A Canadian man detained recently in Beirut – in a case of mistaken identity – says the Canadian Embassy did nothing to help him or his family through a frightening situation.

"You feel like an animal that's sitting in a jail cell. You don't even know what you did. You are in a foreign country," said Ahmed Metwali.

"And you can't depend on the embassy. You have to fend for yourself."

Metwali flew to Lebanon in early October for a wedding, along with several relatives. He said Lebanese authorities pulled him aside, and accused him of being on the run – wanted for crimes in Saudi Arabia.

"An official took me to a back room where there was a cell and there was a high officer there," said Metwali. "I remember it vividly … there was another guy sitting there … and he just started unleashing on me.

"He said, 'You escaped from Saudi Arabia. We caught you. You are wanted.' I said, 'You can look at my passport.' And he said, 'No. You need to prove you are not this guy.'"

Metwali was born in Canada and works for Air Canada at the Calgary airport, where he has top security clearances. He apparently has the same name and birth year as not one, but two Islamist extremists wanted by Interpol.

"I was [eventually] told they escaped Saudi Arabia, they were fanatics, Islamic extremists," said Metwali.

'Not in Canada anymore'

Metwali says the officials wanted his father’s name to compare it with the Interpol record. He showed his Canadian passport, but the Lebanese interrogator told him it was not enough.

"I said to him, 'I'm Canadian. I was born in Canada.' He looked at me and he looked at my passport and he threw it on the desk and he said, 'You are not in Canada anymore.'"

mi-bc-tomlinson-mohammed-11111

Mohamed Metwali says he made frantic calls to the Canadian embassy, trying get help for his son, but was told to hire a lawyer instead. (CBC)

Metwali said he was put in a jail cell. He was allowed to call his father, Mohamed Metwali, a Calgary businessman, who said the call from his son came at 5:30 a.m. Calgary time. A Lebanese official got on the line and told him to fax his identification immediately.

"He says 'OK you have only 15 minutes to fax me anything with your name or Ahmed's name on it.' I was so scared if I ran out of those 15 minutes," said the senior Metwali.

"I was going crazy. I am from there. I was born in that area. I know what's going to happen to Ahmed if they send him back to Saudi Arabia. He's going to be demolished from the face of the Earth."

Metwali dug out his Egyptian birth certificate, because it has all of his Arabic names. He drove frantically to his office, where he said the fax repeatedly failed to go through. As he was scrambling, he said he called the Canadian Embassy in Beirut, looking for help.

He says a Lebanese staffer working there told him she couldn't do anything to help. 

Embassy no help

"She said, 'We can't help you. You have to hire a lawyer,'" said Metwali. "I said, 'How am I going to hire a lawyer when I am in Canada and he is at the airport and I don't know anybody there?' She said, 'No you have to have a lawyer. We can't help you.' And she hung up."

mi-bc-beirut-airport-111118

Officials at the Beirut airport detained Metwali for several hours after they mistook him for an Islamic extremist wanted in Saudi Arabia. (CBC)

He's upset that a local hire took his call, instead of a Canadian, because he feels he got what he described as a typical Middle Eastern brush-off.

"To find somebody [at the embassy] speaking Arabic, as a Lebanese, I got it in my mind right away they are not going to do anything," said Metwali.

"It's their mentality. You have to do begging. You have to do shouting. If you don't swear you don't get anything … I wanted to speak to a Canadian person working at the embassy."

Submit your story ideas:

  • Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC TV, radio and the web.
  • We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.
  • We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

He said subsequent calls went unanswered. Meanwhile, Metwali's sister, Amira, who was with him at the airport when he was jailed, said she also called the embassy and was also told to find a lawyer. 

"I was like, 'At least can you provide me with any names of lawyers in the country? Is there anyone here that you might know of?' She's like, 'No…all I can say is for you to get a lawyer,'" said Amira Metwali.

"I lost my temper and said, 'This is unacceptable. You are supposed to be the Canadian Embassy. And she's like 'Well you can call back tomorrow.'"

Metwali's father and sister said they haven't heard from the embassy since. Lebanese officials eventually accepted Metwali's father's documentation as proof they were holding the wrong man. He said a judge ordered him released about 11 hours after he arrived at the airport.

Scary situation

Metwali believes if his family hadn't been there to help, he could have been on a plane to Saudi Arabia.

"The only thing that keeps going through your head is like horror stories. Are they going to find me? Are people going to know where I am? I was just so lucky that I wasn't by myself …people knew I was in there," said Metwali.

mi-bc-tomlinson-beirut-family-

The Metwalis believe the federal government did nothing to help them, despite Ottawa's assertion that embassy officials tried. (CBC)

Metwali complained to his MP, Rob Anders, who told CBC News he's heard many similar complaints about local hires at Canadian embassies and consulates. Between 80 and 90 per cent of staff at overseas embassies are not Canadian.

"They are cheaper, but I would support local hires being replaced by more Canadians, even though it would cost more," the Conservative politician said.

Gar Pardy, former head of consular affairs, has been calling for years for a law to make immediate assistance for Canadians in trouble mandatory, similar to the protection U.S. citizens have.

"You need a piece of legislation that says all Canadians irrespective of their backgrounds are deserving of support and attention from their government and without a piece of legislation you've got a problem."

He said, at the very least, the Metwalis should have been given names of local lawyers.

"Something didn't work here at all," said Pardy. "It's the most common thing an embassy can do is to provide a lawyer that speaks the language of the individual and provides assistance."

Another case, same embassy

This case comes to light as another Canadian, New Brunswick farmer Henk Tepper, sits in a Lebanese jail. He is being held on an Interpol warrant for allegedly exporting rotten potatoes to Algeria.

Tepper's supporters say the Canadian Embassy in Beirut has also done little to help him. They say he has been detained without charge in a crowded jail cell since March.

"The embassy has been doing absolutely nothing to help us," said Tepper's lawyer, James Mockler, of New Brunswick. "Once a month, he gets a brief visit from a Canadian official."

Mockler said Ambassador Hilary Childs-Adams recently met with the Lebanese justice minister, but Tepper was imprisoned for six months before that happened.

"They don't seem to take an interest," said Mockler.

A spokesman for the minister responsible for consulate services, Diane Ablonczy, said she wasn't available to answer questions about consular services and would not talk about the Metwali case.

However, as a result of CBC News inquires, Ottawa asked the embassy in Beirut what happened.

A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the embassy reported back that after Metwali's sister called, a representative called the airport and then went there personally. He said their records indicate the representative could get "no information" at the airport, so left.

Embassy got 'no information'

"[Lebanese officials] wouldn't tell them anything," the official said, pointing out he believes staff responded appropriately.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Ahmed Metwali. "The Lebanese were telling my family members why I was being held. Why would they not tell a government official?

"It sounds like [the embassy]

is getting heat and didn't expect it and they're now trying to explain what happened. If they're telling the truth, that's even scarier – that an embassy official can't find out anything when one of our citizens is being held."

The government official insisted it's not unusual for consular officials not to speak to family members, for privacy reasons.

"Case management officers are very restricted in what they can say to families," he said, adding Metwali should consider himself lucky that he was released so quickly.

"Often these things will take weeks to resolve."

John Babcock, director of communications for Diane Ablonczy, sent an email to CBC News, which read, "Our government takes the safety and security of Canadians abroad very seriously and provides credible and timely advice through our travel advisories. Canadian officials cannot exempt Canadians from the due process of local laws, including at points of entry into a given country."