An activist working with the family of an alleged terrorist connected to Chatham and held for the past five years in Syria says Jack Letts could wind up living in Ottawa with his mother if he’s brought back to Canada.
Letts, a former British national nicknamed “Jihadi Jack” by the media there, is one of four Canadian men a court ruled last week must be repatriated to Canada. Stripped of his U.K. citizenship by the British government for alleged ties to ISIL, the Oxford-born Letts still retains a Canadian citizenship through his father, who is originally from the Chatham-Kent region but now lives in England.
Matthew Behrens, an advocate with the group Stop Canadian Involvement In Torture, which has been working with the Letts family on their repatriation efforts, said the “hope is that he will join his mom in Ottawa”
He said Letts’ mother, Sally Lane, moved to the nation’s capital a few years ago after her son was stripped of his British citizenship. Behrens said Lane decided to move to Ottawa to maintain pressure on the Canadian government to bring her son home “because Jack is a Canadian citizen who has a right to return here.”
Behrens said supporters hope Letts and the other three men will be repatriated by Feb. 15, the second anniversary of the Global Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention. He added that Canadian-authored declaration was signed into existence “ostensibly to bring home the two Michaels” – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were detained in China for nearly three years for questionable reasons.
The Canadian government, Behrens said, “completely ignored” those principles when dealing with the four men imprisoned by Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
Behrens, who was in the courtroom when Justice Henry Brown ruled the four male prisoners must be repatriated, said the judge’s decision required the detainees to be brought back as soon as reasonably possible.
“The judge said that in the context of reminding the government that the conditions of the women and children were bad enough, but that the conditions of the men are worse. He called them dire,” the activist said.
Brown’s decision was the result of a court action launched in 2021 by the Letts family and the family members of the other Canadians detained in this Kurdish prison. Lawyers struck an agreement on Jan. 19 for the federal government to retrieve six women and 13 children held in captivity, but not the four men, none of whom were named, except for Letts.
Then on Jan. 20, Brown ruled the four men must also be returned to Canada, citing the mobility rights section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says every citizen “has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.”
Brown noted in his ruling the men were in custody because the Kurds suspected they were part of ISIL. The judge, though, said federal government lawyers did not allege in court that “any of the (Canadians) engaged in or assisted in terrorist activities.”
“Canadians are entitled to have political opinions, no matter how abhorrent they may be to other Canadians,” the judge wrote in his decision. He said the line is crossed when they actually commit crimes, but “there is no evidence to that effect before this court.”
A request for comment from Global Affairs Canada about potential charges being laid against any of the four detained men when they return to Canada was not returned by press time.
John Letts, Jack’s father, said the government wasn’t able present any evidence against his son or any of the other detainees because there isn’t any.
“Jack’s already served five years in prison for crimes he allegedly committed but has never been charged with. He’s been tortured, kept in solitary confinement for months, starved and denied medical treatment or any contact with him family,” the Pain Court native said in an email from England.
While he described Howard’s ruling as a human rights victory, John Letts said he wasn’t yet ready to celebrate.
“I’ve had my hopes and dreams crushed so many times that I’m numb and struggle to feel any joy with this decision. I just can’t let my guard down yet,” he said.
“Jack isn’t free yet and may not be freed for some time,” John Letts added.
John Letts said he and his wife also remain concerned for their son’s welfare since they haven’t had any “proof of life” in nearly three years, “so we don’t actually know he’s alive.”
In a previous interview, John Letts said his son became interested in Islam while studying world religions at age 15 while attending school in Oxford, England, where the family was living at the time. Jack Letts later converted to Islam and then travelled to the Middle East, winding up in Raqqa, the de-facto ISIL capital before the group’s 2019 defeat.
Letts once said in a media interview that he formerly saw his native U.K. as an enemy and might have been willing to take part in a suicide bombing, but became deeply disenchanted with ISIL and eventually escaped Raqqa. His parents said he was in grave danger from the terrorist group because of his opposition to it, and that that TV interview was conducted under the influence of torture from his Kurdish jailers.
John Letts said he blames the media in the United Kingdom and Canada for making his son seem like a terrorist monster, “when in fact he stood against (ISIL) and the violent form of Islam they believe in.”
“I feel most of the media has been complicit in his torture,” he said.
Noting it’s been a difficult eight years since his son left home, John Letts said he hopes to “eventually hold my son in my arms again, protect him, help heal his wounds, and help him accept that he’s finally safe at home surrounded by those who love him.”
He also said his son will significant time to recover from the five years of physical and mental abuse he’s suffered in prison.
“He’ll need protection from members of the public who believe every word they read in the press and social media and think he committed crimes,” John Letts added.
With files from Tom Blackwell, National Post