The head of the Eritrean Consulate in Toronto has been ordered to leave Canada in the wake of reports that said Semere Ghebremariam O. Micael has been involved in soliciting a "diaspora tax" from Eritreans in Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a news release Wednesday that said he has taken steps to expel Micael and he must leave by noon ET on June 5.
"Today’s actions speak for themselves," Baird said. "Canada has repeatedly made clear to Eritrea to respect international sanctions and Canadian law."
'It is the act of a bully against a small and proud nation and its people and is aimed at denying the Eritrean community the services that they need from their government.'—Eritrea Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Baird's office wouldn't give the specific reason why Micael is being expelled but the move comes days after CBC News and other media have been reporting on the activities of his office.
In a press release, Eritrea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it condemned Micael's expulsion and insisted that the consulate general's activities were "fully consistent with the Vienna conventions on consular relations and do not violate international or Canadian laws."
"It is the act of a bully against a small and proud nation and its people and is aimed at denying the Eritrean community the services that they need from their government," the ministry said in its release.
Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Baird, further explained the decision to expel Micael when he spoke to reporters Wednesday morning.
"We have been very much concerned with the actions of the Eritrean consul general here in Canada. We had asked him at the early stages not to do this, it is contrary to our laws, but our information is that they continued doing it," said Obhrai. "And so we finally had to take action. We cannot allow our territory to be used for fundraising for other countries."
Baird was asked specifically if Micael was expelled because of the tax scheme when he spoke to reporters to announce new sanctions on Iran Wednesday afternoon.
"For legal reasons, I'm just going to say his activities weren't consistent with his diplomatic role and I'm going to leave it at that," Baird said.
He called the expulsion a "significant diplomatic step" that underlines his concerns with Micael's activities.
The dictatorship in Eritrea imposes what the UN has condemned as a worldwide "diaspora tax" on its nationals, valued at two per cent of their income.
It often adds a second tax of up to $500, described on the Eritrean government clearance form as a "donation to national defence against Ethiopian invasion."
Eritreans say tax collection continues
The CBC's Rick MacInnes-Rae reported last week that Baird's department advised the Eritrean consul in Toronto in September that soliciting and collecting these taxes was incompatible with consular duties, and his accreditation would not be renewed if he and his consulate didn't stop.
The consulate later indicated in writing that it would comply.
But an Eritrean in Toronto who did not want to be identified told CBC that the practice hasn't stopped and that if he doesn't pay, his family in Eritrea "would get in trouble."
Another Eritrean, Teklezghi Yohannes Gabir, provided audio to CBC from a meeting he attended in Winnipeg on April 21, with a voice he identifies as that of Micael sounding as if he is again soliciting money.
Gabir, 36, an Eritrean living in Winnipeg, has paid the tax in the past but refuses to pay any more, and offered the audio hoping it might help stop the collections.
Eritrean rep must 'play by the rules'
The Eritrean regime relies on diaspora cash for hard currency. But according to the UN, it also uses its money to support armed rebels opposing Ethiopia, and others with ties to the notorious al-Shabaab movement in Somalia.
Because of Eritrea's destabilizing role in the troubled Horn of Africa, the UN imposed sanctions on the country in 2009, hoping to choke off its access to arms and money.
Canada later adopted them, meaning those who pay are violating UN sanctions and may also be breaking Canadian law according to past reports.
"Canada has repeatedly made clear to Eritrea to respect international sanctions and Canadian law," Baird said in his statement. "The Eritrean government is welcome to propose another candidate to represent it in Canada, but that person must be prepared to play by the rules.
"Our resolve on this matter should not be further tested," he said.
A source told CBC that Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has contacted members of the Eritrean community for information about the tax scheme. Representatives from Baird's department and Obhrai, have also had meetings with the community.