Supporters of repatriation for 44 arbitrarily detained Canadian men, women and children in Syria.
Supporters of repatriation for 44 arbitrarily detained Canadian men, women and children in Syria. Credit: Matthew Behrens Credit: Matthew Behrens

Canadian citizen Jack Letts is a victim of monstering. It’s a demonization process personifying him as irredeemably evil, undeserving of rights, and left to rot in one of the prisons and detention camps in Northeast Syria described as “Guantanamo on the Euphrates.” His suffering is buried beneath Islamophobic labels and degrading language he cannot counter.  

Because of monstering, Canadian and British media, politicians, and bureaucrats view Letts as unhuman and unworthy.

Letts was stripped of the British half of his dual citizenship and publicly condemned by Andrew Scheer, Ralph Goodale, and Justin Trudeau. He’s been abandoned by Ottawa for five years under conditions described in a March 2022 United Nations report as meeting the “threshold for torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.”

An idealistic, compassionate teenager, his 2014 decision to help end the Syrian people’s suffering made him fodder for the Global War On Terror propaganda machine. It’s one that accuses without evidence, detains without charge and assigns inaccurate and damaging labels. It’s a machine that tortures with impunity, condemns by association, and relies on broad definitions of alleged threats to get away with massive human rights violations.

In an impoverished, Islamophobic political milieu, intelligence agencies, media outlets, and the “terrorism industrial academic complex” rely on a constant diet of monster creation to remain relevant and well-funded. That self-anointed certainty of the truth, underwritten with $6 trillion by the U.S. government since 2001, led the International Commission of Jurists to conclude in 2009 that “certain governments want to reserve for themselves the power to designate a class of people who are not entitled to the same rights as other human beings.”

The distorted lens

Letts’ biggest mistake, it would appear, was his itinerary. In 2014, Russian military brutality was about to become notorious in Crimea and Syria. International volunteers (including Canadians) who went to Crimea were not monstered or prevented from coming home, despite Amnesty International finding war crimes were committed by both sides. But Syria-bound travellers were tarred with the terrorist brush. It did not matter whether they went to fight against Assad’s brutal regime – just as young Canadians are flocking to Ukraine today – or were lured by false promises of creating a new, utopian, Muslim society. Others, like Jack, went for humanitarian reasons.  

Having monstered him, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has failed to act for five years on information that Letts was tortured by proxy, likely at the behest of UK officials. GAC generates endless excuses for refusing to liberate Letts and four dozen other Canadians – including very young children. Human Rights Watch describes their treatment as arbitrary detention “in filthy and often inhuman and life-threatening conditions.” Adding insult to injury, GAC is fighting these detainees and their families in a Federal Court case later this spring.

Family members hope Ottawa will be ordered to repatriate all Canadian detainees immediately, a right guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the Federal Court concluded in a 2009 repatriation case“Charter rights are not dependent on the wisdom of the choices Canadians make, nor their moral character or political beliefs. Foolish persons have no lesser rights under the Charter than those who have made wise choices or are considered to be morally and politically upstanding.”

Canada lags far behind a growing international movement to empty the camps and prisons controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava), Canada’s Kurdish ally in the war against ISIS. Failure to repatriate, as Human Rights Watch observed, means Ottawa “is flouting its international human rights obligations … Canada has [failed to take] necessary and reasonable steps to assist nationals abroad facing serious abuses including risks to life, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Repatriating all detainees

In late January, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared: “States must repatriate their own citizens. Not just children. Children, women and men.” At the same time, Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of the Kurdish administration’s foreign office, reiterated what the Kurds have been saying for years: “Every country should take its citizens back.”  On January 31, 2022, the U.S. State Department called on its partners to “urgently repatriate their nationals and other detainees remaining in northeast Syria.”

A House of Commons committee recommended repatriation in June 2021. UN special rapporteur Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin told MPs: “There’s a really clear and compelling positive obligation on Canada to prevent serious harm to its nationals,” adding lack of political will, and not diminished capacity, prevented repatriation. She noted Kazakhstan, a less-resourced nation, brought its citizens home, declaring: “There are a lot of countries doing it and doing it well. There isn’t a deficit of examples out there.”

