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Fahmy pushes feds for law to protect Canadians imprisoned abroad

Mohamed Fahmy, the dual Egyptian-Canadian former Al Jazeera journalist who was wrongfully incarcerated and spent more than a year in Cairo's Scorpion Prison, is lobbying the Trudeau government to enshrine in law protection for Canadian citizens imprisoned or detained abroad because it’s still discretionary.

Mohamed Fahmy, pictured in Ottawa: ‘The hardest part was being an innocent man in prison and knowing that you’re a pawn between two countries, Egypt and Qatar.’ The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

By ABBAS RANA, KATE MALLOY

PUBLISHED : Monday, Nov. 28, 2016 12:00 AM

OTTAWA—Mohamed Fahmy, the dual Egyptian-Canadian former Al Jazeera journalist whose wrongful incarceration in Cairo’s notorious Scorpion Prison attracted international attention last year, says the Canadian government should enshrine in law protection for Canadian citizens imprisoned or detained abroad because it’s still discretionary. He’s been fighting this battle for more than a year.

Mr. Fahmy, who was seized at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo on Dec. 29, 2013, along with his two Al Jazeera colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, and charged as a pro-Muslim Brotherhood terrorist, for fabricating the news and undermining the security of the state, was pardoned and released from the maximum security prison for terrorists and political leaders on Sept. 6, 2015.

His trial attracted the attention of journalists around the world and Mr. Fahmy has since become a global poster boy for press freedom after his 438 days of wrongful incarceration.

Mr. Fahmy was in Ottawa recently to promote his book, The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey From Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom, a compelling and sensational account of his imprisonment and his fight for freedom. He said while he was in prison he wrote a 12-point Protection Charter to reform Canada’s consular laws because consular assistance to Canadians is currently still discretionary, even for those facing human rights violations.

  

He put the charter together with Amnesty International’s Alex Neve, who spearheaded his release, along with his lawyer Gary Caroline.

“In these 12 points, the first article, to me, is the most important because it calls on the Canadian government to enshrine a new law that obligates the government when a Canadian is imprisoned abroad, because at the moment it’s at the discretion of the prime minister or the foreign minister. And after doing research, I realized it’s a law in the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Mexico, the U.K., but not in Canada,” Mr. Fahmy told The Hill Times in a sit-down interview on Nov. 16 in Ottawa.

Guy Pardy, a former Canadian diplomat and former director general of consular affairs; Maher Arar, the Syrian-Canadian who was wrongfully imprisoned and tortured as a member of al-Qaeda in Syria for a year; and a number of NGOs and civil society organizations have endorsed Mr. Fahmy’s proposals, which would enshrine consular assistance and equal treatment in law.

Mr. Fahmy said he and Mr. Neve met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent, Que.) last January in Ottawa to discuss the points at a meeting that lasted about 45 minutes. He also met with the head of the Canada’s consular affairs.

  

“They stated that they are currently reviewing many of the aspects of consular affairs regulations,” Mr. Fahmy told The Hill Times.

Mr. Fahmy said Mr. Pardy’s support has been important.

“He knows, as a diplomat who has served all over the world, what kinds of grave human rights violations Canadians can face abroad and, at the moment, there are 1,400 Canadians detained abroad. Some are facing human rights violations. Some are caught for smoking a joint, so there’s always this line as well,” said Mr. Fahmy.

Global Affairs Canada says there are 1,376 Canadians incarcerated abroad.

  

Mr. Neve told The Hill Times that all decisions the government takes on intervening to help Canadians abroad are taken behind closed doors.

“It’s often come down to being quite arbitrary and discretionary as to whether that will happen,” Mr. Neve said. “By enshrining it as a matter of legal obligation, then that means that all Canadians need to be treated equally, so that it doesn’t come down to whether or not the prime minister likes you, whether the prime minister thinks it would be a good public relations move, whether the prime mister doesn’t want to get involved because he’s cozy with the government in question.”

Mr. Fahmy said if the Canadian federal government doesn’t indicate soon that it will do something, he may approach MPs to see if someone can introduce a private member’s bill to create the law.

“The proposal also calls for greater transparency and consistency on the questions that tormented me while incarcerated: When will a minister take up a case? When and how will family members be informed of key developments? When and in what manner will government work with lawyers and civil society groups? When and to what extent will the government speak out publicly about a case? How best can we ensure individuals in prison receive medical treatments and legal representation,” Mr. Fahmy writes in his book.

Mr. Fahmy was pardoned three days before Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi went to the UN General Assembly to fight for a seat at the UN, and although the Stephen Harper government intervened on his behalf at the time, Mr. Fahmy said it was only after his supporters started to put international pressure on the Harper government and started the #HarperCallEgypt campaign, that Ottawa “escalated” its diplomatic efforts.

Still, at the time, Mr. Harper and then foreign affairs minister John Baird refused to meet with Mr. Fahmy’s international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (wife of actor George Clooney) when she came to Canada.

Mr. Pardy said the government should make the protection of Canadians incarcerated abroad the law of the land. But he also said a complicating factor is when people have dual citizenship. However, he said if it does become law, it would remove any inconsistencies in the Canadian government’s process to intervene or not.

“Once it becomes part of the law, then there’s an equality of service for all Canadians, irrespective of whether or not they have a second citizenship,” Mr. Pardy told The Hill Times. “And also the level of activity that a government would exercise on a particular case, there would be more certainty on that side as well.”

Chantal Gagnon, press secretary to Mr. Dion, meanwhile, did not directly say if the government has any plans to make the protection of Canadians incarcerated abroad enshrined in law.

