Children Forced to Eat Sand: Free Jack Letts & 43 Canadian Kids, Women & Men in Syria

Children Forced to Eat Sand: Free Jack Letts & 43 Canadian Kids, Women & Men in Syria

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Matthew Behrens started this petition to Melanie Joly (Global Affairs Minister) and

Canada's Guantanamo Bay – where Muslims are off-shored beyond reach of law & rights, respect & dignity – is in NE Syria. 44 Canadians – men, women & kids – are illegally detained there under conditions the UN calls akin to torture because Ottawa refuses to repatriate them. Severely malnourished children are forced to eat sand and dirt. There is no clean water or nutritious food. There are rarely diapers or sanitary towels. There is no medical care. There is no education. There is no privacy. There are no soft beds. There are no playgrounds. Where do the children play? Next to cesspools of human waste. Some children have fallen into them. Sewage floods their tents. Wild dogs roam the camps terrorizing people. The men’s prison cells are packed with bone-thin prisoners, many with amputated limbs. Detainees remain in the same position from 8 am to midnight because they are so tightly packed in, with 1 overflowing latrine for 80 people.

Save the Children reports that youngsters they interviewed say their lives are “simply wasting away” with violence and illness a daily risk.

Human Rights Watch, The International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations, the US State Department, Save the Children and, in a rare show of cross-party unanimity,  a Canadian Parliamentary Committee, have all called for repatriation. 

One detainee, 26-year-old Jack Letts, jailed over 5 years without charge, has forgotten what the sun looks like. Imagine the horror of never seeing blue skies and sunshine. Learn more about his case at https://homesnotbombs.blogspot.com/2022/03/canada-must-stop-monstering-jack-letts.html

The Canadians' captors have been clear: send an official government representative for a handover and the detainees will be released. Yet Ottawa prefers to keep 8 men, 13 women and 23 children in appalling conditions in camps where 2-3 children die every week. In fact, Canada is investing $2.5 million to repatriate Iraqi nationals from these same camps and prisons, yet not a cent on repatriation of Canadians!

On June 23, there was a landmark event as two Canadian MPs, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, internationally renowned human rights lawyer, & half dozen human rights advocates all called for the repatriation of the 44 Canadian citizens illegally held in NE Syria. Watch event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2u_ELJ06Xo&t=4304s

BACKGROUND

As mentioned above, the longest held detainee is Jack Letts, 26, who has been imprisoned for over 5 years without charge under conditions the United Nations has described as meeting the “threshold for torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.”  

In January, 2018, Jack told an officer from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) that he rarely went outside, lives with 30 people in a room fit for eight, and that “everyone else sleeps on the floor”; he spent 35 days in a dungeon “about as tall as I am and half that in width”; he believed he was “going insane”, and while in solitary confinement he wrote a suicide note and “tried to kill myself but failed”. He had reached the point where he “thought dying was better than my mother seeing me insane so I tried to hang myself.” These words were reported directly to GAC, but GAC has failed to do anything in response to these shocking disclosures.

Jack and the other detainees have a constitutional right to return home, but GAC shamefully refuses to lift a finger to help. Officially, these Canadians are prisoners of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava), Canada’s ally in the war against ISIS. The Kurds have repeatedly called on Canada and all nations to come and collect their citizens - but the Canadian government still claims the Kurds ‘won’t cooperate’ and that it is allegedly unsafe for Canadian officials to visit the region.

As Human Rights Watch reports, failure to repatriate these emaciated and traumatized  detainees means the Canadian government “is flouting its international human rights obligations toward Canadians who are arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria and by providing inadequate support to family members seeking to provide their loved ones with essentials such as food and medicine, and to bring them home. The obligations that Canada has breached include taking necessary and reasonable steps to assist nationals abroad facing serious abuses including risks to life, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Earlier this year a group of retired Canadian diplomats wrote in the Hill-Times that “the government argues it is too dangerous for Canadian officials to go to the region in order to make the arrangements for the repatriations. This is fallacious - other governments go to the region; international humanitarian organizations operate in the area daily; and the authorities administering the regions are willing and able to assist.  But the government maintains Canadian officials are without the ability to do so. The government’s reasons for not helping are specious and are meant to disguise its complete unwillingness to help this specific group of Canadians.” 

