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Families of Canadians detained in Syria hope delegation sparks change

Group met with a number of Canadians held in camps and detention centres

Sally Lane says she is “overjoyed” to hear news of her son Jack — even if he’s barely hanging on in a Syrian prison — after years of silence.

Lane says a civil society delegation messaged her from northeastern Syria to report that members had met with Jack after authorities managed to locate him within the prison system.

Jack Letts, a Canadian citizen, is among the many foreign nationals in ramshackle Syrian camps and jails run by Kurdish forces that reclaimed the war-ravaged region from militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

More details about Letts and other detained Canadians are expected to emerge today when members of the delegation discuss their recent five-day visit at a news conference in Ottawa.

The four-person delegation says it held meetings with officials and saw a number of Canadian men, women and children, as well as non-Canadian mothers of Canadian children, held in camps and detention centres.

Delegation members, including Sen. Kim Pate, said Wednesday they would issue an urgent call for substantially increased action from Canada on consular assistance, repatriation of detained citizens, and wider engagement and resources in support of justice and accountability in the region.

Letts, 27, became a devoted Muslim as a teenager, went on holiday to Jordan, then studied in Kuwait before winding up in Syria. His family says he was captured by Kurdish forces while trying to escape the country with a group of refugees in 2017.

Lane, who has long been pressing Ottawa to help repatriate her son, said she cannot thank the delegation enough for what it achieved.

“To know that they managed to see and talk to Jack when he’s been incommunicado for so long, and for him to know that there are people who care, is a massive development in our struggle to get him home,” she told The Canadian Press.

“Jack is barely holding on. He and the other Canadian nationals have had to endure what no human being should ever have to endure.”

Lane was told her son had a blunt question for the Canadian delegation. “He asked them to be frank with him and to tell him if he will still be there in 10 years’ time.”

The Canadian government must drop its “cruel campaign against families who simply want to end this nightmare and bring our loved ones home,” Lane said. “We’ve all suffered enough.”

Earlier this year, the federal government turned down an offer from the delegation to go to Syria on Ottawa’s behalf to repatriate detained Canadians.

Lane says she had hoped to be part of the delegation but decided not to go once it turned into a fact-finding mission, realizing she would not be in a position to return to Canada with her son.

Ottawa has helped bring home some women and children from Syria but it has shown no interest in repatriating Canadian men.

Lawyers for Letts and three other Canadian men held in Syria are telling the Supreme Court that Ottawa is being selective about which desperate citizens to assist, in violation of their constitutional rights.

In an application to the top court, counsel for the men say their foreign jailers will release them if Canada makes the request and facilitates their repatriation, as it has done for other citizens.

The lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to hear a challenge of a Federal Court of Appeal ruling, handed down in May, that said the federal government is not obligated under the law to repatriate the men.

The latest court ruling set aside a January decision by Federal Court Justice Henry Brown, who directed Ottawa to request repatriation of the men from the abysmal conditions as soon as reasonably possible and provide them with passports or emergency travel documents.

Brown said the men were also entitled to have a representative of the federal government travel to Syria to help facilitate their release once their captors agreed to hand them over.

The federal government argued that Brown mistakenly conflated the recognized Charter right of citizens to enter Canada with a right to return — effectively creating a new right for citizens to be brought home by the Canadian government.

The Federal Court of Appeal agreed, saying the judge’s interpretation “requires the government of Canada to take positive, even risky action, including action abroad,” to facilitate the men’s right to enter Canada.

“Such a right would have potentially limitless scope. It would cover cases ranging from the repatriation of someone detained abroad for whatever reason, including the alleged violation of foreign law in a foreign land, to the payment of ransom to foreigners holding a Canadian citizen hostage.”

The Court of Appeal stressed that Canadian state conduct did not lead to the men being in northeastern Syria, prevent them from entering Canada or cause or continue their plight. “The respondents’ own conduct and persons abroad who have control over them alone are responsible.”

The appeal judges said while the government is not constitutionally or otherwise legally obligated to repatriate the men, their ruling “should not be taken to discourage the government of Canada from making efforts on its own to bring about that result.”

Amid the legal proceedings, lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who represents two of the men, reached an agreement with Ottawa to bring home six Canadian women and 13 children who had been part of the court action.

In the application to the Supreme Court, Greenspon and his co-counsel say the proposed appeal is a case of national importance with broad implications for the interpretation of Charter rights.

“Canada is picking and choosing which Canadians to help out of a hellish situation, when it knows that the cruel conditions will continue indefinitely for anyone left behind,” the submission says.

This amounts to “special circumstances” that trigger a positive obligation for the government to act under the Charter provision guaranteeing life, liberty and security of the person, the lawyers argue.

The four men cannot return to, or enter, Canada on their own, and they require some action by the Canadian government to enable them to exercise that right, the application adds.

The top court will decide in the coming weeks whether to hear the appeal.

In a recent statement, Lane said her family’s only hope to see Jack again “is for the Supreme Court to acknowledge that our son has the right to life and the right to return to his country of citizenship.”

“Anything less is inhumane and against all Canadian values.”

READ ALSO: 6 Canadian children to return from Syrian detention without their mother: advocates