Australian teenager Yusuf Zahab feared dead in Syrian prison

Yusuf Zahab, 17, is believed to have died from 'uncertain causes' in Al Sinaa prison

Australian Yusuf Zahab is thought to have died in the Al Sinaa prison in north-east Syria. Photo: @lettatayler twitter
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An Australian teenager who was held in a Syrian prison for three years is believed to have died, his family said on Monday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Yusuf Zahab, 17, died from “uncertain causes” in the Al Sinaa prison in north-east Syria.

The teenager's family have now pleaded for the return of other detained women and children.

Kurdish-led forces have held ISIS suspects at the prison, which was the site of intense fighting between its fighters and US-backed troops earlier this year.

“We are heart-broken and angry,” said Zahab's family in a statement released by HRW.

“Yusuf didn't need to die. The previous Australian government knew about Yusuf's predicament for more than three years.”

Born in Sydney, Zahab was 11 when he was taken to Syria by relatives before being detained by Syrian Democratic Forces in 2019.

He had previously begged for help in audio messages released by the human rights group. He described watching fellow child prisoners being killed in front of him during a raid on the prison.

A US soldier in Hassakeh, Syria, in January after ISIS militants broke into the prison that houses more than 3,000 inmates, including hundreds of minors.  AP

“There's a lot of bodies, dead bodies, and there's a lot of injured people screaming from pain,” he said in the messages.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs said it was still seeking to confirm the death and was offering assistance to the family.

“The Australian government remains deeply concerned about the situation of Australians in north-east Syria, including the welfare of those detained in prisons and other detention centres,” a department representative said in a statement.

Western countries have faced a dilemma over how to handle their citizens detained in Syria since the end of military operations against ISIS in 2019.

Thousands joined the group as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” the group declared in territory it conquered in Iraq and Syria.

Family's plea 'before another life is lost'

According to HRW, more than 41,000 foreign citizens — the majority under 12 years old — are being held in camps and prisons in north-east Syria over alleged ISIS links.

A representative for the families of Australian detainees said up to 80 Australian nationals, including 19 women and 29 children, are among them.

Zahab's family has pleaded with the Australian government to act.

“Please repatriate the remaining Australian women and children. Please act before another life is lost,” it said in a statement.

HRW's associate crisis and conflict director Letta Tayler accused Australia and other foreign governments of having “outsourced responsibility” for their nationals left in “horrific conditions”.

Zahab's death “should prompt these countries to urgently bring their detained citizens home”, Ms Tayler said.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 1:06 PM
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