(Canberra, July 18, 2022) – Family members reported that an Australian teenager, wrongfully detained in northeast Syria after being forced as a child to live under the Islamic State (ISIS), has died, Human Rights Watch said today. For several years, the family had begged the Australian government to repatriate Yusuf Zahab, who was last heard from when he sent desperate pleas for help during an ISIS siege of Al-Sina’a prison in al-Hasakah city in January 2022.
A family representative told Human Rights Watch that an Australian government official had informed relatives on July 17 that Zahab, who would have turned 18 in April, had died from uncertain causes. The family said it had learned in January 2021 that Zahab had caught tuberculosis in a severely overcrowded, makeshift prison run by a Kurdish-led armed group holding Syrian and foreign ISIS suspects and that his treatment had stopped. In January 2022, Zahab was wounded in the head and arm during the battle by the Kurdish-led group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition to recapture the prison from ISIS.
“Tragically, the reported death of teenage Yusuf Zahab should be no surprise to Australia and other governments that have outsourced responsibility for their nationals held in horrific conditions in northeast Syria,” said Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “His death should prompt these countries to urgently bring their detained citizens home.”
The Syrian Defense Forces and other regional security groups are currently holding between 69 and 80 Australian nationals, including 19 women and 39 children, as ISIS suspects and their family members in northeast Syria, said Kamalle Dabboussy, the representative for the Zahab’s and other detainees’ families.
The previous Australian government repatriated only eight citizens, all unaccompanied children, in 2019. The party of the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said in 2019 that the government had a “moral duty” to bring home women and children taken to ISIS territory against their will.
“Today we are heartbroken and angry,” Zahab’s family said in a July 18 statement. “Yusuf didn’t need to die. The previous Australian Government knew about Yusuf’s predicament for more than three years. We are unaware of any efforts to support, care or inquire about him.… We are pleading with the Albanese Government. Please repatriate the remaining Australian women and children. Please act before another life is lost.”
Less than an hour earlier, The Australian newspaper reported, “The Australian understands Kurdish [northeast Syrian] and Australian authorities believe Yusuf is dead” and may have been killed after ISIS attacked the prison. The Australian government and northeast Syrian authorities have not yet commented on Zahab’s death. Zahab’s father, Hicham Zahab, died in detention in northeast Syria in 2020, most likely of tuberculosis, Dabboussy said.
More than 41,000 foreigners from dozens of countries have been held since at least 2019 in life-threatening and often inhuman conditions in camps and prisons by authorities in northeast Syria. The majority are children, most under age 12. None have been brought before a court to determine the necessity and legality of their detention.
Zahab was among three detainees who sent desperate voice messages to Human Rights Watch when ISIS seized Al-Sina’a prison on January 20. The detainees said they had no food or water and that many detainees were dead or wounded.
“I got injured in my head and my hand,” Zahab said. “I lost a lot of blood.… There’s no doctors here, there’s no one who can help me. I’m very scared. I need help. Please … [M]y friends got killed in front of me, a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old.… There’s a lot of bodies, dead bodies, and there’s a lot of injured people screaming from pain.”
Human Rights Watch tweets and a February news release withheld Zahab’s identity from publication at his family’s request.
Zahab said he was hit in a US Apache helicopter attack. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify this information. The US-led coalition against ISIS conducted air-strikes and provided ground support to the Syrian Democratic Forces to recapture the prison. UK special forces also assisted. Satellite imagery and videos analyzed by Human Rights Watch showed extensive damage to the prison compound.
During a visit to northeast Syria in May, Human Rights Watch repeatedly asked to interview Zahab and to visit Al-Sina’a and other prisons where boys were held. Regional authorities declined on unspecified security grounds.
Zahab was born in southwest Sydney, Australia. He was 11 when relatives took him to Turkey on a pretext by his adult brother, who then forced the family to cross into Syria, Dabboussy said. In 2019, Zahab was among family members taken into custody by the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS.
He was immediately separated from his mother and became one of about 700 Syrian and foreign boys detained in Al-Sina’a prison. Initially, the boys were held with men in cells so crowded that their bodies touched when they slept.
Tuberculosis and deaths from untreated wounds and disease were widespread in some prisons for ISIS suspects, Human Rights Watch found in 2020 and 2021. In May and June, sources with information about the detainees told Human Rights Watch that several detained boys were still not receiving adequate medical care for tuberculosis or serious injuries sustained during and before the battle in Al-Sina’a.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said on January 31 that nearly 500 prison staff, fighters, civilians, ISIS attackers, and prisoners had been killed in the battle to recapture Al-Sina’a. The armed group has provided no breakdowns on the number of detainees killed, injured, and unaccounted for despite queries from United Nations bodies, as well as from Human Rights Watch, the media, and aid groups.
Northeast Syrian authorities have repeatedly urged countries to repatriate their nationals, help them prosecute those suspected of ISIS crimes, and improve detention conditions, saying they lack the means to do so. The government of Iraq has repatriated about 2,600 nationals. At least 34 countries including the United States and Germany have repatriated or helped bring home more than 1,500 others. Most are children. But most countries have refused to take all or even any back, citing security concerns.
Governments have a responsibility to take steps to protect their citizens when they face serious human rights violations, including loss of life and torture. This obligation can extend to nationals in foreign countries when reasonable action by their home governments can protect them from such harm. Indefinite detention of civilians based on the alleged culpability of their relatives amounts to collective punishment, a war crime. Children may only be detained as an exceptional measure of last resort, including those linked to armed groups, who should be treated first and foremost as victims.
Australia and other countries should take urgent steps to repatriate or help repatriate their nationals for rehabilitation, reintegration, and prosecution as appropriate, provided they can guarantee humane treatment and due process. These countries, regional authorities, and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, which includes Australia, should work to immediately improve conditions in camps and prisons, provide aid workers and independent monitors unfettered access to all detainees, and allow evacuations of detainees needing lifesaving treatment abroad. Detainees at risk of abuse if repatriated should ultimately be resettled in safe third countries.
“Yusuf Zahab survived being forced to live under ISIS, the battle to rout ISIS, and an ISIS prison attack, only to die while in the custody of the internationally backed forces who rescued him,” Tayler said. “How many more detainees will die before countries bring home their nationals?”