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Politics Parents of ‘Jihadi Jack’ weigh move to Canada, will press Ottawa for son’s repatriation

John Letts, father of Jack Letts, speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill on Oct. 29, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The father of Jack Letts, a Canadian who was stripped of his British citizenship over his alleged support for the Islamic State, says he is hoping to visit Canada in the coming weeks to advocate for his son’s repatriation and is considering a permanent move.

Britain recently revoked the citizenship of the man dubbed as “Jihadi Jack,” making the former dual-national Canada’s responsibility if he is ever deported from Syria, where he is being held in a Kurdish-run jail. Speaking to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Jack’s father, John Letts, said he is hoping the Canadian government will “step up to the plate” to secure his son’s release. John and his wife, Sally Lane – both of whom are dual Canadian-British citizens – were recently convicted by a British court of funding terrorism for sending Jack money to help him escape from Syria.

John said he hopes his son’s case will be an issue for Canadians in the fall federal election campaign. The country’s political leaders have already faced questions about how they will respond to the dozens of Canadians, including women and children, trapped in makeshift prison camps in Syria. But families of these Canadians believe there is no political will to act on the controversial matter before the election.

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“I intend to do everything I can to make people think about this issue before the end of the election,” John said in an interview from his home in Oxford, England.

Opinion: If Jihadi Jack comes home, Canada has only itself to blame

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to say at a news conference on Monday whether he would be open to repatriating Jack Letts to Canada, saying “it is a crime to travel internationally with a goal of supporting terrorism or engaging in terrorism.” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said on Monday he wouldn’t “lift a finger” to repatriate Jack. NDP spokeswoman Mélanie Richer said: “As much as we may loathe the actions of Canadians who have committed terrorist offences, … having them go through the Canadian justice system is at the core of a society that’s rule-based and respects the rule of law.”

John said he and Ms. Lane are considering moving to Canada in the longer term because they’ve been “basically hounded out of Britain” for being Jack’s parents.

“It’s destroyed us in a personal sense. It’s destroyed our family. It’s certainly destroyed us financially. We’re about destitute. We literally can’t pay the rent so we have to abandon our rented house,” John said.

The couple was sentenced to 15 months in prison in June, but the judge suspended the sentence for a year, saying they had lost sight of reality while trying to help their son.

John said he and Ms. Lane would like to be in Canada if Jack is repatriated, so they can support him through his return.

“If Britain doesn’t like who I am, I’d happily move to Canada, and we’re talking about that as an option," he said.

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John insists his 24-year-old son is innocent and that he went to the Middle East from Britain in 2014 to learn Arabic before ending up in Syria. In interviews with reporters, Jack has admitted to joining the Islamic State, but his father has expressed concern that his son was threatened into making false confessions.

Jack told a British television network he hopes Canada will take him back. He said he has been to Canada seven times in his life and has always felt as though he is a “mix” of British and Canadian descent.

“I always expected Canada would help me, and they didn’t," Jack Letts said in a video posted to the ITV News website on Monday. “I hope Canada does take me from here. If they can take me to Canada, that would be good.”

Leah West, a lecturer at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said that because John Letts and Ms. Lane are Canadian citizens, the government cannot prevent them from coming to Canada.

Ms. West said that if the couple moves to Canada, they may have an easier time advocating on their son’s behalf because they can tell their story and attend rallies in person, which may be more effective than appearing on the news.

“They would become someone’s constituents, they would have an MP that they could pressure. They would be closer to consular services,” she said.

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Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who researches extremism, said he doesn’t think John Letts and Ms. Lane coming to Canada will move their son’s case along, especially with the election on the horizon.

“I don’t think any kind of advocating is really working on these issues. I think it’s basically being decided at the government level, with political considerations in mind.”

According to Prof. Amarasingam, an estimated 33 Canadians – including some who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State as well as their wives and children – are stuck in makeshift prison camps there, 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 such as Britain have decided to revoke the citizenships of men and women held in the same detention centres as hardened Islamic State fighters. No law requires Canada to take back people held in camps over allegations they may have joined the terror group.

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