The mother of a Canadian man who has spent years detained in northeast Syria on suspicion of having joined the Islamic State says she is thrilled with a judge’s decision to order the federal government to bring her son to Canada, though when the two will be reunited is still uncertain.
Sally Lane moved to Ottawa from Britain three years ago as she campaigned for the release and return of her son, Jack Letts.
In a ruling last week, Federal Court Justice Henry Brown ordered the government to repatriate Mr. Letts and three other Canadian men being held in Syria and to provide them with passports or emergency travel documents. The judge said these things should be done as soon as reasonably possible, but didn’t specify a timeline.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Ms. Lane said of the decision.
Mr. Letts and the other three men are part of a larger group that applied to the Federal Court for help getting out of Syrian detention. Shortly before last week’s court ruling, the government struck an agreement with the group to repatriate its other members, six women and 13 children. But the men were not covered by the agreement.
Justice Brown decided that the government has an obligation to help the men as well.
Grantly Franklin, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, would not comment on the ruling. “The safety and security of Canadians is our government’s top priority. We remain committed to taking a robust approach to this issue,” he said, adding that the department will have more to say at a later date.
In 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained thousands of people from more than 60 countries who were living among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s final holdout in the town of Baghouz crumbled. Foreigners, including Canadians, were taken to two camps, known as al-Hol and Roj, and to prisons across northeastern Syria.
According to Ms. Lane and John Letts, Mr. Letts’ father, Jack was imprisoned years before that happened, in 2017. They have said Jack did not support the Islamic State.
John, who is from Canada but lives in Britain, told The Globe and Mail in 2021 that his son had converted to Islam as a teenager. At 18, he said, Jack left the family’s home in Oxford for what he said would be a vacation in Jordan but never returned. He studied Arabic in Kuwait, and then went to Iraq and Syria.
Ms. Lane, a dual Canadian-British citizen, said she came to Ottawa because being closer to the Canadian government and the family’s Canadian lawyer made sense for the campaign to secure Jack’s return. Also, she said, the move has allowed her to make a home for Jack, who is not allowed to enter Britain. The British government stripped him of his citizenship.
She said getting the Canadian government to act has been frustrating. “Every time you write to them, they just say your concerns are put on file. You don’t say that to people when their offspring are in life-threatening situations. … They’ve just pretended this whole time that there’s nothing they can do.”
Although human-rights groups and experts have for years urged the federal government to repatriate Canadians detained in northeast Syria, Global Affairs Canada has maintained that helping them is difficult because Canada has no diplomatic presence in the country. Opponents of repatriating suspected Islamic State members have argued that bringing them to Canada poses a security risk.
Ms. Lane said she hopes the men are repatriated at the same time as the women and children. “We’re over the moon right now, but we know that we have to make sure that the government actually does comply with this order,” she said.
She added that she plans to devote her time to looking after her son once he arrives here. “I hope we can just go for long walks … walks in the wilderness. That’s my plan.”
She noted that she has written a book about her family’s case, which will be published next week. She said she hopes its release will mean “misinformation about Jack will be corrected once and for all.”
Barbara Jackman, a lawyer representing Jack, called the judge’s ruling a “stepping stone” toward broader recognition that Canada has an obligation to its citizens in distress abroad. The government’s reluctance to act, she said, has been “purely political.”
“It has nothing to do with human rights,” Ms. Jackman said. “And, unfortunately, people may very well really need help. But, for political reasons, the government’s just going to let them suffer. That’s what’s happened here.”
She said the government is obligated to act promptly and can’t sit on the decision indefinitely.
Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs, national security law, counterterrorism and cyber operations at Carleton University, said she could see the government challenging the decision while still bringing the Canadians back.
“This decision creates positive obligations to provide a certain amount of counsellor assistance to Canadians detained abroad. And I can see why the government would want to appeal that finding in and of itself, separate from who it’s about,” she said, adding that the decision would have ramifications for any other Canadians who are in detention in foreign countries.