'Abandoned by my country': Former hostage in Syria says Canada let him down

In 2013, Syrian rebels abducted Canadian lawyer Carl Campeau while he was working for the UN, and kept him hostage for eight months. Neither the UN nor the Canadian government would pay ransom for his release. Although he managed to escape, he continues to live in fear and feels abandoned both by his country and his employer.

Carl Campeau takes issue with Canadian government's black-and-white, no-ransom policy

UN lawyer Carl Campeau, who saved himself after being captured in Syria, says he’s speaking out to spare others. (CBC)
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When Carl Campeau's captors forced him to make a proof-of-life video, there was nothing he could do but play along.

And so wrapped in gauze daubed with iodine and lying on his back, Campeau spoke to the camera, claiming his leg had to be amputated after he was injured in a strike on the villa in which he was held south of Damascus.

In reality, his leg was folded underneath him.

"Please help me. Help me now. Don't wait anymore. If you wait, you may never see me again," he says.

This video was created by Syrian fighters linked to al-Qaeda. It falsely suggests Carl Campeau's leg was amputated to pressure officials and family members to pay a ransom. 0:57

The video, never before made public and which Campeau shared with CBC, was aimed at pressuring Canada, the UN and his family to meet the al-Qaeda-linked group's demands — including a $7-million ransom they wanted for his release.

After months in captivity with no solution in sight, Campeau too was hoping the ploy would work.

"Of course I was trying to move people by saying something very dramatic," Campeau told the CBC's The Sunday Edition from an undisclosed location.

(Campeau, who was serving as a UN legal adviser in Syria, still keeps his whereabouts secret out of fear of revenge from his former captors or their loyalists.)

"My hope was that from that point on they would really move faster to try to get me out of there … either by paying a ransom or exchange prisoners for me."

Improbable escape

Ultimately nothing of the kind happened. And now Campeau says he felt abandoned and let down by the Canadian government.

Under pressure to convert to Islam, Campeau decided to do it in an effort to improve his chances of survival, and his treatment at the hands of the captors improved. He then escaped when one day, inexplicably, the door to the villa had been left unlocked.

In the end, eight months later, Campeau had rescued himself.

That was back in 2014. He says he can't truly move on without knowing just what Canadian officials did to ensure his safe release.

The government won't say much more than it did try to help.

Global Affairs Canada spokesman Brendan Sutton said Canadian officials worked with the family and officials on the ground on Campeau's case, and that the effort involved "multiple Canadian departments and agencies working closely to support the UN to resolve the case."

But the government would not comment on operational details. Sutton said it was out of concern "that might jeopardize current and future efforts to help Canadian hostages."

No-ransom policy

Campeau also takes issue with the Canadian government's black-and-white, no-ransom policy — and the advice it provided his distraught family against paying one.

"You are in a situation where the life of someone is threatened. And it's very real that this person might get killed, and then lose his life and you will never see that person again. And I think people are worth much more than money," said Campeau, a Montreal native.

We will not turn the maple leaf, worn with pride by over three million Canadians abroad, into a target.- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

The official policy now is the same as it was then, under former prime minister Stephen Harper: Canada does not pay ransoms.

"We will not turn the maple leaf, worn with pride by over three million Canadians abroad, into a target," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the wake of the 2016 murder of two Canadians at the hands of extremists in the Philippines.

Some countries and some families do pay, including the family of Canadian reporter Amanda Lindhout, who was released after they used an intermediary to apparently pay $600,000 to her captors.

Campeau says he understands in principle why governments don't want to put money in the pockets of extremists, but he says there are ways of doing it, or helping families do it, which could save the lives of loved ones while leaving the door open to retribution afterwards.

He wrote a book published last year in Germany about his extraordinary ordeal, which continued long after his escape when he discovered that one of the fighters who guarded him in Syria was trying to claim asylum in Germany.

The aim is to help future Canadian hostages to give them more chances to get out, to survive.- Carl Campeau

Campeau testified in the man's trial, which ended with a conviction for being an accessory to a war crime against humanitarian operations, and a prison sentence — one which the man has appealed.

While he wants to put the ordeal behind him, he speaks out now to spare others his experience.

"The aim is to help future Canadian hostages to give them more chances to get out, to survive."