British Columbia

Former KGB officer takes sanctuary in church to avoid deportation

A former Soviet KGB officer says taking sanctuary in a Vancouver church is an "act of desperation" to avoid his scheduled deportation early Wednesday morning and to stay with his family in a place they have come to call home.
Mikhail Lennikov was ordered to board a flight for Vladivostok, Russia, on Wednesday morning. ((CBC))

A former Soviet KGB officer says taking sanctuary in a Vancouver church is an "act of desperation" to avoid his scheduled deportation early Wednesday morning and to stay with his family in a place they have come to call home.

Mikhail Lennikov arrived at the First Lutheran Church in East Vancouver near the intersection of Kingsway and 41st Avenue on Tuesday morning.

"Because I am in sanctuary, I am not showing up at the airport," he told CBC News Tuesday in an interview.

"In the interests of my family, and to prevent my family [from] being split indefinitely, if not for life, I think for us, for my family, it's important that I stay in Canada."

Lennikov was ordered to be at Vancouver International Airport at 3 a.m. PT Wednesday morning to be deported on a flight to Eastern Russia.

The pastor of the church where he has taken sanctuary, Richard Hergesheimer, said Lennikov was well-known in the church community and the church was prepared to support him in his bid to avoid deportation.

The First Lutheran Church in East Vancouver is prepared for the long haul to aid Mikhail Lennikov's bid to fight for his stay in Canada. ((CBC))

The church council has been planning this for months; they have built a room for Lennikov to live in and are ready for the long haul, Hergesheimer said.

"For us, it will end when the deportation order has been lifted and he can go home and be with his wife and family," he said Tuesday.

There is a long tradition of sanctuary in Canada, and the Canadian Border Services Agency said it normally does not forcibly remove people in such cases.

Canada's 1st sanctuary case in 1983

The practice of giving sanctuary goes back to biblical times and was codified in the fifth century AD, when Roman law guaranteed that churches could provide refuge, even for criminals.

Canada's sanctuary movement began in 1983, when a Guatemalan was given safe haven in a Montreal church and eventually granted a stay of deportation.

Since then, hundreds of people have sought sanctuary in Canadian churches. Many of them have passed resolutions reaffirming the right of asylum, particularly for refugees who have been denied immigrant status.

In the mid-1990s, the Council of Churches in Canada approved a United Church edict that "sanctuary is a place recognized as holy, a place of refuge. It is a sacred place where fugitives from the law have traditionally been secured by the church against arrest or violence."

There are no laws in Canada protecting church sanctity, although Canadian police have been reluctant to breach it. France has adopted a law allowing police to break church sanctuaries, while British and American police have routinely gone in and taken people from churches.

In November of last year, quadriplegic refugee claimant Laibar Singh voluntarily showed up at Vancouver International Airport to be deported to his home country of India after taking sanctuary at a Sikh temple in Abbotsford since July 2007.

In Lennikov's case, Hergesheimer said sheltering him is the right thing to do despite his past connection with the now-disbanded KGB.

"The man has been in Canada 12 years," he said. "By border services' own admission, he's not been a threat to Canada; he's not indulged in espionage here or in Japan, where he was before.

"So we're saying, well, what's the issue here? What are we supposed to be afraid of with this man?"

Lennikov said he has nowhere else to turn after losing his last chance to stay in Canada on Monday when a Federal Court judge upheld a decision by federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan that as a former foreign espionage agent, he could not remain in Canada.

"We hoped that it would not happen, that it would not be necessary," he said.

"But after yesterday's decision by a federal court, it's the only option. It's kind of an act of desperation for me and my family to stay together."

KGB officer in 1980s

The deportation was based on Lennikov's time with the KGB in the 1980s when he was a translator with the Russian intelligence service. He later came with his wife and son to Vancouver in 1997 on a student visa and has been living in Burnaby ever since. His son recently graduated from a Burnaby high school.

Van Loan said Tuesday morning in Ottawa he respects the decision of the courts, despite widespread public support for Lennikov.

"The Immigration Refugee Protection Act states quite clearly that individuals who have been involved in espionage against our country or other countries or have been members of an agency that conducts that are not admissible to Canada," Van Loan said before news of Lennikov seeking refuge in a church was reported.

But the law does allow the minister to let Lennikov stay, and 23 opposition MPs signed a letter urging him to do so.

"Public opinion is very clearly in favour of the Lennikovs," said Peter Julian, the NDP MP for Burnaby-New Westminster. "I know in my community, the local paper did a poll over the weekend and 98 per cent were supporting the Lennikovs."

Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal MP for Vancouver South, said he met Lennikov and his family and described him as an "absolutely honest man, full of integrity."