Supreme Court asked to reconsider hearing case of Canadian men detained in Syria

In a rare move, lawyers representing four Canadian men held in prisons in northeastern Syria have asked Canada’s top court to reconsider its decision not to hear their claim that Canada has a duty to bring them home.

The detained Canadian men include Jack Letts, who ended up in Syria after becoming a devoted Muslim as a teenager and then going on holiday in Jordan.

They are among tens of thousands of Syrians and foreign nationals being held in the region by Kurdish-led forces at camps and prisons for ISIS suspects and their families. Kurdish-led forces reclaimed the region in 2019 from the extremist group.

Letts’s family received proof their son was alive this past summer after years of uncertainty. That same year, the Supreme Court of Canada chose not to hear the appeal of the four men.

The court says it considers such judgments to be final and won’t reconsider them unless there are “exceedingly rare circumstances.”

Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon said this is the first time in his more than 40 years in law that he’s been involved in asking the Supreme Court to consider such rare circumstances.

“The rare circumstances are that it’s a matter of life and death for Canadians in a foreign jurisdiction that has encouraged Canada to repatriate its citizens,” said Greenspon, who represents two of the men.

“Those circumstances have never been replicated before.”

Jack Letts has been detained for years in northeastern Syria, according to court documents. (Facebook)

The U.S. warned in December that the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition manages the “largest concentration of detained terrorists in the world” and there could be a “possible resurgence of ISIS” if countries fail to repatriate their citizens.

Five lawyers, including Greenspon, have now asked the Supreme Court to reconsider hearing a challenge of a Federal Court of Appeal ruling in May that concluded Canada does not have a legal obligation to rescue and repatriate citizens who get themselves into trouble abroad.

The federal government argued at the Federal Court of Appeal that the men went to Syria against the government’s travel advice and Ottawa doesn’t have to bring them home. A lower court had ruled the four men were entitled to have the federal government make a formal request for their release as soon as reasonably possible.

Lawyer says clients living in ‘horrendous’ conditions

Greenspon said the case is without precedent in Canadian jurisprudence, so the Supreme Court should hear it. He said he’s aware of two other successful cases where the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge after being asked to reconsider, he said.

“Canada has consigned these men to exile,” says the motion to reconsider an application for leave to appeal.  “And there is a good likelihood that Canada will be consigning them to their deaths.”

Greenspon said the Canadian men are living in “horrendous” conditions in Syria indefinitely without “any charges being laid.”

“We’re talking malnutrition, willfully overcrowded cells, medically compromised health that’s being untreated, unattended,” he said.

Aside from Letts, the men’s identities are protected by a publication ban, Greenspon said.

WATCH/ Captured foreign members of ISIS in Syria face uncertain future 

Captured foreign members of ISIS in Syria face uncertain future

Thousands of captured foreign ISIS fighters face an uncertain future in Kurdish prison camps as some want to return home, including several Canadians.

Letts was a dual Canadian-British citizen who has been held in northeastern Syria since 2017. The U.K. stripped Letts of his citizenship in 2019 in response to allegations he left his home in Oxfordshire to join ISIS. Letts’s family has denied the allegations and said there is no evidence he ever fought for the extremist group.

Sen. Kim Pate and adjunct professor of international human rights law Alex Neve were part of a delegation that travelled to northeastern Syria for a five-day visit in August 2023.

Neve submitted an affidavit as part of the lawyers’ request for the Supreme Court to reconsider hearing the case. He wrote that the delegation met with Letts and fellow Canadian Muhammad Ali during their visit.

Global News has reported that Ali, a former Toronto-area resident, told the news outlet he was part of an ISIS sniper team. Neve confirmed the Ali the delegation met with is the same person cited in Global’s reporting, which CBC News has not independently verified.

Two women and two men pose for a photo.
From left to right, Sen. Kim Pate, social justice advocate Matthew Behrens, Jack Letts’s mother Sally Lane and former Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Neve wrote that during roughly 90-minute interviews with each of the men, the delegation confirmed they have both been “imprisoned, without charge or trial, for over six years” and are ready to respond to any allegations against them in Canadian courts.

“Mr. Ali and Mr. Letts both confirmed to our delegation that they are prepared to respond to any accusations that they have been involved in terrorist or any other criminal activity through fair legal proceedings in Canada,” wrote Neve, the former secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

“They told us that they do not believe that any such proceedings will be made available to them in NE Syria.”

Neve said Ali and Letts told the delegation they had been interrogated without legal representation by foreign intelligence agencies and police, but not to their knowledge by Canadian authorities. He also said that both men require treatment for health problems and haven’t received any consular support from Canada.

“They have not received any consular visits or support from Canadian government officials during that time,” Neve’s affidavit said. “They have not been able to meet with or consult with a lawyer while they have been held in detention. They have not had any contact with their families for more than three-and-a-half years.”

Letts’s mother Sally Lane, who lives in the Ottawa area, wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly almost a year ago saying she was “desperately concerned about his well-being.” She asked Joly to give the delegation in which Neve participated official government status so that it could secure her son’s release.

In response, Global Affairs Canada said that only government officials could support any repatriation efforts. The department also said in a letter to Lane that it has requested proof-of-life and information about the well-being of the Canadian men “on many occasions in the past,” and would continue to “provide [Letts] with consular services to the extent possible.”

WATCH/ Ottawa to repatriate 19 women and children held in Syria, lawyer says 

Ottawa to repatriate 19 women and children held in Syria, lawyer says

The federal government has agreed to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children held in Syrian detention camps for suspected ISIS members and their families.

The latest request to the Supreme Court argues the international debate over whether countries are legally required to repatriate citizens is continuing, with mixed outcomes. A federal court in Australia ruled last year the nation didn’t have to repatriate its women and children, while an appeal court in Germany upheld a lower court ruling ordering the repatriation of a woman and her three children.

Last year, Canada repatriated 19 women and children as part of a last-minute agreement struck with Global Affairs. The deal came ahead of a Federal Court decision that said Canada must repatriate detained Canadians. The U.S. helped Canada and other countries repatriate thousands of their citizens.

CBC News reported that one of those women the government repatriated was a Canadian who was married to a notorious ISIS fighter.

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