The father of a Canadian man imprisoned in Syria for more than four years is making a last-ditch push for the federal government to repatriate his son, with the expectation that he will face a criminal trial upon his return.
“I think the Canadian government has a duty to take care of Canadians if they get into trouble abroad,” said John Letts, the father of Jack Letts.
“I want him to have the chance to prove he’s innocent.”
His son is believed to be living in a detention camp in northeast Syria, where he’s been held since May 2017.
Jack — a former British-Canadian dual citizen who was born and raised in Oxford, U.K. — had his British citizenship revoked two years ago, leaving the Canadian government as his only viable means of escaping the camp, where his family says he’s been subjected to torture and long periods of solitary confinement.
His father, who is visiting Ottawa this week in a bid to pressure the government, is urging Canada to repatriate not only his son but other Canadians held in Syrian detention camps.
“I think that we should bring them back,” John told CBC News. “If they’re guilty … put them on trial, lock them up, I don’t have a problem. But if they’re innocent, let them go.”
According to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, there were at least 47 Canadians being held in detention camps over alleged links to ISIS.
The report described conditions in the camp as “inhuman and life-threatening.”
Jack Letts converted to Islam and first travelled to Syria in 2014 to fight for the Islamic State, which was then about a year away from the height of its dominance in the region.
He was infamously dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the British media. The Times, capturing the British public’s early fascination with his story, once described him as the “first white British boy to join ISIS.”
Jack said in a 2019 interview that he never hurt anyone during his time with the radical extremist group. His family says he has never faced a trial and is being held without a charge in Syria.
An expert in national security and terrorism said the process of bringing Letts and other detainees back to Canada would be complex and potentially dangerous but, she believes, ultimately necessary.
“I don’t think it’s tenable for Canada to simply leave its citizens in a Kurdish prison in an unstable area of the world,” said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa and a former national security adviser to the federal government.
“The decision not to bring people back is a political one. But to a certain extent you can understand the government’s reasoning.”
Trial would be challenging
Among the numerous obstacles to repatriating Canadians held in a foreign detention camps, Carvin points to two issues that may be a factor in Ottawa’s inaction: the difficulty of gathering sound evidence for alleged crimes committed overseas and the potential dangers posed by returning foreign fighters.
Carvin says any statements made by detainees would likely be inadmissible in a Canadian court, since those statements may have been made under duress.
She said information gathered by intelligence officials, while possibly accurate, would not contribute to the type of fair criminal trial envisioned by John Letts.
“This is someone who willfully went to join the Islamic State and should probably be prosecuted for doing that,” Carvin said. “It’s just not clear if that’s something that could be done.”
The repatriation of citizens who left their countries to fight for ISIS has also been the source of considerable worry among politicians and governments in places like Canada and Europe.
A study by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University said returning fighters tend to be “more lethal terror operatives” than sympathizers who never fought overseas.
“Despite the relatively low number of returning foreign fighters, the terrorist threat posed by those returnees remains significant,” the study said, though the report also notes that the amount of returning fighters who plot attacks is overall very low.
In a statement to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said it is following the situation at the camps “very closely.” The department cited privacy legislation and did not provide any details about Jack Letts’s specific case, nor did it indicate any plans to assist Canadians in the camps.
“The Government of Canada is aware of Canadian citizens being detained in Syria. Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited,” GAC said in a statement.
However, a Canadian woman returned to Canada in November after being freed from an ISIS detention camp in the same region of Syria earlier this year with the assistance of a former U.S. diplomat. Her four-year-old daughter was freed from the camp in March.
The government said it provided consular services for the girl, but did not organize the release.
Despite the government’s claim that it did not co-ordinate the exit, John Letts said the case shows that it should be possible for his son to also come to Canada.
“It’s clearly logistically possible,” he said.