Former neighbours I had not seen for years recently came back into my life when they told me that their son Jack, who had converted to Islam as a teenager at Oxford’s Cherwell comprehensive school, was trapped in ISIS territory in Raqqa, Syria.
In September 2014, aged 18, he had travelled to Syria by some circuitous route, inspired by the idea of a truly Islamic government and wanting to help. But it did not take long before this deeply religious young man was denouncing ISIS for their un-Islamic behaviour and horrific actions, including the mass execution of their own former supporters. Forced into hiding, he was desperate to find a way out before he was executed himself.
Jack’s parents, John Letts and and Sally Lane, had tried to send him a thousand pounds to pay to a guide to arrange his escape. But a last-minute police intervention (after officers had previously approved the transfer) blocked the payment. Then they were both arrested and charged with ‘making money available knowing or having reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for a terrorist purpose’. Both have pleaded not guilty.
These charges, for which they are now being prosecuted in London’s Old Bailey criminal court, carry the risk of 14-year prison sentences. Proceedings have taken a break while the Supreme Court considers an important point of law: whether that danger of the money falling into terrorist hands should be considered objectively, or in the light of John and Sally’s personal knowledge and understanding at the time.
But in May 2017, after two years of trying, Jack finally escaped. After being shot at by border guards and crossing a live mine field, he arrived safely in the autonomous Kurdish Syrian territory of Rojava, in the north-east of the country. At first he was well-received by the YPG, the same Kurdish forces that have been liberating Raqqa from ISIS. But then things took a darker turn.
The YPG handed Jack over to the civilian authorities of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), who placed him in ‘protective custody’ in a prison in Qamshileh, near the Turkish border, until he could be handed over into the safe custody of UK or Canadian authorities (he’s a dual British / Canadian citizen). So far, so good.
But then everything slowed down. Jack’s detention has now continued for over five months. He has been allowed no contact with the outside world since July, and information reaches John and Sally only in minute dribs and drabs via third parties. What they do know is that Jack has been kept for long periods in solitary confinement. He has been underfed and experienced severe hunger. When they last spoke on the phone back on 8th July he was in acute distress and indicated that he had been threatened with torture.
To John and Sally’s knowledge the UK government hasn’t lifted a finger to help Jack, despite their responsibility to provide assistance to distressed British citizens abroad. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, who takes responsibility for the region, has repeatedly claimed that the government is unable to act because it has no consular presence in Rojava.
But this is to ignore the substantial British military presence in the region, referred to in a June 2016 BBC report which mentions “British special forces operating in the area.” Their job is to train YPG forces and prepare them for combat (in which respect they seem to have done rather well in view of the Raqqa and other victories). Also, as the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank noted in December 2016,
The PYD utilizes its access to global communications and advocacy networks to pursue a sophisticated programme of public diplomacy … The Rojava project is credited for its ability to communicate and create solidarity for itself via traditional and new media as well as diplomacy institutions and networks. This promotes a thriving discourse; one that links to universalist values, is consistent and is crucially tailored to different audiences.
This does not look like an authority that is immune to diplomatic pressure from one of its principal supporters, the UK government. Indeed the contrary. It would be hard for the PYD to refuse a request from the UK government for the release of Jack Letts to its diplomatic representatives or military forces, all the more so as Jack’s continuing detention without charge casts grave doubt on the PYD’s commitment to ‘universalist values’. He could then be rapidly conveyed to Qamshileh’s large airport and returned to the UK, doubtless landing at Brize Norton airport, half an hour’s drive from his Oxford home.
Meanwhile international organisations concerned with such matters have been of little or no help. The Red Cross / Red Crescent says it has tried to visit Jack, but says prison authorities denied access to their representatives. Amnesty International has refused to intervene because, they say, the case is “too politically sensitive”. Prisoners Abroad has declined to take up their case. As for the Canadian government, their initial can-do attitude soon lapsed into a sober view that he is likely to remain there for some extended period. However their diplomats do at least provide occasional reports, for example to confirm that they believe him to be alive.
So why the UK’s government’s abjuration of responsibility for Jack Letts? One explanation concerns the role that he could play in his parents ‘terrorism’ case – which is starting to acquire the character of a show trial being pursued for highly politicised purposes. His appearance as a witness for the defence could destroy the prosecution case at a stroke. How much easier to allow his detention in Rojava to continue … indefinitely.
But John and Sally also suspect the intervention of the USA, whose military and intelligence presence in Rojava is considerably greater than the UK’s. It has already been revealed that in addition to its well-known detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the US operates a covert network of ‘black sites’ around the world for detention and torture of suspects in its ‘war on terror’ (ten of which are listed here).
They believe that the Qamshileh prison serves as another such black site: conveniently located in a disputed territory beyond the reach of law and consular officials, and close to a large airport well suited to international renditions. If their theory is correct, it would also provide a second explanation for the UK government’s reluctance, or inability, to secure Jack’s release. It might also explain the reluctance of human rights organisations to risk confrontation with the US government and its powerful security organisations.
John and Sally now fear that unless they raise the volume of public concern and publicity around Jack’s continuing illegal detention without trial, they may never see him again. He might die in custody from some infection compounded by malnutrition. He might be given a secret trial, convicted, and executed. He might lose his mind to depression and commit suicide. That’s why they are today beginning a week-long hunger strike at various locations in London, beginning today at St Paul’s Cathedral.
In a statement released to the press today, Sally writes:
Although the British police have repeatedly told us there is no evidence that Jack has done anything wrong, he has been labelled in the world’s press as a jihadi, on the assumption that everyone who goes to Syria must be a ‘terrorist’. Jack is now paying the price of such irresponsible reporting, so that now, despite the lack of any evidence against him, he is being held under false suspicion. Held indefinitely without charge, he has not been given a lawyer and has no opportunity to defend himself.
The truth is that Jack worked against ISIS while in hiding, and has not been involved in violence. After trying to leave Syria for almost two years, he finally escaped in May 2017, and was intercepted by the Kurdish YPG forces while fleeing to the Turkish border. He has had no access to family, to welfare visits from the Red Cross or any other organisation, nor consular assistance, in a clear breach of the Geneva Convention.
Jack’s father John adds:
During our last conversation with Jack on July 8th, he told us that he had been held for two months in solitary confinement with ‘only my brain for company’; that he was not allowed to leave his cell at all; and was being inadequately fed. Jack also said that humanity had forgotten about him and he feared he was losing his mind.
Despite our pleas, the British government has refused to engage with the Kurdish authorities in trying to secure Jack’s release. They state there is no consular assistance in Rojava and that this self-declared autonomous region is not recognised by any foreign government. They also state that they advise against all travel to Syria, as this absolves them of any responsibility for any British national who fails to follow their advice.
The British government has a duty to protect its citizens, including the many British Muslims who went to Syria for humanitarian or religious reasons. We believe the government’s policy of preventing anyone who went to Syria from returning to the UK is short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive. Young people like Jack, who publicly condemned IS brutality in Syria, can bear witness to the destruction caused by religious and political fanaticism, and the human cost of the battle for the oil resources of the Middle East.
John and Sally insist they are not trying to get Jack any kind of ‘free pass’ for any crimes he may have committed in Syria – though they clearly do not believe he is guilty of any serious wrongdoing. “If the British authorities think Jack has done anything wrong,” says Sally, “then bring him back to the UK to face the music. Put him on trial, and present the evidence! What is utterly unacceptable is to leave him to die in some lawless middle-eastern hell hole.”
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Oliver Tickell is contributing editor at Ecologist & Resurgence magazine.