All were detained, all were treated differently


William Sampson, Bruce Balfour, Maher Arar, James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden , Omar Khadr, Ahmed Abu Al Maati, Melissa Fung, Robert Fowler,  Abusoufian Abdulrazik,  Suaad Hagi Mohamud, Bashir Mukhtal…

What is the common points between these Canadians and what are the differences? This is not a new Jeopardy question but just some personal reflections I had every time I read about cases of Canadian detained abroad.  Were they all treated similarly by government officials or whether there were differences? And what can we learn for the future?

William Sampson was tortured in a Saudi jail. The media followed his story but the government didn’t obtain his quick release. He remained in jail for three years. His father and some politicians championed his case until he was freed and fortunately avoided execution.

For Melissa Fong, the news of her capture was kept mum by the government and her release was portrayed by the government as heroic and as an opportunity to enhance its public image.

It is understandable to treat every case according to its urgency, the place of detention, the nature of the charges… In that regard I understand how the case of Robert Fowler, a long-time diplomat whose was treated more discreetly than any other case . The same applies to the case of Melissa Fong, the Canadian journalist who was captured in a war zone in Afghanistan.  The danger surrounding her kept her case away from the media in fear of jeopardizing her release. However what I don’t understand, and I am convinced that many Canadians will agree with me, is the fact that when your own government is doing nothing to help you come back home and even going at length to try to prevent you from returning home.  Worst yet  you realize that you government is also helping foreign governments to lay unjust charges against you as happened in the case of Suaad Hagi Mohamud. What about the sharing of false intelligence against you with your torturers to keep you out of the country (Arar, Abu-Al Maati, Al-Malki).

It was reported in the media [1] that Canada officially asked the government of Mali to help secure the release of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, the two Canadian diplomats over there. but Even Jim Judd, the head of CSIS discreetly travelled to meet the Malian president and then met with Colonel Kaddafi who at the time was on official visit to Mali.  To the opposite of this strong, dynamic representation of Canada in obtaining the release of its two diplomats, I am appalled by the pathetic reaction of the government on Omar Khadr. It is well known by now that CSIS agents travelled to Guantanamo to interrogate Khadr while there was a huge documentation by human rights group about detainee abuse in the military prison. Of course, the first argument will be how can we compare Robert Fowler to Omar Khadr. One is a prominent diplomat and one is being allegedly accused by the US of killing a US soldier.  But, in my opinion, when detained abroad, everyone should be treated similarly and Omar Khadr has so far suffered enough and deserves no less than a fair treatment. I remember myself when my husband Maher Arar was in prison I asked that a high-profile delegation of politician would go and visit him to obtain his release but my demand fell on deaf ears.  Bruce Balfour, who was detained in Lebanon during the same time received a Canadian delegation including the Minister of Immigration Denis Coderre. Mr Balfour reported in one interview [2]: “I felt these visitors made quite an impression on the guards, government plants and inmates at Roumieh Prison[in Lebanon] and did a great deal to influence public opinion in my favour.

Over the years, Canada has built a good reputation internationally. This reputation can be used in forging stronger diplomatic ties and eventually leverage these ties to helping Canadians detained abroad. Soft diplomacy, or what is known as Axworthy doctrine, which promotes respect for human rights by influence rather than coercion, does work in many cases and we have evidence to prove it. The representation should be unambiguous, persistent and very importantly continuous.  What doesn’t not work is when citizens are left totally on their own to struggle with oppressive regimes, or fight unclear or politically motivated charges . Foreign affairs bureaucrats will argue that they can’t help every Canadian detained abroad, on average estimated over a thousand, by getting them out of prison and flying them home. Yes, and I don’t dispute this fact. Canadian citizens should undoubtedly be responsible and abide by the law here and abroad. But, when a citizen is in distress abroad because he was kidnapped or because of some true or false allegation, this person should be assisted in any way possible. The same level of energy must be spent on all cases to persuade foreign governments to treat our citizens fairly and help them return home as soon possible. This should be done regardless of this person’s social status, family history or race. Public opinion shouldn’t be a factor in the fervour of the representation. The rule of law must always prevail.



[1] Jeune Afrique, January 18, 2009. 

[2] Bruce Balfour in His Own Words, An interview On Behalf Of Assist News Service at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday, September 3, 2003, By Jacki Skeels.


Published in the Ottawa Citizen October 16, 2009.


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