Jack Letts, the middle-class Muslim convert from Oxford who escaped the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria only to become a prisoner of a Kurdish militia, claims he has been tortured and fears he is losing his mind.
The Mail on Sunday today publishes a harrowing series of text and internet audio messages that Letts, 21 – once dubbed ‘Jihadi Jack’ – has sent from prison in the enclave of Rojava, controlled by the Kurdish PYD group, to his parents, John and Sally.
The couple have just ended a week-long hunger strike hoping to draw attention to his plight.
Jack Letts, the middle-class Muslim convert from Oxford who escaped the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria only to become a prisoner of a Kurdish militia, claims he has been tortured and fears he is losing his mind
The messages reveal that, after being captured by the Kurds following his escape from ISIS, he was initially treated well, and told he would be handed over to the British within days. However, conditions rapidly deteriorated.
The messages say that Letts – who has a history of mental illness – was forced to endure long periods of solitary confinement, deprived of food and exercise, threatened, then subjected to torture.
He claims Britain has done nothing to help achieve his release, and despite his repeated pleas, has sent no one to visit him even though the Kurds are Britain’s allies in the fight against Islamic State.
Nothing has been heard from him since a final, desperate audio message on July 8, which ended with a warning that he planned some kind of protest, although he knew this might get him shot.
The Mail on Sunday today publishes a harrowing series of text and internet audio messages that Letts, 21, sent from prison in the enclave of Rojava to his parents John Letts and Sally Lane (pictured)
Jack Letts (pictured as a child) converted to Islam aged 16 after dropping out of school as a result of mental illness
Yesterday his Kurdish captors issued a statement in response to questions from this newspaper.
It said Letts had been charged with being an ISIS member, although his case was still ‘under investigation’, that he was being well treated and that he was still in weekly contact with his family.
But Sally Letts said: ‘That’s rubbish, a blatant lie and it discredits all their other claims. We have not heard a peep from him since July 8.’
The internet audio files and texts sent to Letts’s parents reveal:
- Claims that his captors told him they were fed questions by British officials – suggesting that the UK Government knows where he is and who is holding him;
- By July, Letts was getting at best one meal a day but some days no food at all;
- A claim that he could prove he had been tortured and was ‘scared of electricity’ – suggesting he had been given or threatened with electric shocks.
BRITON’S ANGUISHED MESSAGES TO PARENTS
Voice recordings and phone messages sent home by Letts:
Early hope upon capture
May 3: I’m still in Syria but I’m genuinely out of Isis territories. The Kurds are being good to me.
May 7: It is very clear that I was not a member of said group [ISIS]. I was within their territories, openly saying that they’re not [preaching] the truth. People genuinely thought I was crazy for doing that. Mum, I think the whole process of handing me over may be starting.
May 26: I don’t understand why I’m in prison.
June 1: I’m just outside of the city, it looks like it used to be a school, now it’s a prison. It has guard towers. It’s the terrorism prison.
First threats of torture
June 1: Two people from intelligence branch came and asked me questions. They said the questions came from England. It was ‘What is the colour of your dad’s car? What is the first pet you had?’ It’s stupid, trying to check my identity after three weeks of solitary confinement.
June 19: [They] threatened me with torture. They say they’ll put me in a box.
June 19: Tell them to get me out of here. I don’t even care if Britain puts me in prison. Rather ten years over there than two days here. I can’t take it here. Every now and then I get threatened with torture.
July 1: They are starting to forget to bring me food. Now they only let me out for ten minutes. And the phone is now more taboo.
Pleas for help from Britain
June 19: The people here have told me they’re speaking to England. I can’t stay here any longer… Can’t they just send someone to come and get me?
Mental health deteriorates
June 25: Yesterday I had… a mental breakdown. Even the guards here were surprised. I actually went insane. I was punching the wall and my hand was bleeding.
Desperate last audio files
July 8: My health situation has got much worse. Now they don’t bring me food. There’s no such thing as going out any more. And then they punish you. I’ve actually been tortured, intimidated. I don’t want to still be here after a week because I’m scared of electricity. It’s one of my fears. Mum, I’ve actually been tortured. I can prove it as well. Within a week I’m going to start fighting back. What I’m going to do might result in me getting shot, but I’ve made my decision.
After July 8, there has been no contact.
The Kurdish security force holding him, known as the Asayish, has been condemned for holding prisoners without charge in poor conditions by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Letts’s father, John, 57, an organic farmer and botanist, and his mother, Sally, 55, who works in publishing, say they fully accept that if and when their son returns to Britain, he should be detained and questioned, and if the evidence merits it, charged with an offence.