The Canadian government is in a bind of its own making, one best illustrated by an “extremism expert” who told the International Crisis Group: “The problem is that we’ve expended all this effort promoting [what has become] the Western counter-terrorism paradigm and dehumanizing these people to mobilise against the ISIS threat. Now we have to humanize the population to convince countries that they can and should get them home.”

The Gitmo lie

Guantanamo Bay allegedly housed “high-value” detainees, the “worst of the worst,” even though a declassified 2003 internal memo revealed the Pentagon knew the prison contained “low-value” detainees who posed no threat to anyone. Of 780 originally detained without proper charge, 38 remain, 12 charged under a widely condemned kangaroo court military commission system relying on tortured confessions.  

Similarly, the Northeast Syrian prisons and camps are inaccurately labelled as holding grounds for “ISIS fighters.” But when the ISIS state fell in March 2019, tens of thousands of civilians were rounded up along with ISIS fighters. This included humanitarian volunteers, anti-ISIS partisans, and women and men who’d been lured by the false propaganda of paradise built on utopian Muslim values (but who couldn’t escape after they’d arrived). It also includes thousands of children, many born during the war. These camps and prisons have a volatile mix of pro- and anti-ISIS individuals, and within them the war continues. Human rights groups regularly document killings of ISIS opponents.  

Acquiescence to torture

To stop public and government acquiescence to the torture of their fellow citizens in Northeast Syria, Canadians must confront the bedrock racism and monstering driving Canada’s foreign policies, security service mandates, and political discourse. As with the Gitmo lie, many Canadians are convinced that Muslims and racialized “others” are guilty, dangerous, deceptive, disposable and deceitful. There’s a lengthy string of cases of Canadian Muslims who have been detained overseas and at home, all pilloried as the worst of the worst and dire threats to Canadian security. All had been unfairly tarred as dangerous creatures in a frightening, fictional world of Muslim monsters.

Jack Letts is another of these fictions. Questions regarding his case are addressed below, but none suggest he poses a threat. Rather, they reveal a typical teenager who made mistakes, embraced a new faith, and was moved to end the Syrian people’s suffering.

That Letts wound up in a politically complex war zone is a quirk of history. Were this 1982, he likely would have earned a security service file for travelling to Sandinista Nicaragua to pick coffee, help build schools and medical clinics, and raise funds for humanitarian supplies in a country defending itself from a U.S.-funded mercenary army

Hundreds of young people have been repatriated with no issue. Even right-wing UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid conceded 40 per cent of 900 British citizens who travelled to Syria had returned, been investigated, and “assessed to pose no or a low security risk.” Human Rights Watch notes just over two dozen countries have repatriated some of their citizens, while others remain detained “often with the explicit or implicit consent of their countries of nationality.”

In 2017, Letts wrote to his parents: “If the Prime Minister of Canada was saying ‘Let him out’, they would as this lot absolutely worship the West.”

Jack Letts wrote to his father in 2019: 

“After two years here I realize that I’m no longer considered human and have become a new, more despicable creature, with far less rights, in the eyes of the supposedly civilised world. I’ve become a piece of wheat in a hurricane whilst everyone explains that the only problem at the moment is that I didn’t die in Deir ar Zour or Raqqa. You said Canadians don’t give up but the Canadians haven’t even lifted a finger. There’s Canadian women and children in Syria and Canada doesn’t even respond to the requests to take them. What I don’t understand is why no-one told me that the idea of a second chance is just a Hollywood concept.”
-Jack Letts, 2019

Jack’s parents haven’t heard from him since.

How Jack was monstered

Jack’s parents, Sally and John, recall their son’s strong sense of fairness and compassion while growing up.  

