Federal officials say Britain is shirking its responsibilities by revoking the citizenship of a man dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by media, leaving the alleged terrorist imprisoned in Syria with solely Canadian citizenship.
Jack Letts, a British-born son of two Canadian citizens, has been held in Kurdish prison for two years and faces allegations he may have once been a fighter for the Islamic State.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office confirmed that Mr. Letts’s British citizenship has been revoked and in a statement on Sunday expressed frustration with the actions of Britain’s Home Office.
“Canada is disappointed that the United Kingdom has taken this unilateral action to off-load their responsibilities,” the minister said, adding that countries should be working together on security matters.
Dozens of Canadians and their families are believed to be stuck in makeshift prison camps set up in Syria, as the Islamic State’s hold on parts of that country and Iraq has largely collapsed. While some governments have sought to repatriate their citizens to prosecute them, others like the U.K. have decided to revoke the citizenships of men and women held in the same detention centres as hardened Islamic State fighters.
Investigating, arresting and prosecuting Canadians involved in terrorism is a serious federal responsibility, according to Mr. Goodale’s office. However, Mr. Letts’s case presents logistical issues. “The Government is aware of some Canadian citizens currently detained in Syria. There is no legal obligation to facilitate their return. We will not expose our consular officials to undue risk in this dangerous part of the world.”
About 20 Canadian citizens are believed to have returned from Islamic State territory in recent years, after the Islamic State’s collapse.
Mr. Letts’ father, John Letts, is calling on Canada to bring Mr. Letts home and punish him if he’s found to have ties to the terror group. The elder Mr. Letts said he and his wife have lived through an ordeal since their son left for the Middle East five years ago when he was 18.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail, the elder Mr. Letts said he was not surprised when he learned a month ago that his son’s citizenship was stripped in the final days of former British prime minister Theresa May’s government. The news was first reported in British newspapers Sunday.
“We were expecting it, but it’s disappointing and I’m worried about what Jack will think of it. But who will tell him? As far as we know he’s in solitary detention and I don’t know how he’ll ever find out," Mr. Letts said from his home in Oxford, England.
“It’s disappointing that this is how the British government deals with its issues," he added. "Part of me thinks that Canada is a far more enlightened and democratic place than Britain. That doesn’t mean I think Canada is at all soft on terrorism.”
The family has not spoken to their son in more than four years. Their last communication with him, via a messaging app, was just before he was jailed. John Letts said he doesn’t know for sure his son is still alive, but he does worry about his mental and physical health. Human-rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who met with the younger Mr. Letts during his captivity, has said there are signs he has been tortured.
Mr. Letts’s case has been a favourite of the British media since they first labelled him as a terrorist. To Mr. Letts’s critics, he’s a Briton who converted to Islam, went to a war zone and became a fighter for the Islamic State.
The 24-year-old himself has denied ever being in the Islamic State and has told reporters that he resisted their rule while living in their de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa. He has said he was tortured by the Islamic State and was escaping their territory when he was captured by Kurdish militias who have been armed by the United States.
John Letts said Canadians should not be concerned his son’s case would follow that of Omar Khadr, who was captured by U.S. soldiers after a firefight in Afghanistan and was detained in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade. The Canadian government paid Mr. Khadr $10.5-million and apologized for violating his rights.
“That’s not going to happen here, the Canadian government played no part in my son’s torture. They should seek to get him out of there,” John Letts said.
Canadian consular officials met with the man over a year ago in Syria and attempted to negotiate his release from jail, according to documents obtained by the CBC. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer pounced on the government at the time and asked why Canada would ever seek to help the man.
“Justin Trudeau must assure Canadians today that he isn’t trying to bring Jihadi Jack back to Canada,” Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus said in a statement to The Globe and Mail on Sunday.
According to Kyle Matthews, a former diplomat and the head of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Canada has struggled to find an approach to returning alleged foreign fighters and has no coherent strategy. “The Canadian government has been fearful about bringing people back from that part of Syria because of concerns that it’ll be a political issue and possibly a security issue here,” he said.
He said the federal government should closely investigate any person returning from Islamic State territory to see whether they committed any war crimes or human-rights abuses. No law requires Canada to take back people held in camps over allegations they may have joined the terror group.