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Thom Barker: Please stop calling him “Jihadi Jack”

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Submitted

The case of a Canadian imprisoned in Syria on suspicion of terrorism is a reminder that we must constantly guard against thinking with our guts instead of heads.

Jack Abraham Letts, a UK-born Canadian citizen dubbed “Jihadi Jack” by the British press, is an alleged terrorist, who is currently seeking repatriation to Canada.

Letts first came to media attention in January 2016 when the Sunday Times (London) reported he had become “the first white British male identified as having joined ISIS.” The Times claimed after converting to Islam, the then-18-year-old Letts travelled to Kuwait ostensibly to study Arabic, then moved on to ISIS-controlled Syria to fight with the extremist Islamic State.

In June of 2017, the BBC reported Letts had fled the ISIS-controlled area of Syria and was in jail in the Kurdish-controlled area of the country on suspicion of being a member of an extremist group.

Last month, CBC News reported Canadian diplomats had been in contact with Letts and that he wants to come to Canada. I fully understand the impulse to say, “hell no, we don’t want him,” but resisting that impulse is exactly what we must do.

To refuse to take him would be predicated on the assumption of guilt and that it is far from clear because there are competing narratives. The assumption of guilt also runs opposite to the foundational principle of Canadian justice that a person is innocent until proven guilty as laid out in Section 11(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Even the fact we keep repeating the nickname “Jihadi Jack” is prejudicial, as is the fact he is a prisoner suspected of being a member of an extremist group.

But even that is not entirely clear. His Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ has said from a legal perspective he could just as easily be considered a hostage as a prisoner. The group that has him is the Kurdish YPG militia, which is itself considered by some, including Turkey, as an extremist group.

None of this matters, nor does the fact he is also a British citizen. He is a Canadian, who has asked Canada for assistance. We have an obligation to assist him under the Constitution. He is entitled to due process under the Canadian justice system, not under the harsh ground rules of a war zone.

It appears, so far, Canada is doing the right thing. Although there is no official confirmation from government sources, CBC is reporting that both John Letts (father) and Champ have said Global Affairs Canada has assured them it is unambiguously working toward getting him out of Syria and into Canada.

However, that is complicated. Because the YPG is not a country, or even an officially recognized military entity, and because the Canadian military is not active in Syria, nor do we have a diplomatic presence there, the question becomes a logistical one. How do we facilitate the transfer?

The professionals are working at it. In the meantime, we must resist the temptation to abandon a fellow citizen no matter how distasteful his political views might be (or have been) or what horrifying activities he may have been involved in.

This is why we have due process and the rule of law, to protect each and every one of us as citizens. To operate otherwise would be political and an abandonment of our principles.

Even if it is to ultimately try and imprison Jack Letts, we must bring him home.

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