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John Letts walks out of Parliament Hill in Ottawa after meeting with Members of Parliament to advocate for his son Jack’s return.Dave Chan/Dave Chan

John Letts, the father of a Canadian who has spent years in detention in Syria for allegedly joining the Islamic State, is urging the federal government to repatriate his son, saying he should be allowed to stand trial in Canada.

Mr. Letts, who is from Canada but lives in Britain, is in Ottawa this week meeting with Members of Parliament to advocate for his son Jack’s return. Jack was a dual U.K.-Canada citizen, but Britain stripped his citizenship in 2019.

Mr. Letts told The Globe and Mail his son converted to Islam when he was 15. At 18, Jack left the family’s home in Oxford for what he said would be a vacation in Jordan, but he never returned. He studied Arabic in Kuwait, then went to Iraq and Syria.

Jack admitted to joining ISIS in an interview with the BBC in 2019, but Mr. Letts said his son was under duress during the television appearance. In the interview, Jack said he made a mistake.

Mr. Letts said Jack once told him that he spoke out against the Islamic State in Syria.

For the past four years, Mr. Letts said, he has had almost no contact with Jack. “You can’t sit and have that conversation, like, ‘What the hell did you do, kid? Why did you make this decision?’ I’ve never had that chance.”

He said the ordeal has devastated him, and that he has had “some very long dark nights.” He added that the situation has also been hard on his wife, Sally, who is now living in Canada.

Mr. Letts said his son was picked up by Kurdish authorities outside of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017, and has been imprisoned ever since.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have detained thousands of people from more than 60 countries who were living among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s final holdout in Baghouz crumbled in 2019. Jack was picked up long before that final push.

Human Rights Watch has estimated that there are about 45 Canadians being held in Syria as a result of suspected Islamic State connections and that half are children.

Experts and aid groups have decried the dire conditions in Syrian detention camps, but Canada has refused to repatriate its citizens in all but three cases: two children, and the mother of one of the children.

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who researches extremism, said it would be better to bring Canadians home and put them through the justice system, rather than let them languish in Syria.

Kids, he noted, are growing up in detention. “Hundreds of kids are dying every year, constant violence in these camps,” he said.

Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said she believes Jack should be repatriated and prosecuted. It’s the right thing to do, she added, “if we actually want to hold people accountable for their crimes, if we want to demonstrate that we believe in the rule of law and we are not in favour of arbitrary detention.”

Ms. West said Jack’s case is more challenging than those of other Canadians because he left from the U.K., meaning authorities can’t charge him with leaving Canada to participate or facilitate the activities of a terrorist group. He would instead need to be charged with another offence.

“It would be challenging to prove exactly what he did on the ground, because it was in a time of heightened conflict. We don’t have Canadians on the ground, state officials. Collecting evidence would be challenging,” she said. But, she added, the U.K. might be able to share information on Jack, and his electronic communication from before he was detained could be used as evidence. Or he could admit to offences.

Mr. Letts said Global Affairs Canada has made it clear that if Jack were somehow able to make his way to a Canadian embassy or consulate they would consider giving him a travel document that would allow him to return.

James Cudmore, director of communications for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, said that in a situation where charges couldn’t be laid, the RCMP and its security and intelligence partners would continue their investigation while other tools were used to mitigate any threat to public safety.

Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan said Jack should not be allowed to enter Canada.

NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said other countries have repatriated their citizens to be prosecuted, and that Canada has the responsibility to do the same.

Patricia Skinner, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, reiterated the same thing Ottawa has said about cases such as Jack’s for years: “The government of Canada is aware of Canadian citizens being detained in Syria. Given the security situation on the ground, the government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited.”

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