Dangerous double standards

Canada a highly selective nation when supporting nationals locked up abroad

“In the courts of Canada, the Canadian government’s official position is that there is no duty to represent Canadians abroad. That if the government in its discretion decides to do it, that it will confer the privilege on Canadians to take action and the way they take action does not require them to be accountable or open with the families and therefore what you have is an ad Hoc process where if someone is savvy and astute… then there is action.”

- Toronto lawyer Dean Peroff, from a CBC interview, October 8, 2013

If you are looking for reasons to distrust the perennial narrative about Canada as a just and equitable society, try having a conversation with Ethiopian-Canadian Ali Saeed about the saga of Tarek Loubani and John Greyson – two men just released from an Egyptian prison after weeks in captivity.

Saeed, a Canadian citizen, refugee advocate and the General Secretary for the Solidarity Committee for Ethiopian Political Prisoners (SOCEPP) was travelling through East and South Africa late last year, chronicling the plight of refugees in that region. During his tour, Saeed was surprised to discover that another Canadian, a friend of his, was imprisoned in Johannesburg.

Tariku Abza has lived in Canada since he arrived in the late nineties. Like Loubani and Greyson, Abza was arrested on no formal charge. The way Ali Saeed explains it, Abza was jailed for “walking down the street.”

Unlike the two Canadian men in Egypt, Tariku Abza did not have the advantage of a multi-pronged media campaign bringing his plight to the attention of the wider public. He has not had scores of Canadians appearing at public demonstrations on his behalf, nor websites or Twitter hash tags spreading word about his situation.

And he certainly has not been released from his jail cell.

Saeed first approached my radio station, CKUW, with news about the jailed Canadian in December of last year, shortly after Saeed had a chance to visit him. Abza, according to Saeed, was physically and psychologically weak at that time, but hopeful that he would soon see freedom.

While Canadians are celebrating the release of Loubani and Greyson after their 50 day detention, Tariku Abza remains in his Johannesburg prison cell, still isolated from loved ones after 18 months in captivity.

For Ali Saeed, it is distressing to see how little respect the Canadian passport commands these days. It troubles him that Canadian consular services had done nothing more for him than offer him some soap and maybe a little bit of food while refugees are tasked with finding and paying a lawyer to advocate on his behalf.

While he is happy that Loubani and Greyson have been freed from prison, he is sickened by the lack of comparable government alacrity in the case of a law-abiding Afro-Canadian detained under very similar circumstances.

For Ali Saeed, the Canadian government is the author of an offensive double standard. Unless they have talented and resourceful friends, Canadians like Abza might be wise to avoid travelling abroad altogether.

Michael Welch is the News Director at the University of Winnipeg-based radio station CKUW 95.9FM.

Published in Volume 68, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 16, 2013)

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