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Canadians pleading innocence far away from home are on their own

BY GEORGE ABRAHAM (Canada Connection) / 1 April 2008

ON-INTERFERENCE in the internal affairs of nations is a bedrock international principle, except it would seem when it involves nationals of a foreign state. It is increasingly becoming laissez-faire to brazenly interfere in the judicial processes of a state, all in the name of protecting the rights of a foreigner.

Take the case of three Canadians whose sad stories have been featured in newspapers and across the country for their travails abroad – Saul Itzhayek, Mohammed Kohail and Brenda Martin. Canadians speaking on their behalf have complained that the Canadian government has done little to extricate them from their legal troubles abroad, leaving them to the mercy of capricious foreign regimes.

With nobody around to express an opposing point of view, government ministers, human rights groups and opposition leaders, besides a retinue of self-appointed advocates and friends and relatives of those incarcerated, have been airing their views to the press. The refrain is similar: Canadian nationals are suffering harsh and inhuman treatment in foreign jails, all because the Ottawa government does not have the hard muscle or the diplomatic clout to get them released.

However, two developments last week served as reality checks to this shrill campaign. A retired senior Foreign Affairs official who had dealt with scores of such hard-luck stories, Gar Pardy, has come out decidedly against such meddling, cautioning against taking at face value all the claims made by Canadians who have run afoul of laws in another country. Who is to decide guilt or innocence? Mr Pardy asked.

He was particularly critical of people who are championing the case of Ms Martin, who has been imprisoned in Mexico without trial for the last two years on money laundering charges. “I blame the Canadian government and the Consular Affairs for never looking after me from day one and making sure my rights were looked after,” Ms Martin has repeatedly said.

Mr Pardy’s retort was uncharacteristically sharp for a veteran diplomat: “Today, for Brenda Martin, tears are enough to send many Canadians into one of their periodic fits of hypocrisy and narrow moralisation when there is word that a Canadian has run into legal difficulties in a foreign country. As with all such situations especially in countries such as Mexico, the higher the political level of foreign interest and involvement, the less likelihood of success. Countries, including Canada, do not bear foreign criticism with any degree of equanimity.”

Mr Pardy was referring to a virtual cavalcade of high-profile Canadian personalities, including former Prime Minister Paul Martin who visited Ms Martin in the Guadalajara jail in recent weeks. By all accounts, the Mexicans appear to be taking these visits and the accompanying advice in stride, blaming Ms Martin herself for some of the delays as her case goes through the judicial system. The Canadian national has been featured in several television interviews, alternating between harsh words directed at the Ottawa government and issuing plaintive appeals for her life.

The second development that appeared to put the brakes on the campaign on behalf of Ms Martin was the leaking of a foreign affairs memo which appeared to corroborate the government version that officials had made contact with her soon after she was arrested in February, 2006, and that she had on occasion rebuffed attempts to contact her. The leak was clearly designed to discredit Ms Martin in the eyes of ordinary Canadians and cast a shadow over some of the partisans who have been fighting on her behalf.

Even as Ms Martin was waging a megaphone battle for the attention of her fellow nationals, half way across the world another Canadian, Mr Itzhayek, was walking out of a “rat infested” Indian jail after being in custody for 10 months for a visa offence. His jail term was cut short thanks to lobbying by a former Canadian justice minister, Irwin Cotler, and his family’s ability to hire a good Indian lawyer to fight on his behalf.

However, his family charged that Ottawa had belatedly come to his rescue and began paying attention only after Mr Cotler and others launched a public campaign on the jailed businessman’s behalf.

Given the success of the campaign on Mr Itzhayek’s behalf, it was no surprise to see supporters hold a rally on Parliament Hill for a third Canadian, Mohammed Kohail, who has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for killing a fellow student in a schoolyard brawl. Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier has written to his Saudi counterpart calling for a review of the death sentence, while Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day is known to have raised the issue during a visit to Riyadh last week.

The outcome of the Kohail case will be watched closely because Ottawa recently refused to plead for clemency in the case of a Canadian on death row in Montana, asserting that it saw little reason to contest a judicial decision in a democratic nation. Critics say that given Canada’s position in the American case, seeking a pardon from Saudi Arabia would appear to be inconsistent.

With an expatriate population of 2.7 million living overseas and about 1,800 facing some form of legal punishment in foreign nations, it is not surprising that their stories get an uncritical airing in their home nation. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and as Mr Pardy reminded his countrymen last week, ‘[F]or Canadians to throw rocks on such an issue, given the daily litany of wrongful convictions here, must be particularly troublesome to the [foreign] authorities.’


George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator. Reach him at diplomat01@rogers.com
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