“I’m from the government of Canada. Do you want assistance from us?”
“Yes,” Jack Letts, known in the British media as ‘Jihadi Jack’ replied.
“If so, what kind?”
“Please get me out of this place.”
With that, a Canadian consular official began an hour-long online exchange with Letts, a British 22-year-old with Canadian citizenship who is imprisoned by Kurdish forces in Syria.
A transcript of the conversation, which Global Affairs Canada sent to his parents, who then shared it with Global News along with other documents, offers a rare look at how Ottawa is handling such cases.
They show that Canadian consular officials have been trying to find out where the Canadians are being detained in order to give them consular assistance.
The officials have communicated with the Kurdish authorities over concerns about torture allegations and medical attention for the detainees, the documents show.
But they also told the parents in an email that while they would try to get Letts to a third country, likely Turkey, they could not make any promises.
Hundreds of ISIS foreign fighters, as well as ISIS wives and their children, have been captured by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Canadian government has said little about how it is assisting at least 13 Canadian detainees, who are being held in prisons and camps in northeast Syria.
But the transcript of a January 10 conversation between Letts and Global Affairs Canada shows that while officials have reached out to some of the detainees, they have also cautioned there’s not be much they can do.
“If it would be possible, would you like to come to Canada? Back to the U.K.?” the consular official asked.
“I want to live a normal life. I want to come to Canada,” Letts replied.
A Muslim convert, Letts traveled to Syria in 2014, leading the British press to dub him Jihadi Jack. But while he was in ISIS-controlled territory, he has denied being an ISIS member and his parents said there was no evidence he ever joined the terrorist group. Because the U.K. has shown no interest in assisting him and he is Canadian through his father, Ottawa has taken on the case.
“Can u help me,” Letts wrote to the consular official.
He said he was imprisoned near Qamlishi, the hub of the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria known as Rojava. He said he had been there 10 months.
“We have limited capacity to provide consular service in Syria but we will try to help you,” the official responded.
The consular official asked Letts whether he had been charged, how he spent his days, what he ate, when he last saw a doctor, whether he was taking medications and had access to the Internet.
“Are they going to kill us,” Letts wanted to know.
“As I said, we have no access in Syria at the moment, but are working on your case.”
LISTEN: Jack’s dad explains why Canada should bring him back:
Letts asked the official if he intended to get him to Canada.
WATCH: What should Ottawa do with hundreds of captured Canadian ISIS fighters?
“We have the intention to help you,” the official wrote.
“Obviously I’m not going to blow anyone up.”
“Canada is an option,” said the official.
Letts then said he was “going insane” and had tried to hang himself. He said he was experiencing kidney problems but had not seen a doctor in seven months.
“I made a mistake coming here, I know that. If you want to put me in prison, I understand that I do not mind,” Letts told the official.
“I have made mistakes, probably prison is good for me. But just not here. The situation here is terrible.”
“Tell my mum I am sorry. Tell my dad I am sorry. Tell them if I ever get out of this place I am going to try and be a better person.”
- McGill music instructor claims he lost promotion to less qualified candidate
- Supreme Court of Canada won’t hear unvaccinated Alberta woman’s case for organ donation
- How did Canada’s job market do in May? StatCan to release report
- Ottawa sought EU help in Afghanistan after Taliban takeover: documents
Towards the end of the exchange, the official assured Letts the government was working on his case, but within limits.
“We don’t have people in Syria and it is a complex environment so I can’t give you definitive timelines, but we are working on your case.”
Global News revealed last week that high-profile Canadian ISIS member Muhammad Ali had been captured by Kurdish forces. His wife, former Vancouver resident Rida Jabbar, and their two kids were also detained, along with women from Toronto and Montreal who married ISIS foreign fighters, and their five children.
Letts and a Montreal man are also being held.
A Kurdish official told Global News there had been “dialogue” with Canada over the detainees, including a meeting in Iraq, but that “suddenly the Canadian government stopped this process and we don’t know why.”
Asked to comment on the transcript, Global Affairs Canada said it was aware that Canadians were detained in Syria but its “ability to provide consular assistance in any part of Syria is extremely limited.”
In a podcast, national security law expert Craig Forcese said that because the Canadians were detained abroad, the government could not facilitate their return to Canada.
The best they could do was negotiate the conditions of their detention, he said, adding the matter was complicated because the Canadians were held by insurgents rather than a state.
But even engaging with their captors diplomatically could cause problems for Canada, he said. Turkey views the Kurdish forces as part of the PKK terrorist group. “So it’s a very difficult consular dance.”
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said the government’s primary focus should be public safety.
“I’m very, very reluctant to repatriate known ISIS fighters, unless they’re charged and imprisoned in conjunction with their return,” he said.
He also said he supported the revocation of citizenship for terrorism and treason.
“You know, unfortunately these people made very bad decisions and demonstrated that they were a risk to the public and that’s how they should be treated.”
WATCH: Mosul, Iraq is facing several challenges post-ISIS
But NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé said that while public safety is paramount, Canada was obliged to take responsibility for its citizens.
“As much as we may loathe what these people stand for and what they’re doing in some cases, I think that putting them into prisons here and having them go through the Canadian justice system is obviously at the core of a society that’s rules-based and respects the rule of law,” he said.
“Again, it’s not to condone in any way these atrocities. Quite the contrary. I believe that if we truly believe that this is wrong then we should be making sure that they are seeing justice through the Canadian system.”
Dubé also said Ottawa should bring back Canadian wives of ISIS fighters and their children. “It doesn’t sound like that’s the case at the moment, but I would hope that they would make every effort to bring the women and children back.”
WATCH: Parents of ‘Jihadi Jack’ appeal to Canada for help