Not only has Global Affairs Canada done nothing to help. They have invested significant amounts of taxpayers’ money to fight these detainees and their families in a Federal Court case likely to be heard later this spring.

If justice is served, the Federal Court will order Ottawa to take the steps necessary to bring all Canadian detainees home, a right to return guaranteed by Section 6 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the Federal Court concluded in a 2009 repatriation case, “Charter rights are not dependent on the wisdom of the choices Canadians make, nor their moral character or political beliefs. Foolish persons have no lesser rights under the Charter than those who have made wise choices or are considered to be morally and politically upstanding.”

While they wait for a decision, the detainees face what Human Rights Watch describes as “filthy and often inhuman and life-threatening conditions.”

In late January, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared: “States must repatriate their own citizens. Not just children. Children, women and men.” At the same time, Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of the Kurdish administration’s foreign office, reiterated what the Kurds have been saying for years: “Every country should take its citizens back.” On January 31, 2022, the US State Department called on its partners to “urgently repatriate their nationals and other detainees remaining in northeast Syria” Two weeks later, the Biden administration declared it was “bemused and infuriated” with the UK’s refusal to repatriate. Many believe that Canada’s reluctance to support its own citizens is in part due to UK pressure that it ‘hold the British line’. 

Even Canada’s own House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development has recommended that all the detainees be repatriated. 

Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, told that committee that Canada had earned an unenviable spot on a list of 57 nations “that no state should want to be on” for failing to repatriate citizens. “There’s a really clear and compelling positive obligation on Canada to prevent serious harm to its nationals, which it is in a position to prevent,” she told MPs, adding that it was lack of political will, and not diminished capacity, preventing Canadians’ return. She pointed to Kazakhstan, among many much smaller and less-resourced nations, that have been able to do bring home their citizens with ease, noting: “There are a lot of countries doing it and doing it well. There isn’t a deficit of examples out there.” 

Canada must stop relying on the media-generated myths about Jack and the other detainees as an excuse to perpetuate their misery. All of the Canadians who went to Syria have been unjustly tarred with the same “national security” brush. None have been given a chance to defend themselves in the court of public opinion against these false accusations. As is happening with Canadians flocking to resist the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a small number of young Canadians travelled to Syria during the Assad regime’s war against the Syrian people. Some went to fight; some, like Jack Letts, went for humanitarian reasons to help people suffering as a result of the civil war; and some went on a ‘grand adventure’ or to escape racism and Islamophobia at home. Most believed they were going to help build a non-violent, utopian, Muslim society – a dream that proved both false and lethal for many. Many, like Jack Letts, opposed ISIS in the streets and were prosecuted for opposing them – a fact the Western media refuses to acknowledge.

Hundreds of those detained when the Islamic State collapsed have returned home ‘under the radar’, including 400 British citizens, without any issues. Almost all are scarred by their experience and want nothing to do with violence. Canada is playing a dangerous and lethal political game by leaving its own citizens – including children - to die from malnutrition and diseases like Tuberculosis, or to be killed by vengeful guards or ISIS members who share cells with anti-ISIS partisans. 

In addition to concerns about conditions in which he is being held, Jack’s loved ones are also concerned because of a family history of “polycystic kidney disease”. It's killed many of his family in Canada and the UK. It causes high blood pressure which leads to unpredictable brain hemorrhage unless treated - particularly in younger men in their family.

Letts went to Syria in 2014 as a compassionate 18-year-old to help people brutalized by the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s unspeakable crimes. Since then, he’s been caught up in an Orwellian nightmare created by a racist “Global War on Terror” propaganda machine. That machine  accuses without evidence, detains without charge, tortures with impunity, condemns by association, and relies on broad definitions of alleged threats as it violates the most basic human rights guaranteed under the so-called “rules-based international order.” 

