Eye on Ottawa: When Canadians get into trouble abroad

Several Canadians have, for one reason or another, been captured or imprisoned abroad. These include Amanda Lindhout, Brenda Martin, Mohamed Kohail, Huseyin Celil, Abousfian Abdelrazik, Bashir Makhtal, Ratnarajah Thusiyanthan, and Suaad Hagi Mohamud.

The government has intervened in the cases of Martin, Kohail, Celil, Makhtal, but has been reluctant to help in others.

When Abousfian Abdelrazik was imprisoned in Sudan in 2003 and again in 2005, the government refused his repatriation, even after his release, because of alleged ties to terrorism (he is the only Canadian on the UN no-fly list). He was returned to Canada in 2009, after the Federal Court ordered the government to provide him assistance.

Suaad Hagi Mohamud made headlines in 2009 when a Canadian embassy official in Kenya declared her an imposter and she was jailed and charged. She was granted bail, and then returned to Canada after the government was pressured into doing a DNA test that confirmed she is who she says she is.

Repatriation of prisoners

More than 200 people imprisoned abroad have requested repatriation to Canada. In cases of Canadians imprisoned by foreign authorities, the percentage of citizens abroad granted transfer to a Canadian prison has fallen from 98% in 2005-06 to 27% in 2009-10.

The government no longer seeks clemency in all cases of capital punishment. Since 2007, its policy has been to review requests for assistance on a case-by-case basis.

Ever since capital punishment was abolished in Canada in 1976, every Canadian government has sought clemency for its citizens sentenced to death abroad. The change in policy by the Harper government, which was immediately denounced by the Canadian Bar Association for being arbitrary and discriminatory, has meant that some cases are ignored.

Held captive by kidnappers in Somalia for 15 months, Amanda Lindhout was released in November, 2009 after her family and two Calgary businessmen paid a reported $600,000 ransom. In terms of how much the government did in her case, Lindhout said that “I accept that they did what they could within the confines of Canadian law. Naturally there are certain policies that I do feel should change.”
Photo: Lindhout family

In the case of Ronald Smith, who has been on death row in a US prison since 1983, efforts to seek clemency stopped in 2007. In 2009 the Federal Court then ordered the government to re-start the appeals for clemency, calling the 2007 policy unlawful. The government has since introduced legislation that would expand the conditions that have to be met before a person can request a return to Canada, a move that is viewed by critics as consistent with a “get tough on crime” approach.

In the case of Mohammed Kohail, his duel Canadian and Saudi citizenships caused media in both countries to speak for or against his death sentence in Saudi Arabia. The government engaged with Saudi authorities, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs said he was pleased with the decision to revoke the sentence and launch a retrial.

Although international law and treaty obligations support governments in their efforts to demand due process for their citizens, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada is sending the message that citizens can not expect to get support if they run afoul of other countries’ laws. Its web site is specific: “A non-Canadian charged with a criminal offence in Canada would be tried under Canadian criminal law in a Canadian court, and, if convicted, sentenced accordingly. Just as Canadians would not accept a foreign government interfering with the Canadian judicial process, the Government of Canada cannot interfere in the judicial affairs of another country.”

New Democrat Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar believes that consular assistance for Canadians abroad is inconsistent and unreliable. He is drafting legislation that he says would make the Minister of foreign Affairs directly responsible for consular services, and would clarify the responsibilities of the Canadian government towards its citizens abroad. It would also create an office to ensure that the law is applied consistently and objectively.

Pauline Cordier