Kurdish authorities defend detention of Canadian Michael Kennedy

A senior Kurdish official says the detention of an ex-Canadian soldier was justified. The regional government's deputy foreign minister say Michael Kennedy illegally crossed from Iraq to Syria and back again in the fight against ISIS.

Canadians who fight ISIS in Syria face increasingly hostile reception from Iraqis and Kurdish authorities

Kay Kennedy with her son Michael Kennedy. She says her son, who was held in Erbil, Iraq, by Kurdish authorities has now been released. (Facebook)

Michael Kennedy's decision to travel to Syria with Kurdish forces ultimately got him into trouble with authorities in Iraq and contributed to his extended detention, says a senior official in the Kurdish regional government.

The former Canadian soldier has now been released after almost a week in custody, but his story is a dramatic illustration of how severe both the Iraqis and Kurdish officials have become about border security.

According to his mother, Kennedy was arrested along with five other foreign fighters, who had expired visas.

Kay Kennedy says her son's visa was still valid and he voluntarily entered custody in order to stay with the group.

"Michael would not let them go to prison without him," she told CBC News. "He said there was no way he was letting them end up in prison and he abandon them. He was given the option not to be taken into custody, but he refused it."

But Kurdish authorities, while not disputing the account, say Kennedy's side-trip into Syria was a serious violation that warranted his detention.

"He is arrested because he came from Syria and crossed [the] Iraq and [Kurdish Regional Government] borders illegally [at] Shingal," Dindar Zebari, the assistant head of foreign relations in the semi-autonomous region, told CBC News on Tuesday.

Zebari said Kennedy had been dealt with under Iraqi law.

Dindar Zebari, assistant head of Kurdistan's Department of Foreign Relations, says Kennedy had 'illegally' crossed from Syria into Iraq. (CBC News/Zebari Twitter)

A spokeswoman in the Kurdish prime minister's office added that other countries do not allow foreigners to cross boundaries at will and the arrest was a matter of "the rule of law."

The other foreign fighters — including some U.S. and German citizens — were not released with Kennedy on Tuesday.

There are reportedly dozens of Canadians, many of them military veterans, among the volunteers assisting Kurdish militias on the front lines against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

Kennedy, who served 13 years in the Canadian navy, had been in touch with his family last week and told them he was on his way home to Newfoundland for Christmas when he was detained.

He had fought with People's Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish group in northern Syria, but was most recently operating in the Dohuk area of northern Iraq.

In an earlier interview with VOCM radio, Kay Kennedy confirmed her son crossed from Syria into the Shingal area of Iraq, which is primarily Yazidi territory, where ISIS murdered hundreds of people and kidnapped thousands of others.

An expert in the conflict says the regional government — aside from telling foreigner volunteers to stay home — has made it a practice to detain foreigners who leave and then return to the country.

"He is not the first Canadian to be detained under these circumstances," said Ian Bradbury, of the 1st North American Expeditionary Force. The group is a non-profit, peace support and humanitarian aid organization with extensive contacts in the war-torn region.

"The Kurdish regional authority looks specifically at combatants who traverse the border with Syria," Bradbury said.

Several Canadian army veterans have fought with Kurdish forces in Syria and not all have been detained, but Bradbury says he knows of at least three other instances.

One of the ex-soldiers, Kenneth Chen, told the National Post he spent 45 days in custody in Iraq.

"I've not heard of any instances of any Western fighters being over there being detained for any extended period of time," said Bradbury, who added he was pleased to see the matter resolved. "They all get turned over to their consulates and sent home."

Often, Canadians returning from the ISIS battlefields are interviewed by Canadian intelligence and law enforcement.

It is unclear whether Kennedy will face that kind of reception.

In late 2014, the intelligence branch of Transport Canada produced a report that warned Canadians fighting alongside some Kurdish factions could potentially be in violation of the former Conservative government's anti-terror laws.

The report cited the Kurdish Workers Party, or the PKK, as an example. The organization — an offshoot of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons — has conducted a steady campaign of major bombings across southern Turkey and has been labelled under Canadian law as a terrorist entity.

The PKK maintains outposts and headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.

It is unclear how many Canadians — if any — are fighting with the PKK.

The YPG, which Kennedy fought with, has not been labelled a terrorist organisation.

Even still, Amnesty International called last year for close vetting of returning Canadian foreign fighters.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.