At 16, Jack converted to Islam, taught himself Arabic and was “determined to be the best Muslim he could be.” He travelled to Jordan in May 2014 and then to Kuwait for Arabic and Islamic studies courses. To his parents’ horror, he called them in September, 2014, telling them he was in Syria. Shortly afterwards, he was in Fallujah (Iraq), working in a hospital and school and improving his language skills. 

Between December 2015 and early 2017, Jack maintained regular contact with his UK parents. In May 2015, he was injured in an air strike on his home and sent for medical treatment to Raqqa, Syria (which had the only hospital able to treat his injuries). Here he first encountered ISIS, and quickly fell afoul of them. He made it clear to his parents that he wanted to escape ISIS territories because his life was in danger. He had publicly opposed their teachings, been placed on trial, and imprisoned by ISIS three times.

Of the several inflammatory (and sometimes unintelligible) things that appeared on Jack’s Facebook page, his mother, Sally, has said, “I could tell that it appeared his account had been hacked…I later learned that Jack, still a very young man at the age of 18, had foolishly shared his Facebook password and others had used it, something he himself said was a stupid thing to do. Unfortunately, it is difficult to correct the misperceptions generated by blaring headlines.”

Fearing for their son’s life, his parents asked UK counter-terrorism police for approval to help him escape what appeared to be certain death. They agreed, and records show, the police told them they could wire him £1,000 to help him escape ISIS “in order to save their son’s life.” The payment was blocked, and they were instead charged with “funding terrorism” and prosecuted over a three year period at a cost of over £6 million ($10 million Canadian). 

In 2019, they were found not guilty of two charges of “funding terrorism.” The jury accepted Jack’s life was in danger from ISIS. However, police had added a third charge, claiming a payment of £223 for a refugee family in Lebanon (which police had initially discounted as a crime) could also (theoretically) have been used for terrorism. The fact that the refugees on the receiving end were Shia, and clearly not aligned with ISIS, was ignored. 

The trial also revealed that in hundreds of messages to his parents over four years, Jack never once espoused allegiance to ISIS or any other armed group. In fact, he condemned ISIS for their distortion of Islam and their cruelty. In his summing up, the judge accepted that there was no evidence that this £223 was used to fund terrorism, but guilt under the UK’s Terrorism Act relies on the opinion of the police, not evidence. Hence, Jack’s parents were found guilty, and are now on the UK terrorism register. This prevents them from maintaining bank accounts, travelling by air, and receiving trauma counselling (UK therapists regularly share their clients confidential files with police).

A tabloid betrayal

A sensationalist piece by a discredited Islamophobic writer, Richard Kerbaj, proved devastating. Sally recalls Kerbaj was introduced by a “deradicalisation” outfit that promised to help Jack escape Syria. She says there was an agreement to keep Jack’s identity secret given the risks to his life, and to support other families in their shoes. That agreement was violated on January 24, 2016, when “Jihadi Jack first white boy to join ISIS” appeared in the Sunday Times headlines. Kerbaj’s claim that Jack told his parents he had joined ISIS was a lie. John and Sally note Kerbaj has never released the tape-recorded conversation to support his allegation.

“Thanks to him, the nickname ‘Jihadi Jack’ is now burned into the minds of millions of people around the world,” Sally said. “And despite the lack of any supporting evidence, and as a result of a journalist’s lie, Jack himself is believed by millions to be a monster.”

The most damning line, Sally said, which she believes led to their terrorism charges, read: “Letts, a keen footballer and highly regarded student, admitted to his parents that he was with ISIS in Syria in September 2014.” But as Sally says, “Jack never said he was with ISIS; he only ever said he was in IS territory. In our court case, included within the notes to the jury was an explanation of the difference between being in IS territory and being a member of ISIS.”

Jack’s whiteness and conversion to Islam no doubt furthered anger against him, implying he was a “race traitor.” His tender age was also triggering for a culture that engages in moral panics about young people. That panic also branded his parents, John recalls, “as incompetent, neglectful, overly-liberal and dim-witted not to have stopped his alleged ‘radicalisation’ (which never occurred) and not to have prevented him from going to Syria.” Reports in the UK press also had a class dimension, giving open season to condemnation of “white, middle class, Oxford” parents who had allegedly abandoned their child and failed to give him “direction” and “meaning.”

