A British-Canadian alleged ISIS fighter, dubbed ‘Jihadi Jack’ by British media, and his parents are asking the Canadian government to help secure his release from a Kurdish prison and let him come to Canada.
Canadian consular officials have been in contact 22-year-old Jack Letts, according to audio recordings and transcripts obtained by CBC. Letts is being held in a prison in Qamishli near the Turkish border. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have accused him of being an ISIS member, although they haven’t offered any other specifics about his alleged crimes.
“Any place other than here is better… I can’t explain to you everything that’s happened,” Letts said in a recording, speaking to a Canadian government official. “Honestly, if I explained to you how my situation was, you’d be surprised. I spent 35 days in a room that’s a bit taller than I am and about half that widthwise and no toilet. Tell my mom I’m sorry, tell my dad sorry. Tell them if I get out of this place, I’m going to try to be a better person.”
Letts’ parents say he dropped out of school to visit a friend in Jordan after being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder when he was 18 years old.
He later made his way into Syria but never joined ISIS, he told his parents. He also denied being a member of ISIS on his Facebook page in 2016, calling the accusation “awkward,” according to The Independent.
Letts told his family he was taken to what was then the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa after being injured in an explosion, and that he was captured by Kurdish forces in May, after he left the city. They say their son, a Muslim convert, has serious mental health issues.
The couple is dealing with legal troubles of their own in the UK, having been charged with funding terrorism for sending money to their son.
Letts’ family’s Canadian lawyer Paul Champ told VICE News that he is a British and Canadian dual national and has spent “many summers” in Canada, including in 2013 before he travelled to the Middle East. He deferred all other questions to Letts’ UK lawyer Tayab Ali, who said he was unable to provide comment at the moment.
The British government has been “completely obstructive” in terms of helping their son, Letts’ mother Sally Lane told The Guardian in November. Letts’ parents want to see him go to Canada, specifically Southern Ontario where they have family.
"It's a much fairer place," John Letts told CBC. "The whole attitude towards this issue [of dealing with extremism] has been much more enlightened, much more tolerant."
In a statement to VICE News, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the government is "aware that a Canadian citizen is being detained in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria.
"The Government of Canada is fully engaged on his case and providing assistance. The Government of Canada will not comment or release any information which may compromise or endanger the safety of Canadian citizens abroad. Due to privacy considerations we will not comment further at this time," Global Affairs said.
Letts’ family told CBC they’ve been in contact with consular officials for months, and have received assurances that the government has “been doing everything they can to help get him out and help get him to Canada.”
Champ told the CBC he believed that the only obstacle were the logistical issues involved in the process of getting Letts out of Syria, where Canada has no diplomatic or army presence. He added that Letts should be considered a hostage — not a prisoner — and that Canada has an obligation to help him as a citizen.
'NO OFFICIAL REQUEST'
After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected, his government repealed a law that allowed suspected terrorists to be stripped of their Canadian citizenship.
“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” Trudeau said at the time.
The government has also recently been criticized for its approach to returning foreign fighters — one that prioritizes rehabilitation and deradicalization. In November, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer mocked the government’s tactics, demanding to know when Trudeau would “take the security of Canadians seriously and look for ways to put these ISIS fighters in jail.”
“Nobody voted in the last election to elect a government that would be so focused on the rights of ISIS terrorists,” he said in the House of Commons.
The fiery debate came after British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson suggested that anyone who leaves the UK to fight for ISIS should be hunted down and killed to ensure they never return to the country.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, however, has said “Canada does not engage in death squads."
Kurdish authorities in the semi-autonomous enclave in northern Syria said in October that Letts was being investigated by local police and global anti-terror units, but once the investigation is complete, he could be released to Canadian or British authorities if they make an official request.
"Therefore, we ask the parents of Jack Letts and their legal representative to ask the U.K. and Canadian governments to officially request the handover of Jack Letts from the officials of the [Democratic Federation of Northern Syria] so that the handover can proceed officially," said the statement from Kurdish authorities.
Neither Canadian nor British officials have requested such a handover, the Kurdish statement said.