Wang Bingzhang, featured in Inside These Walls has a doctorate from McGill, and a family in Montreal, but everyday he wakes up behind bars half a world away. His crime? Being pro-democracy. The political activist has been in a Chinese prison serving a life sentence in solitary confinement for alleged espionage and terrorism since 2002.

And while Bingzhang is a Chinese citizen, his family is in Canada working to get him home alongside the families of many Canadians detained abroad.

Fourteen Hundred Canadians In Jail Abroad

According to Jocelyn Sweet of Global Affairs Canada, “As of August 23, 2016, Global Affairs Canada is currently aware of 1,406 Canadians detained abroad,” the majority of which are in the United States, with the rest scattered through 85 other countries.

While many are arrested for crimes like assault or drug-related offences that are also illegal in Canada, some, like Bingzhang are detained for reasons the Canadian justice system doesn’t recognize. That’s where things get complicated.

The Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve says that when it comes to international detainees, “Our focus is generally on pretty serious human rights cases,” like those involving torture, or when the punishment is politically motivated, like in Bingzhang’s case.

In Neve’s experience, “there seems to be inconsistency” regarding who gets the help of the government. “It’s very difficult to determine which cases will attract that kind of attention,” he said in a phone interview.

Politics Important for Release

And while he’s firm on the fact that getting a detainee back on Canadian soil is a true group effort, it’s clear that the message is most swiftly delivered from someone at the political table. “In our view, very often it can be when there is senior political level involvement that a real difference can be made.”

According to the federal government’s Guide for Canadians Imprisoned Abroad, “If you break the laws of another country, you are subject to the judicial system of that country. Being a foreigner or not knowing the local laws is not an excuse.” And while they will make every effort to ensure a Canadian is not being penalized simply for being a foreigner, the government clearly states they are unable to interfere with the judicial process of other countries.

Those imprisoned in countries not included in Canada’s transfer of offender treaties can spend years without any information about the possible end of their sentences, some after enduring “sham” trials, which is how Bingzhang’s daughter describes her father’s one day in court “in which he was not allowed to produce evidence or question testimony against him.”

Here are five other Canadians currently detained abroad for less-than-just cause.

Tahmid Hasib Khan, Bangladesh

Tahmid Hasid Khan

Photo: Facebook

This 22-year-old University of Toronto student has been detained in Bangladesh since July, and most recently was transferred to a prison there. He was in Dhaka at a cafe with some friends when armed gunmen attacked, killed 20 people and took hostages. The case is complicated, as at least one media outlet published photos of Khan holding a gun in the cafe, but reports from some of the hostages claim that he was forced to by the gunmen. He was taken in for questioning shortly after the attack and formally arrested in early August. Media outlets reported that Khan was freed on bail Sunday October 2nd.

Dr. Asim Hussain, Pakistan

Dr. Asim Hussain

Photo: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

This 62-year-old orthopedic surgeon and Canadian citizen based in London, ON is also a former Pakistani politician, which may have played into his detainment in Karachi. He “was arrested in late August by paramilitary Pakistan Rangers for allegedly financing terrorism through his hospital,” but his supporters call the claims unfounded, and say his imprisonment is due to political reasons alone. He was tortured in custody, leading to a heart attack and kidney failure, and he remains in prison today.

Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim, North Korea

Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim

Photo: Kyodo/Reuters

This pastor from Toronto’s Light Korean Presbyterian Church is serving a life sentence of hard labour in Pyongyang for “attempting to overthrow the North Korean regime.” The 60-year-old has spent eight hours a day digging holes since his conviction last January, after over 100 visits to North Korea for humanitarian purposes. The government is aware of the situation and is providing assistance to Lim and his family, including a recent diplomatic visit to Lim, the details of which are being kept under wraps for his protection.

Hyeon Soo Lim was released by North Korea on August 9, 2017 for humanitarian reasons.

Homa Hoodfar, Iran

Homa Hoodfar

Photo: Concordia University

The Concordia University professor was arrested in March of this year on the vague charges of “cooperating with a foreign state.” An expert on sexuality and gender in Islam, the 60-year-old academic was seized in Tehran and has not yet been brought to trial. Her colleagues have raised concerns about recent health issues, and call her “an asset to our city, our university, and women.”  Homa Hoodfar was released for humanitarian reasons on September 26.

Huseyin Celil, China

Huseyin Celil

Photo: Family handout

It’s been over 10 years since this Canadian citizen was arrested and jailed on terrorism charges in China. Life before wasn’t much easier, as Celil fled China, came to Canada as a refugee, and gained citizenship four years later. Then, on a trip to his wife’s native Uzbekistan, Celil “was arrested by Uzbek police and handed over to Chinese authorities.” He’s remained in jail ever since, facing human rights abuses like torture, and lack of access to Canadian consular services. His wife remains in Burlington, ON, raising their four children, hoping for his release. The fact that his life sentence was recently reduced to 20 years is certainly cold comfort. 

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