Not uncommonly in the media, the facts interfered with a good story. This moral panic about a relatively small number of youth heading overseas also swept Canada. This despite  Canadian spy agency CSIS being implicated in assisting young girls to cross the border into Syria including 15-year-old Shamima Begum, still detained in NE Syria.

Torture by proxy

While in Raqqa, Jack witnessed ISIS’ brutal behaviour. He challenged ISIS members in the streets, and was jailed by ISIS three times. He escaped twice, and was warned that he’d be executed if he escaped again. He fled ISIS territory without his parents’ help in 2017, and was picked up by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). At first they treated him well – “like a hero,” according to Jack – because of his anti-ISIS stand. But Jack revealed that things took a sharp turn for the worse, after failed negotiations between the Kurdish authorities and the British government, and the monstering escalated. 

Tabloid media had recycled untruths that Jack was a front-line fighter, assassinating his reputation and contributing to the criminalisation of his parents. Jack shared with his  parents that he was told by the Kurds who tortured him that they had a “dossier” made up of such tabloid newspaper articles. 

In June 2019, the BBC published an incendiary piece, “Jack Letts, Islamic State recruit: ‘I was enemy of UK.’” Not explained were the circumstances of the interview, one conducted after torture – and under threat of future torture – along with armed guards out of camera range. 

In a witness statement, renowned civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith says Jack told him during a subsequent prison visit that the BBC interviewer’s questions were an exact match to questions he’d been asked while being tortured. The answers they expected were clear.  He knew he would be tortured if he didn’t give the BBC the answers his jailers wanted (as the BBC must also have realised, having arranged for an interview with someone who was arbitrarily detained without charge under brutal conditions, without access to a lawyer or family). Jack told Stafford Smith: “I was lying as I had been forced to lie when I was tortured because I knew what I was expected to say.”

Jack told Stafford Smith that when he was first in Kurdish custody, “there was no real interrogation to begin with. At the time I was only casually questioned. Then later it became serious. ‘You did this, this and this.’ This is when it was clear to me that the British were behind it. It was clear that the British were asking them to ask the questions.”

 Jack went on to say, “The first part of the interrogation they focused on Britain: Who taught you the radical ideology? Give us the names of people in the UK, including anyone who had anything to do with me becoming a Muslim. They asked about where my parents and I live in the UK. It was clear that they knew things, and that those things had come from the British.”

Stafford Smith noted: 

“Jack has had no visits by British Intelligence in person. Indeed, no one from the British Authorities has come to see him at all, though there is no reason why they could not (from what I learned from others, they have free access to the detention centres). But Jack felt sure the questions were from the British and they were not relevant to the SDF.  Jack did say that he did not hold it against the SDF as they were in a bad position and he felt that they were being coerced by the British.”

It appears Jack Letts was tortured by proxy, a common practice employed by Canadian intelligence agencies (against Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin, Abousfian Abdelrazik, Ahmad El Maati and others). Questions are delivered to the torture chamber from overseas interrogators who await answers in their comfortable Ottawa and London offices.

Two separate judicial inquiries found CSIS, the RCMP, and other Canadian agencies complicit in this practice. Given Canada’s membership in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, this raises a significant question: have the fruits of Jack’s torture been shared by the UK, and are they now being used as a secret rationale under the cover of the much-abused claim of “national security confidentiality” to keep Jack from coming home?

Indeed, following an initial 2017 promise from Canadian authorities that they would do all they could to assist Jack’s transfer out of detention, Global Affairs Canada performed an abrupt about-face. It has done nothing since but create obstacles to the repatriation of Letts and the other detainees. 

To call on Global Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly to repatriate Jack and these four dozen men, women and children to Canada, sign and share this petition. A solidarity chain fast is being organized as well here

Part 2 of this 3-part series explores the insidious role played by Canada’s diplomatic staff in perpetuating the arbitrary detention of these four dozen citizens. 

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Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.