The parents of Jack Letts, a Briton held by the Kurds in Syria, have accused the Foreign Office of being “completely obstructive” and doing nothing to help their son.
John Letts and Sally Lane, who live in Oxford, said the Foreign Office and the foreign secretary Boris Johnson have refused to do anything to get their son released from a prison in Rojava, northern Syria.
The parents say that Letts, nicknamed Jihadi Jack by the media, has serious mental health issues and that they are very concerned about his welfare. It is Letts’ 22nd birthday on Tuesday.
His parents are themselves facing a trial over claims they funded terrorism by sending him money. The couple deny the charges, and say their lives have been destroyed by the upcoming trial.
Letts is believed to be in Rojava, a self-proclaimed autonomous region in Syria, after travelling to the country in 2014.
Letts, whose father is Canadian, travelled to Syria in 2014. He was 18 at the time and had dropped out of school to visit the country. He told his family that he was taken to the Isis stronghold of Raqqa after being injured in a bomb blast. After leaving Raqqa, he was captured by Kurdish forces in May 2017.
Lane, 55, a book editor, said the family had made contact with the Kurdish prison where her son is being held. Contact with their son was cut off in July.
Lane said that the family had received no help and they believed there was a deliberate policy to abandon their son: “The Foreign Office have been completely obstructive. Alistair Burt [the Foreign Office minister] has sent us four identical letters saying that they can’t do anything.”
The British government cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012.
“We managed to find the contact details from the prison where Jack is being held from an Amnesty report,” said Lane. “It seems absurd that we, as ordinary individuals, who don’t have any of the machinery of government to help us, can establish our own contacts with Kurdish officials, and the government itself are unable to do so.”
Letts’s family point out that the allies are working in coalition with Kurdish forces in the region.
“They obviously have very close contacts with the Kurds in Rojava,” said John Letts, an organic farmer. “Salih Muslim and the leaders of Rojava have been to London and spoken in parliament, and yet they say, ‘We don’t know how to contact them, we just don’t know the number.’”
The foreign secretary Boris Johnson visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2015, meeting British troops helping to train local fighters involved in the war against Islamic State (Isis).
“We have established fairly cordial relationships with members of the YPG [a Kurdish militia], strange though that may sound,” said Lane. “We’ve told them that they and Jack have the same enemy. Jack hates Isis as much as they do. It’s really difficult to understand this stalemate situation.”
The family was appalled by recent comments by Rory Stewart, the international development minister. Stewart said that converts who leave Britain to fight for Isis are guilty of horrific acts and the only way of dealing with them is to kill them “in almost every case”.
The family said there is no evidence that Letts, who converted to Islam before travelling to Syria, had joined Isis.
“Surely this is illegal. In a democratic system in this country, you don’t have the death penalty and you can’t just go and kill anyone if you think they’re guilty,” said Letts. “We’re outraged, and everyone decent should be outraged, by Rory Stewart.”
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said: “Jack is an extremely vulnerable, mentally unwell teenager. Government ministers should be advocating for him to be released and returned to the UK or Canada where he can face a fair trial based on all the facts and receive a proper psychiatric assessment. They should certainly not be using language and threats that make his parents think he might be killed before they see him again.”
The family wants Letts to face trial in the UK if there is any evidence that he joined Isis.
“We want everyone who has been to Syria detained, arrested, investigated, and if there is any evidence that they have done anything wrong, they should be charged. We walk the streets, like everyone else, it’s not like we are soft on this. We know that there is a threat,” said Lane.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “The safety and security of our country, our people and our communities remains the government’s number one priority. For that reason, we have consistently made clear over the last few years that people should not travel to Syria and parts of Iraq. As outlined in the FCO’s travel advice, the government is unable to provide support to British nationals in Syria as the UK government does not have consular representation there.
“Anyone who does travel to Syria, for whatever reason, is putting themselves in considerable danger.”