A "massive, systemic problem" in the Department of Foreign Affairs is helping keep two Ontario men in a Dominican Republic prison, an international law and crisis management expert says.
"Consular affairs is effectively useless," said Dean Peroff, one of the founders and directors of the National Council for the Protection of Canadians Abroad.
Peroff has been following the case of Nick Miele, 34, and his cousin, Ben Constantini, 18, both of Stoney Creek, Ont. They have been behind bars in the Dominican Republic since the early morning hours of May 28 — just hours after Miele and Stacey Vernon were married at the Bahia Principe Esmeralda resort in Punta Cana.
Vernon says her husband and his cousin were thrown in jail unjustly after a fight broke out on their resort between two other Canadian men that they had nothing to do with. Now the pair are facing at least three months in prison while local police conduct an investigation.
'Pretending that there's due process is just putting your head in the sand.' —Dean Peroff, of the National Council for the Protection of Canadians Abroad
The Department of Foreign Affairs has said that Canadians who travel abroad are subject to local laws, so the Canadian government can't interfere in another country's judicial system. Peroff says that response is "typical of a cultural malaise" in the department.
"What they don't tell you is that's based on old international law from before World War II," Peroff said, adding that the department is "out of touch" with contemporary human rights law, which he says should trump those laws. Canada has a duty to protect the rights of its citizens abroad, he says. "You've still got that antiquated mindset at consular affairs."
'They sharpen tools in front of them'
Vernon says her husband and his cousin are suffering in dangerous and unjust conditions in prison. "They're sitting in feces — it's just horrendous," she said. "This prison is full of mass murderers and drug peddlers.
"They sharpen tools in front of them on the bars."
In a statement, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs) Diane Ablonczy told CBC Hamilton that the Canadian government is working with the family, their lawyer and with local authorities. "We have raised their concerns about prison conditions," she said. "Canada will continue to stand up for the well-being and due process for all Canadians involved."
But Vernon says she hasn't seen the government advocating for her husband's rights. "How can they say that they will 'stand up for their well-being' when these boys are mentally suffering every day?" she asked. "There is no such thing as 'well-being' where they are right now."
Peroff says that justice systems in "emerging markets" like the Dominican Republic can often be rife with "massive, systemic corruption."
"Pretending that there's due process is just putting your head in the sand," he said.
'Fairness and due process'
The two men who are accused of starting the fight that led to the arrests are both Canadian, and one was seriously injured.
"We are therefore advocating for fairness and due process for both Canadian parties involved," Ablonczy said in a statement.
"While guilt or innocence has not yet been determined, Dominican officials assure us they are investigating as per their own sovereign laws in order for justice to be properly served."
The Canadian government will not divulge the identities of either of the two other men, citing privacy concerns. Joshua Zanin, communications director for Ablonczy told CBC News that assistance was provided to the Canadian man who was injured in the fight. He said that "speaking broadly," the government provides medical assistance for people to get the treatment they need to "come home safely."
He would not say if that meant the man had returned to Canada. Vernon said as far as she knows, the injured man left for Canada on May 30. She said he is from Montreal. "The other man who injured the man from Montreal is not located at this point as far as we know," she said.
Repeated requests for comment from both local police and the Bahia Principe Esmeralda resort in Punta Cana were not returned.
Petition with thousands of names circulating
Canadians have started to voice their displeasure about the situation online. A petition with over 3,000 signatures is circulating asking Canadian politicians to step in and help the men.
John Meissner, a retired Canadian Armed Forces soldier and retired sergeant of the Ontario Provincial Police Auxiliary announced Wednesday that he is returning a Commissioner's Citation he received for saving the life of an injured motorist on the side of Highway 401 near London, Ont., because of the government's response.
He says he's no longer proud to hang the medal on his wall. "Three thousand plus people have now signed an online petition asking the Government of Canada to get involved and to stand up for the rights of our fellow Canadians," he said in an email to the Prime Minister's Office. "These are two honest, hardworking, taxpaying citizens, whose only crime was to take action when no one else would, just as I did.
"Please tell me where I can return the Commissioner's Citation for proper disposal, as clearly our government does not believe in the principles that its citizens stand for."
Peroff said the only way Vernon's husband will get fair treatment in the Dominican Republic's legal system is with sustained pressure in the media.
"But it shouldn't be that way," he said. "It shouldn't be about who shouts the loudest at the media."
Peroff said the Department of Foreign Affairs has a duty to press Dominican Republic officials as hard as possible to ensure fair treatment for Miele and Constantini.
"But all they care about is state-to-state relations."