THE TROUBLED MIDDLE-CLASS BOY BROUGHT UP IN AN OXFORD HOME
Jack Letts converted to Islam aged 16 after dropping out of school as a result of mental illness.
He went to Kuwait to study Arabic in 2014 – but to the horror of parents John and Sally, right, had himself smuggled across the Syrian border.
His parents acknowledge that a court might find that merely travelling to ISIS territory constituted a crime, and would test his claims that he did not share the terror group’s aims. In the picture shown here, Letts points with one finger in the air – a pose common among Islamic extremists known as the ‘finger of Tawheed’, and is meant to symbolise the oneness of God. But John said: ‘We’re supposed to be fighting for British values – due process, Magna Carta, the rule of law. How can we square that with letting Jack rot in a Kurdish jail, subject to ill-treatment?’
The Mail on Sunday put questions about Letts’s treatment to four separate PYD institutions, including the Asayish. In response, Sinam Mohamad, its European representative, issued a statement to all media organisations which included the claim that Letts is still in ‘weekly’ contact with his family.
She said that he is being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and international human rights standards and that ‘Jack Letts’s parents have been informed and reassured about his wellbeing’.
She said the claims of ill-treatment and torture were ‘baseless’, adding that Jack’s parents were ‘attempting to manipulate the facts and reality’. She said the Kurds were ‘willing to hand over prisoners of war to their original country after [they are] properly investigated’ but also revealed that Britain has not asked the PYD to send Letts home, and neither has Canada. Letts has dual UK/Canadian nationality.
The messages from Letts come amid a political furore sparked by Foreign Office Minister Rory Stewart, who said last week that the only way to deal with former British ISIS fighters ‘will be, in almost every case, to kill them’.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN THE GRIM PRISONS RUN BY KURDISH SECURITY FORCES
Having escaped from ISIS, Letts is a prisoner of the Kurdish Asayish security force.
Reports by Amnesty International say it has held other prisoners, unlawfully in poor conditions, and denied them food and medical treatment.
Prisoners watch television as one of them reads a newspaper inside Derick central prison, east of Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli in Hasaka governorate
Others, such as Max Hill QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, disagree, saying those who ‘travelled out of a sense of naivety, possibly with some brainwashing’ should be ‘reintegrated’ into British society. Yesterday Mr Stewart declined to comment on Letts.
The issue was further highlighted by Buckinghamshire former grammar schoolboy Shabazz Suleman, 21, who once praised both ISIS and terror attacks in the West. He also escaped from Raqqa, and has sent messages saying he is prepared, if allowed home, to face trial.
The Lettses’ solicitor, Tayab Ali, said Jack told him that his Kurdish interrogators claimed they were fed questions by the British. Mr Ali said he feared the Government was using the Asayish and its prisons as a ‘black site’ for UK detainees, so ‘outsourcing’ the task of deciding their fate to the Kurds.
He added: ‘Jack’s claim that his captors were given questions by British officials has troubling precedents – the cases of people captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan and tortured after 9/11, which led to Britain being accused of complicity and forced to pay millions of pounds in damages. Here too, we would be complicit in ill-treatment and unlawful detention.’
Brought up in an affluent Oxford neighbourhood, Jack Letts converted to Islam at 16 after suffering mental health problems that disrupted his schooling. At first, his family was delighted: his faith, John said, gave him a ‘new purpose’. He went to study Arabic in Kuwait in May 2014 – then disappeared.
On September 2, he spoke to his mother Sally on a crackly phone line, revealing he was in Syria. It soon became apparent that by this, he meant ISIS-controlled Raqqa. John said: ‘He was told they were trying to create an Islamic state, and he wanted to see it for himself.’
As this newspaper has previously disclosed, in earlier messages from Raqqa, Jack claimed he swiftly became deeply critical of ISIS. He has always denied playing any part in the fighting.
By the autumn of 2015, he said he was desperate to leave, telling his parents that the group’s crimes were flagrant breaches of Islamic law. After speaking out publicly, he was, he claimed, detained several times in ISIS jails.
After escaping Raqqa by trekking across a minefield, Jack reached Rojava and sent the first of his recent messages via the Telegram app on May 3.
At first, he was held in a house with a pool. He thought his handover to Britain was imminent.
Soon, however, unease crept in. On May 26 he said: ‘They’re treating me well but I’m chilling in solitary confinement with loads of beetles and sometimes get into fights with millipedes. I don’t understand why I’m in prison… I just want to know what’s going on.’
Conditions continued to worsen. His claim about Britain providing questions came on June 1, when he said: ‘Two people from intelligence branch came and asked me questions. They said the questions came from England.’
Among the questions were: what is the colour of your dad’s car, and what is the first pet you had. They were, Jack said, ‘trying to check my identity after three weeks of solitary confinement’.
