose them to multiple forms of abuse,” the UN group of special rapporteurs said. “The failure of their home state to protect individuals in such situations perpetuates and contributes to further victimization of those who have already experienced violence and trauma.”

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Born in Hamilton, Polman had an American mother and a Canadian father and was raised as a Reform Mennonite. She converted to Islam and worked in an Islamic school before flying to Istanbul from Vancouver airport using a US passport.

She told her family that she was traveling to Austria for two weeks, but was actually meeting her online connection and future husband to be smuggled into an Islamic State camp in Syria.

Now the UN says she has “life-threatening” health conditions. A recent examination carried out by Doctors Without Borders showed that she suffered from hepatitis and kidney problems, untreated Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease), bone and muscle problems, post stress disorder -traumatic and “serious mental health problems”.

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The conditions are exacerbated by a hunger strike that caused Polman to lose half his body weight, according to the UN.

“This place is guaranteed to lose your sanity, your dignity, your humanity one way or another,” Polman wrote last September when she began her hunger strike. “It’s exhausting trying to protect myself all day, all night. I can not stand it anymore.”

She is one of approximately four dozen Canadian men, women and children who have been held in camps and prisons for Islamic State suspects and their families. Thousands of foreigners were arrested after the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate fell in 2019.

While the Canadian government discussed Polman’s fate with the United Nations group, requests for repatriation were denied.

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“The outright refusal of the Canadian authorities to assist her to have urgent access to health care, or at the very least to facilitate the transfer of money from her family so that she can improve her health and his living conditions, is a clear violation of his right to health and could constitute violations of the right to life and the prohibition of cruel and inhuman treatment,” the UN group said.

“Authorities must exercise due diligence and take positive and effective action to protect the life of this extremely ill Canadian national,” the statement read. “Keeping her in detention is a gross violation of her rights, and recent security developments in an extremely volatile region of Syria underscore the urgency of her return home.”

UN Special Rapporteurs are a group of global human rights experts who work on a voluntary basis. They are not United Nations personnel.

— With file from Postmedia News

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