Meanwhile, deceitful Canadian and British politicians and journalists conspired to create a mythical “Jihadi Jack” persona that is unconnected with reality. Like other Islamophobic narratives, this myth has been used to deny his humanity and to prevent his repatriation. Despite the evidence that Jack opposed ISIS and was on an ISIS death list for having opposed them, and despite the fact that he was never a fighter or committed any crime, Jack was stripped of his UK citizenship in August 2019 – without any due process. His only option for repatriation is with Canada. 

Jack was jailed three times for speaking out against ISIS, and was captured by Kurdish forces on his third attempt to escape from ISIS. He risked his life to escape from ISIS, not to support them. Like many of his fellow detainees, he was in a prison in Syria when ISIS was finally defeated on the battlefield. Having been in IS territory is not the same as having been an ISIS member. Jack has also said he had to give his Facebook password to others, who posted bizarre religious statements that were wrongfully attributed to him. This unfairly contributed to negative portrayals of him.

Jack has also been interviewed while in prison under highly problematic circumstances that may well be illegal under international law, especially given he has never had access to legal counsel, and media organizations would have had to broker agreements with those arbitrarily detaining him. The most sensational interview, by the BBC, was conducted with gun-toting Kurdish security officials watching over him. As he later shared with a British lawyer and an MP – the only two visitors he has had in 5 years – Jack’s answers to the BBC journalist’s questions were what he knew he had to say in order not to be tortured again. Jack said: “I was lying as I had been forced to lie when I was tortured because I knew what I was expected to say.” 

According to his lawyer, Jack said that when he was first in Kurdish custody, “there was no real interrogation to begin with.  At the time I was only casually questioned.  Then later it became serious.  ‘You did this, this and this.’ This is when it was clear to me that the British were behind it.  It was clear that the British were asking them to ask the questions.”

His lawyer also explained: “Jack did say that he did not hold it against the SDF [Kurdish forces] as they were in a bad position and he felt that they were being coerced by the British.” (For more on Jack’s story, see Canada Must Stop Monstering Jack Letts and Bring Him Home at  http://homesnotbombs.blogspot.com/2022/03/canada-must-stop-monstering-jack-letts.html). 

Jack’s story is one of dozens that puts the lie to the unsubstantiated notion that these Canadian detainees cannot be brought home. As with the tragic, lethal lie of Guantanamo Bay, if the past 20 years have taught us nothing else about Canada, it’s that Muslims and racialized “others” are always assumed guilty, dangerous, deceptive, disposable, and deceitful. Indeed, there is a lengthy string of cases of Muslims detained overseas and at home who have been called the “worst of the worst,” and dire threats to Canadian security who cannot be freed or brought home. Yet when they have come home the sky has not fallen in. Court cases, judicial inquiries, and the public record point to a despicable record of prejudice by politicians, headline writers and Muslim-hating columnists who have turned innocent Muslims into monsters.

Jack wrote to his father in 2019 : “After two years here I realize that I’m no longer considered human and have become a new, more despicable creature, with far less rights, in the eyes of the supposedly civilised world. I’ve become a piece of wheat in a hurricane whilst everyone explains that the only problem at the moment is that I didn’t die … There’s Canadian women and children in Syria and Canada doesn’t even respond to the requests to take them. What I don’t understand is why no-one told me that the idea of a second chance is just a Hollywood concept.”

On February 15, 2022, Global Affairs Canada celebrated the first anniversary of signing the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which it declared “is a natural extension of [Canada’s] steadfast commitment to upholding universal human rights and the rules-based international order.” To the parents of Jack Letts and many others, the celebration was an insult and media spin.

In order for this commitment to be genuine, and to uphold the rights of all Canadians enshrined in the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada must repatriate Jack Letts and all of the other Canadians illegally detained in NE Syria. 

It’s time to bring them all home. 

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