Protection Charter: Mohamed Fahmy and Amnesty International propose more effective action to defend the rights of Canadians imprisoned abroad
Canadians, permanent residents, and others with close Canadian connections may be at risk of serious human rights violations when imprisoned in other countries. But the Canadian government has often been limited and inconsistent in actions to intervene and provide assistance.
A Protection Charter is being proposed by Mohamed Fahmy, the Fahmy Foundation and Amnesty International to the Canadian government for reform in practices, policies and laws in 12 areas to address this critical gap.
While some Canadians imprisoned abroad have received strong support at senior levels, others get virtually none. And there is a growing perception that some Canadians who face human rights violations abroad receive less political support than others might, because of their personal, family, political or religious background.
“Amidst the despair I felt while locked up in solitary confinement in an Egyptian jail, I hoped that Canadian officials would do everything possible and necessary to secure my freedom,” said Mohamed Fahmy. “But at the highest levels of government I was let down and virtually abandoned. This Protection Charter proposes reforms that will help ensure that other Canadians do not endure the injustice and double standards I went through.”
The Protection Charter urges that the obligation to provide consular assistance and to provide it equally to all Canadians should not be discretionary. It must be enshrined in Canadian law. Transparent criteria to guide consular assistance would also help to dispel concern that cases are handled inconsistently. And an independent office, such as a Commissioner of Consular Affairs reporting to Parliament, would provide the back-up needed to ensure equal treatment.
“Mohamed Fahmy’s case, and many others that Amnesty International has worked on over the years, make it clear that politics and personal feelings far too often stand in the way of prompt, strong action from senior government officials, even when a Canadian imprisoned abroad is at risk of torture,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English branch. “That has to change. Human rights are at stake. The duty to act must be enshrined in law.”
Press freedom is under attack worldwide with journalists facing imprisonment, torture and even murder. Canadian journalists have been subject to such attacks including Zahra Kazemi who died at the hands of Iranian state interrogators in 2003, and Mohamed Fahmy who was imprisoned for 438 days by Egyptian authorities. The Protection Charter calls on the Canadian government to put in place mechanisms to support and protect journalists and staff from false imprisonment and abuse at the hands of foreign states.
Canadians with dual or multiple nationalities, the Protection Charter notes, are also particularly vulnerable. They do pose a challenge to Canadian efforts to advocate on their behalf because they are not acknowledged by some countries to be Canadian. But they must not be abandoned.
In some instances Canadians held abroad may face the death penalty. Canada must clearly establish that it will actively seek clemency on behalf of all Canadians sentenced to death in any country.
Canadian security agencies have played a role in some cases in the human rights violations of Canadians abroad. It is vital, therefore, that the government move to strengthen national security review and oversight. And there must be access to justice for those whose rights have been violated. Legal action in Canada against foreign government officials for serious human rights abuses must be allowed by amending Canada’s State Immunity Act that now prevents such lawsuits.
Canada must also support the international mechanism designed to prevent torture through a system of prison inspections. Signing on to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture is vital for Canada to be able to pressure other nations to allow inspection to expose sites where Canadians could be tortured abroad.
“It is long past time for Canada to commit to preventing torture worldwide by acceding to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture,” said Alex Neve. “Working to prevent torture is in the interests of anyone, including Canadians, held in foreign jails.”
The strength of Canadian assistance for those held abroad could be enhanced by partnering with other governments ready to assist each other with consular cases when the need arises. Canada, the Protection Charter asserts, should work to bring together an inter-governmental network to help those held abroad.
Canadian officials generally say that there is nothing that can be done if the person held is not a Canadian citizen. But the human rights concerns at stake are too important to ignore. That is why the Protection Charter covers Canadians, permanent residents and others with close Canadian connections. Guidelines are needed that clearly establish that the Canadian government will take up cases of non-citizens with close Canadian connections and lay out the factors and circumstances that will ensure a consistent approach.
"The Protection Charter would help strengthen Canadian efforts on behalf of Raif Badawi , whose wife and three children were accepted to Canada as refugees,” said Béatrice Vaugrante, Directrice Générale of Amnistie internationale Canada francophone. “Unjustly imprisoned and sentenced to the cruel penalty of 1,000 lashes, Raif Badawi needs Canadian officials to work hard for his release so that he can reunite with his family.”
Joining Mohamed Fahmy and Amnesty International in launching the Protection Charter were Kamila Telendibayeva, whose husband Huseyin Celil has been imprisoned in China since 2006, and Said Maktal, whose cousin Bashir Makhtal has been imprisoned in Ethiopia since 2007. Both said that the Protection Charter’s reforms would assist in efforts to protect their loved ones’ rights and secure their freedom.
“The Protection Charter is already gaining wide support from other former prisoners, families, lawyers, retired diplomats and human rights groups,” said Mohamed Fahmy. “It is a 12 step program that can provide consistent, effective and practical assistance whenever Canadians are held abroad. It will help ensure that other Canadians do not go through what I did.”
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The Protection Charter