Oxford-born ‘Jihadi Jack’ is charged by Kurdish officials with being a member of ISIS after he was captured in May
Jack Letts, 21, has been charged after travelling to Syria in 2014, Kurdish officials have said.
After arriving in Syria, Mr Letts was captured by the Kurdish YPG after leaving Islamic State territory.
Officials from the country’s Kurdish region told the BBC Mr Letts was captured in May this year.
The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) said Mr Letts is in prison in Qamishli, Rojava, northern Syria.
The self-declared autonomous region said the case is being investigated by its local police force, the Asayish.
Mr Letts converted to Islam while attending Cherwell comprehensive school in Oxford and travelled to Jordan when he was 18 after dropping out of A-levels.
He entered Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria in autumn 2014 before marrying in Iraw and fathering a child.
A petition was started by his parents, who deny he went to Syria to fight with the terrorist group and claimed their son had ‘disappeared in a Guantanamo-style black site’.
The European representative of DFNS Sinam Mohamed disputed this, telling the BBC the region respects human rights and was treating Mr Letts in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
‘We refute all these baseless allegations,’ she said.
‘The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s policy with regard to prisoners of war is clear and fair.
‘ISIS brought inexplicable levels of terror on the peoples of Northern Syria/Rojava…
‘Despite this fact, the DFNS is not less committed than European countries to treating the fighters from this terror group according to international human rights standards.”
John Letts and Sally Lane went on a week-long hunger strike in protest at the alleged lack of action by the British government to help their son.
They said that they have had no confirmation of whether he is still alive since July.
But Ms Mohamad’s statement gives shed light on a possible handover of Canadian passport holder Mr Letts to British authorities.
It said Kurdish officials are willing to hand over prisoners of war to their home country after a proper investigation.
‘Jack Letts is currently under investigation by local and global anti-terror units,’ it said.
‘Once the investigation is concluded, the outcome will be communicated to Jack’s parents, and their legal representatives and to the officials of relevant governments.
‘Therefore, we ask the parents of Jack Letts and their legal representative to ask the UK and Canadian governments to officially request the handover of Jack Letts from the officials of the DFNS so that the handover can proceed officially.
‘However, so far there has been no official request from neither Canadian or British governments.’
It is believed Jack is being held in the Alaya ‘terrorist prison’ near Qamishli. On June 19 he said: ‘I’m asking [the British Government] to help me. Tell them to get me out of here. I don’t even care if Britain puts me in prison. Rather ten years over there than two days here.
‘I can’t take it here. I eat one meal a day. Every now and then I get threatened with torture… they say they’ll put me in a box.’
Meanwhile, Letts’s parents and his Labour MP, Anneliese Dodds, asked Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt to help. There was nothing, he wrote, he could do, because ‘the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] is not able to provide consular assistance in Syria’.
Mr Burt added in a letter to Ms Dodds in August: ‘Should Mr Letts be able to travel to a neighbouring country and present himself to a British Embassy or consulate, we would consider what assistance we could provide there.’
Jack’s last message, on July 8, was the most chilling. ‘My health situation has got much worse. Now they don’t bring me food… You can knock on this metal door for half an hour and they don’t come. And when they come they’re angry because you knocked the door… I’ve actually been tortured, intimidated… I don’t want to still be here after a week because I’m scared of electricity. It’s one of my fears. Mum, I’ve actually been tortured. I can prove it as well.’
Letts had already given vivid descriptions of losing his mind. He would not, he said, commit suicide. But he was determined to make some sort of protest.
‘What I’m going to do might result in me getting shot, but I’ve made my decision… within a week I’m going to start fighting back.’
He suggested he thought he had nothing to lose. ‘I’m not being dramatic, I actually don’t think there’s anyone coming to get me out.’
John said: ‘You might be eating a meal, or enjoying a nice warm bath – and then you feel guilty, because it suddenly hits you: right now, Jack might be being tortured.’
Sally added: ‘The hardest thing is the nothingness, the lack of certainty: no one replying to our questions, neither the British nor the Kurds. That’s why we fasted. We felt we’d exhausted all our options, and no one was taking any notice.’
Amnesty International issued an ‘urgent action’ demand in June after publishing a damning report on human-rights abuses in Rojava in 2015. Last night Ilan Hogarth, Amnesty UK’s head of policy, said: ‘Any suggestion that the UK is party to Mr Letts’s lengthy detention is concerning.’
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she could not comment on the claim that Jack’s interrogators had been given questions by UK officials, nor the suggestion that Britain ‘outsourced’ detention to the Kurds.
She added: ‘The Government is unable to provide support to British nationals in Syria as the UK Government does not have consular representation there.’