In an email response to The Hill Times, Ms. Gagnon stated the Canadian government does try to provide consular services to any Canadian who is in distress abroad, but sometimes efforts are adversely affected by the local laws of that country.

“Global Affairs Canada is committed to providing effective and efficient consular service to Canadians around the world, including those individuals in situations of arrest or detention. Consular services are offered to Canadians who are known by the Government of Canada to be arrested, or in custody abroad, as outlined in the Consular Services Charter,” wrote Ms. Gagnon. “Our ability to provide services, in some instances, may be hindered by the laws and regulations, as well as the level of cooperation, of other countries.”

Ms. Gagnon said Mr. Dion and Liberal MP Omar Alghabra (Mississauga Centre, Ont.), Mr. Dion’s parliamentary secretary, are currently consulting with civil society organizations, NGOs, and Canadians to improve ways to help out Canadians in legal trouble abroad.

“We will continue to consult and carefully consider reports and studies, as we look at ways to improve the process. Mr. Fahmy has met with Minister Dion and Mr. Alghabra. He has indicated he appreciates the openness of the government to discuss his proposal and recognizes that the new government is taking an activist approach to consular cases,” stated Ms. Gagnon.

Ms. Gagnon said that, since coming to power, the Liberal government has already undertaken policies to help out Canadians who need consular assistance abroad.

For example, she said the government would undertake clemency intervention in cases where a Canadian is facing execution in a foreign country. Also, she said, Mr. Dion is holding extensive consultations with federal departments, the provinces and territories, indigenous governments, and civil society groups to join the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

Mr. Fahmy said it was a “collective effort” that finally got him released, including the tens of thousands of Canadians who signed petitions, continued to fight for him, days of action, and the Canadian and international media.

In prison, he interviewed terrorists, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad member Mohamed al-Zawahiri, but also saw young non-terrorist political protesters become radicalized and groomed for terrorism. Mr. Fahmy said “prison becomes a university for producing terrorists.”

“Yes, there are some ugly, mean terrorists inside who do not believe in democracy, free press, or humanity and they will chop the heads off journalists and non-believers. Yes, there were many of those inside. There were ISIS fighters who came in Syria and Libya, one al-Qaeda guy who was fighting with Bin Laden in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Fahmy.

Mr. Fahmy has also since launched a $100-million lawsuit against Al-Jazeera in British Columbia Supreme Court, alleging Al Jazeera’s misrepresentation and negligence.

“The hardest part was being an innocent man in prison and knowing that you’re a pawn between two countries: Egypt and Qatar, the owner of Al-Jazeera, and that Egypt is punishing Qatar for openly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, politically and financially, and so I always said this case hit two birds with one stone; where it is indeed a suppression of the press in silencing three professional journalists, but it’s also a payback for Qatar’s very questionable view and actions towards the whole region, not just Egypt where they are meddling, [but] definitely in international affairs and supporting Islamist groups in Libya and Syria and Egypt,” Mr. Fahmy said.

A former award-winning war correspondent for the BBC, CNN, and the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Fahmy said he knew Al Jazeera had its biases like any network and signed a contract with clear conditions on his own news sourcing, news gathering, and booking, but found out from members of the Muslim Brotherhood once he was inside the Scorpion Prison that they regularly supplied Al Jazeera with news content and news footage. Once he was told, he launched the lawsuit and is willing to fight it all the way “to protect other journalists in the network.”

“Yes, the Egyptian prosecution was foggy, unacceptable, and filled with flaws and the three of us were innocent. However, due to the network’s negligence and misrepresentations, they contributed and made our situation worse and made our lives very complicated,” Mr. Fahmy said.

Meanwhile, he said he’s “devastated” by Donald Trump’s presidential win who, along with Marine Le Pen in France, is “inflaming and exploiting fear while adding credence to the Islamist claims that the West is waging war against Islam, and feeding directly into the narrative that the Islamic extremists then use to recruit young, disenfranchised Muslims.”

Mr. Fahmy, who was traumatized by his incarceration, said he wants to go back to reporting, but not necessarily in the front lines of war reporting.

“There are no other alternatives than speaking to real people and doing stories on the ground, but it doesn’t always have to be in conflict zones, the front lines, or in big dangerous stories. There are so many good stories in Canada, the States, Brazil, and you don’t have to go to the hub of the violence and the killing, which is the Middle East,” Mr. Fahmy said.

But he said press freedom applies to Canada too, especially in the eyes of many in the Middle East who see Canada as a “utopia.” For instance, he slammed the RCMP’s recent efforts to seize the notes of Vice Canada journalist Ben Makuch to obtain his messenger chat logs with a suspected ISIS member and Quebec police surveillance of 10 journalists, including La Presse’s Patrick Lagacé, to find out their sources.

“If we allow the police to spy on Canadian journalists in Montreal and we allow the RCMP to force an order to gather the information that we are getting, then oppressive governments will not take Canadians seriously when Canada criticizes many of these autocratic, oppressive governments and ask them to demand press freedom,” said Mr. Fahmy, adding that Mr. Trudeau told him that he supports press freedom.

Mr. Fahmy, meanwhile, described his wife Marwa Omara as his “hero” for risking her own personal safety to smuggle notes to write the protection charter in and out of prison for him and for fighting for his freedom tirelessly.

The U.K.-based Development Partnership and Michael Bronner, co-producer of Green Zone, Captain Philips, and United 93, are making Mr. Fahmy’s story into a film, and the CBC is working on a documentary by Canadian filmmaker David Paperny.

kmalloy@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times