Canadian diplomats have made contact with a British-Canadian man who allegedly joined ISIS in Syria — and who is now pleading with the government to secure his release from prison and allow him to come to Canada, CBC News has learned.
Jack Letts, a British-Canadian man dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the U.K. media, is being held by Kurdish authorities on suspicion of being a member of the extremist organization.
CBC News has obtained audio recordings and text transcripts of his conversations with Canadian consular officials, who have stopped short of giving him any direct assurances they’ll be able to free him.
”Please get me out of this place,” Letts said in a Jan. 10 conversation with Canadian officials. “I don’t mind if you put me in prison, just get me out of here as soon as possible.”
Asked if he wanted to return to his parents’ home in Oxford, U.K., Letts was unequivocal: “I want to come to Canada.”
‘I started to go insane’
He told the consular official that he had attempted suicide after his first month in solitary confinement but was found in time by his Kurdish guards.
“I started to go insane and talk to myself and I thought dying was better than my mother seeing me insane,” Letts said. “So I tried to hang myself.”
He has since been allowed to live in a cell with other prisoners.
CBC has asked officials at Global Affairs repeatedly whether the Liberal government is working to win his freedom and whether he would be allowed to come to Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, on her way to testify before a Commons committee Thursday afternoon, would not comment on the case. A spokesperson for her department would only say the minister is aware of Letts’ case.
The lawyer representing his family in Ottawa, Paul Champ, said there’s been no ambiguity in his conversations with officials and the only hurdle appears to be the logistical challenges involved in getting him out of Syria.
Part of the problem is that Letts is being held not by a country but by the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been targeted by Turkey in military operations and by various rival factions in Syria.
“It makes it as complex a consular situation as you can imagine,” Champ told CBC News, “but Canada has dealt with other situations. They’ve dealt with hostage situations … That’s what Canadian consular officials are trained to do.”
Letts is being held in a prison in Qamishli in northern Syria, along the Turkish border.
Champ said he believes that, from a legal perspective, Letts can be considered a “hostage” and not necessarily a prisoner. He said Canada has an obligation to him as a citizen to render assistance.
Speaking by phone earlier this month, a Canadian consular official assured Letts that Canada is “working to resolve” his plight, according to text transcripts obtained by CBC News.
That verbal assurance was followed by a letter sent to his parents just days ago. In it, the federal government’s director of consular case management said the government is “making every effort to assist” him.
“We have been in communication with Kurdish representatives to that end and continue our efforts,” Kirill Kagner wrote on Jan. 29.
‘A Canadian is a Canadian’
The Letts case is a major test of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s oft-quoted diplomatic mantra that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” — his response during the 2015 election campaign to the former Conservative government’s legislation stripping suspected terrorists of their Canadian citizenship.
One of the Trudeau Liberals’ first acts once in power was to ditch that law.
More recently, the government has been attacked by its opponents for its support for de-radicalization programs involving returning ISIS supporters.
The British government, meanwhile, hasn’t indicated any interest in allowing Letts to return to the U.K. According to lawyers representing his family, British authorities have done little to get him out of Kurdish custody. The British High Commission in Ottawa declined comment on the case Thursday.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson suggested at one point last fall that Britons who fought for ISIS should be hunted down and killed — a comment that drew widespread condemnation from legal experts and Labour MPs, who said such a policy would amount to an embrace of extrajudicial killings.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, in an appearance on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics back in November, made it clear where the Liberal government stood: “Canada does not engage in death squads.”
Letts, 22, was captured by the Kurdish YPG militia last May after escaping the extremist group’s de facto capital, Raqqa, before it fell.
His parents, John Letts and Sally Lane, claim their son never joined ISIS and was travelling in Syria when he was taken by terrorists in 2014 after he had dropped out of school to visit the war-torn country.
‘Mental health issues’
They and human rights advocates in the U.K. have said Letts has “mental health issues” and also is suffering from an inherited inflammatory kidney disease that has gone untreated since his capture.
Before escaping Raqqa, he reportedly pleaded with his parents to bring him home. When they tried to send him money, British authorities charged them with funding a terrorist group.
In reports published last fall, the British Foreign Office said it has warned consistently over the last few years that people should not travel to Syria and that it has no “consular representation there.”
A written statement from Kurdish authorities, released in mid-January, said Letts is being investigated by “anti-terror” units, but once the case is settled he can be released into the custody of either Canada or Britain.
“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. “However, so far there has been no official request from neither Canadian or British governments.”
‘I don’t see how Canada would refuse’
An immigration lawyer said it’s a complex case — and the Liberal government has little leeway to deny Letts’ request.
“I don’t see how Canada would refuse to at least give him a one-way travel document to Canada,” said Peter Edelmann, who testified before a Commons committee about the former Conservative government’s legislation stripping citizenship from suspected terrorists.
“That doesn’t mean he won’t come straight into custody in Canada. He may well have committed an offence that is prosecutable in Canada. I don’t know what he is alleged to have done in Syria but there may be a basis for prosecuting him here.”
Most of the federal anti-terrorist laws enacted over the last few years have been aimed at stopping Canadian citizens from travelling overseas to join groups like ISIS.
Edelmann said the fact Letts departed from Britain makes his case more difficult for Canadians to prosecute.
Letts is not one of a group of four British ISIS militants known outside Syria as “The Beatles” because of their U.K. accents, and infamous for their role in the torture and killing of Western hostages.
According to U.S. officials, Syrian Kurdish fighters recently detained two of those men — Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh. They were the last two members of the group to remain at large.
Their leader, Mohammed Emwazi, was killed in an airstrike in 2015 in Syria. Known as “Jihadi John,” he beheaded American and British hostages. A fourth man, Aine Davis, is in custody in Turkey on terrorism charges.