Father of Canadian man held in Syrian detention camp calls for federal assistance
BARRIE -- The parents of a Canadian man who has been held in a detention centre in northeastern Syria since 2017 are once again calling on the Canadian federal government for help to repatriate their son.
Jack Letts, named "Jihadi Jack" by the British media, was a bright teenager in Oxford, U.K., with a knack for learning languages, his dad, John Letts told CTVNews.ca.
Jack Letts, who was baptized Catholic, converted to Islam in his teens.
“There wasn't any issue of radicalization as the papers have said or anything like that,” John Letts said, adding that at the time, he and his wife “met all of [Jack’s] friends” who were religious.
“We weren’t particularly concerned,” he said.
In 2014, Jack Letts moved to Kuwait to study Islamic studies -- a move John Letts said he and his wife supported.
“He went to Kuwait, registered, lived in a place and the course was getting going,” John Letts said. “And then the next thing we knew was a phone call that he was in Syria.”
John Letts said he never got an explanation about why his son left Kuwait for Syria, but said Jack would “regularly” tell him during phone calls that he was “the same” kid, and was not a part of the “system” in Syria.
John Letts said allegations purported by British media that his son left for Syria to join ISIS are “complete rubbish.”
“I mean, where’s your evidence for any of that?” he said.
”“All I can say is when he left I didn't have concerns like that,” John Letts said. “And he also then reassured us that he was not involved with ISIS when he did make phone calls.”
In 2017, Letts was picked up by Kurdish forces. He has been detained at a camp in northeastern Syria ever since.
According to a 2020 report published by Human Rights Watch, for months before he was captured, Jack Letts told his parents he had been trying to leave Syria.
The report said that in prison interviews with British media, Jack Letts admitted to living under ISIS, but denied being a member, adding that the group had imprisoned him three times for opposing its practices.
According to the family, in 2017, the Kurdish forces said they wanted to hand Jack over to the U.K., but the U.K. government refused to help, claiming a lack of consular presence in the area.
In 2019, the U.K. government revoked Jack Letts’ citizenship.
John Letts said he and his wife have not directly spoken to their son since his detainment in Syria, receiving only a handful of “sporadic” letters over the years.
The most recent letter arrived around Christmas of last year.
John Letts said the letter sounded like Jack’s writing, but the contents were “strange” and seemed “formal.”
“The honest truth is I don't know if he's mentally still there,” he said. “He has been tortured a lot. One human rights lawyer went in and said Jack told him he'd been tortured 15 times in the torture room.”
Letts said that because they don’t receive regular updates, the family is not even sure Jack is still alive.
“I’m hoping he’s alive,” Letts said. “I’m assuming he’s alive.”
According to John Letts, representatives from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) interviewed his son in the detention centre in Syria shortly after he was captured.
Letts said he has received only part of the transcript from that conversation.
“They never sent me the whole transcript,” he said. “And it's very clear that Jack's talking about being tortured with electricity [and] the hot box they put out in the desert --all these things. So Global Affairs knew all about it and did nothing.”
John Letts said early on, GAC said the agency would do what it could for their son, but said the family has not received any support.
“So we get nothing at all, you send the message, they say, ‘We have no consular assistance,’ he said. “And it's interesting that the message is identical to the British message, ‘We have no consular assistance, there's nothing we can do. If there is please update us.’”
CTVNews.ca reached out to GAC to determine what consular services had been provided to the family.
In an emailed statement, GAC said it is “aware of Canadian citizens being detained in Syria.”
“Given the situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited,” the statement read.
The agency said it “continues to follow the situation very closely.”
“Due to provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed,” the email reads.
John said while he believes his son is innocent, he “understands the fear” the public has regarding terrorism.
“I have family and friends in Canada, I understand that fear,” he said. “And the same in the U.K., I know people who were severely injured in the bombings in London. I understand that.”
“But, you know, so you just lock up people innocently because they're Muslim, or because they were stupid and 18 and went to Syria?” he continued.
John Letts said when Jack returns to Canada, he should face the justice system and be tried in a Canadian court for any crimes he may have committed.
If the court deems he has committed a crime, John Letts said, the family believes he should be punished or rehabilitated.
“I don't believe in vigilante justice or witch hunt, and I think that's what's going on,” John Letts said. “So as a Canadian, he should have a right to defend himself against accusations based on zero evidence, except for the fact that he went there and he's a Muslim.”
He said he wants the Canadian government to “act according to the law, and according to Canadian values” and “give someone who could well be innocent the chance to prove that.”
In May of 2021, the family’s lawyers submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations, alleging that the inaction and action of both the Canadian and British governments have infringed upon Jack’s right to life.
The complaint also argues that the two countries have violated international law by arbitrarily or discriminatorily withholding consular assistance from Jack Letts.
The complaint also alleges Canada is acting in “bad faith” and only takes responsibility for its citizens when it suits the country politically.
John Letts, who resides in the U.K., is in Ottawa this week to lobby for help for his son.
“We've lined up lots of meetings with MPs and senators and journalists in Ottawa,” he said, adding that COVID-19 and quarantine measures have complicated things a bit.
First and foremost, John Letts said he wants some “confirmed evidence” that his son is still alive.
“That would be really nice as a parent to know he's alive, and that he's not completely mentally crushed,” he said.