Activists hail Canada court's ruling to repatriate citizens held in Syria

Court rules four men detained in north-east Syria must be sent home

John Letts and Sally Lane, the parents of Jack Letts, dubbed Jihadi Jack, arrive at the Old Bailey, London. The couple are charged with three counts of funding terrorism for sending money to their Muslim convert son after he joined Islamic State.
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Activists have hailed as "historic" a Canadian court’s decision to force the government to repatriate four men held in north-east Syria since the fall of ISIS in 2019.

“It’s really important,” said Matthew Behrens, who runs Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture, which advocates for Canadians detained abroad.

“It's the very first time any country has been forced to return not only the women and the kids, but also the men from north-east Syria.”

For years, the Canadian government resisted calls from activists and family members to repatriate its citizens from Syrian detention camps and prisons.

But after years of dragging its feet and resisting legal challenges, the government announced last week that it would repatriate 19 citizens from northern Syria, where they have been held in overcrowded and often dangerous detention camps.

On Friday, the day after Global Affairs Canada revealed it would be repatriating the 19 citizens, the federal court ruled that the government must also repatriate four men believed to be in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

It was not immediately clear if any of the men would face criminal prosecution on their return to Canada.

In October, authorities arrested two Canadian women as they returned home from a camp for family members of ISIS fighters in north-east Syria.

In his ruling, Justice Henry Brown acknowledged the poor conditions in which the men were being held and the fact that they had not been charged with a crime.

“The conditions of the … men are even more dire than those of the women and children who Canada has just agreed to repatriate,” Justice Brown said in his ruling.

“The Canadian men are imprisoned against their will without charge or trial."

Lawyers representing the detained Canadians welcomed the court's decision.

“This is wonderful, wonderful news,” said Lawrence Greenspon, who represents three of the men, who have not been publicly identified, and all of the women and children.

“This is what we have been fighting for for the last three and a half years and it's everything that we'd hoped for.”

The fourth man is Jack Letts, a British-born Muslim convert who travelled to Syria in 2014 when he was 18 and allegedly joined ISIS.

“This case is a really important one,” lawyer Barbara Jackman, who represents Mr Letts, told The National.

“They’re not in a position, the woman and children or the men, to help themselves.

"So if the government doesn't step in and say this has to stop because they’re being mistreated, they’re not going to have anyone to be on their side."

Called "Jihadi Jack" by the British press, Mr Letts was captured by western-backed Kurdish forces in 2017.

He held dual British and Canadian citizenship until the UK stripped him of his British passport in 2019, causing a dispute between the two allies, with Ottawa accusing London of shirking its responsibilities.

His parents Sally Lane and John Letts have been pressing Ottawa to bring him home for years.

Mr Letts's exact whereabouts and condition remain unknown. His last communication with his mother was a letter delivered to her by the Red Cross in September 2021.

In it, he implored her to “never give up”, a message she took to heart, Mr Behrens, a family friend, told The National.

“It's our hope that everyone is hanging in there and is fit enough to be able to make the journey home," Mr Behrens said.

While the court did not specify a time frame for the government to repatriate the men and women, he said there was no reason it could not be done within the next month.

Updated: January 23, 2023, 11:13 PM