CBC Investigates

'A unique ability to not remember': Mystery man fights for freedom

The Canada Border Services Agency has spent more than two years trying to figure out who Mohsin Abdelwahep really is. Should he be free?

CBSA has tried linguistic analysis, Ancestry DNA database and Facebook in bid to determine identity

The CBSA sent this grainy image of Mohsin Abdelwahep to Las Vegas police to see if any officers might remember him. He lived in the city at one time, but seems to have left few traces. (CBSA/Federal Court)

Mohsin Abdelwahep is believed to be Egyptian. But he has also claimed to be Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian.

He's used four different names. And Abdelwahep — who is also known as Ali Hassan Ahmed — is either 55 or 59.

One fact about him is certain: he's behind bars. Not for any criminal act, but because Canada Border Services agents can't identify him in order to begin the process of deporting him.

But after more than two-and-a-half years of trying to figure out who the mystery man is, the CBSA may soon be forced to set him free.

'An unknown entity with a history of lying'

A member of the Immigration and Refugee Board's Immigration Division ordered Abdelwahep's release last month.

The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness has applied in Federal Court for a judicial review of that decision.

The bulky court record — which CBC has reviewed — throws a spotlight on both the contentious issue of immigration detention and the lengths investigators will go to in order to discover credible information about the people in their care.

Abdelwahep has undergone linguistic analysis and had his DNA submitted to an ancestry database. Agents have sent Facebook messages to possible fifth and eighth cousins. They've considered going to the media.

He's drawn the line at hypnosis for fear it might "mess with his mind."

The Canada Border Services Agency submitted Mohsin Abdelwahep's DNA to Ancestry DNA in the hopes of finding relatives. They have reached out to possible fifth cousins. (Jason Proctor)

And yet, Abdelwahep's true identity remains as much a puzzle as it was in July 2016 when one of the many Immigration Division members he has appeared before predicted he could look forward to a "very long time" in detention.

"You've demonstrated a unique ability to not remember anything about your own past, to be a person completely and utterly alone in the world, unable to obtain any documents, unable to provide any contacts who can confirm your identity," Marc Tessler told Abdelwahep.

"You are essentially an unknown entity, with a history of lying."

All dead ends

Abdelwahep was first detained after making a refugee claim at an inland Citizenship and Immigration Office on April 5, 2016. At that time, he claimed to have arrived in Canada on a ship from Italy.

But his story unravelled when fingerprint analysis showed he had actually been in the United States for many years, including the time he was supposed to have been on the boat.

Further checks found Abdelwahep had — in fact — unsuccessfully applied for asylum in Canada in 2007. He told investigators he spent time in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands but only Italy has any record of him.

Fingerprint checks suggest that Mohsin Abdelwahep was arrested in Las Vegas under the name Ali Hassan Ahmed. He was also married in the desert city. But his wife is dead. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun via Associated Press)

Over time, pieces of information have emerged — but all dead ends. He was married to a woman in Las Vegas. She died. CBSA has been unable to find her relatives, and questions about former roommates have gone nowhere.

The linguistic analysis suggests he grew up in Cairo.

According to the court records, the CBSA has yet to supply him with an application for an Egyptian birth certificate or travel documents.

In any case, he has allegedly refused to fill them out if they did.

'Do I deserve to be treated this way'

Abdelwahep claims that he has consistently told investigators what he remembers — but he doesn't remember much.

And his stay in a B.C. Corrections pretrial centre doesn't appear to be helping. The court records include pages of details about in-custody arguments and fights.

He has spent much of his time in segregation and, at one point, suffered a "brain bleed" after an attack by other inmates.

Mohsin Abdelwahep is currently an inmate at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam, B.C. He has spent much of his time in segregation. (Shutterstock)

Abdelwahep expressed his frustration — and his view of the Canadian legal system — in December of last year, when he made a personal plea for his release to yet another Immigration Division member.

"According to the law in Canada, if I kill a person, if I am drunk, they will indict me for three years. What is the reason they put me in prison for two years without committing any crime?" he asked.

"Do I deserve to be treated this way? I'm not a criminal and I'm not a terrorist. That's why I'm asking you to release me today and I will comply with any conditions that you impose on me."

No 'single, simple answer'

The issue of immigration detention has arisen repeatedly in the courts in recent years.

According to evidence given at a 2017 Federal Court case, nearly 5,900 people were detained for immigration purposes in 2016. People can be held if they are deemed to be a flight risk, a danger to the public or unwilling to prove or reveal their genuine identities. But the Immigration Division holds regular hearings for the CBSA to justify continued detention.

One South African man, Victor Vinnetou, was detained for 11 years before he was released. He arrived on a false passport and — like Abdelwahep — was accused of refusing to co-operate with efforts to establish his identity.

South African man Victor Vinnetou was detained for 11 years before he was released. He was accused of refusing to co-operate with efforts to establish his identity. (CBC )

Detainees who signed affidavits as part of the earlier court case have been incarcerated in provincial jails for anywhere from eight months to three years. They included women and men. Several said they had been severely beaten by other inmates.

The judge in the case found that extended immigration detention doesn't automatically amount to a violation of a prisoner's rights.

"The reasonableness of an individual's detention will vary with the circumstances," wrote Justice Simon Fothergill.

"The question of when detention for immigration purposes is no longer reasonable does not have a single, simple answer."

'Detention is an extreme measure'

Toronto immigration consultant Macdonald Scott is part of the End Immigration Detention Network, an intervenor in a number of similar cases.

"Detention is an extreme measure within our society," he says.

"And to hold someone just because you can't identify them, you'd never be able to do that in any other context. And what I wonder about is why the Department of Justice is spending Canadian resources to fight what's obviously a very reasonable decision."

Immigration advocates argue that the Canada Border Services Agency should not detain immigrants indefinitely over issues of identity. (CBC)

Advocates point out that a release from jail isn't a release from responsibility. Detainees still have to abide by whatever terms and conditions they undertake in exchange for release.

And Scott says taxpayers wouldn't have to pay the cost to house and feed them.

'They're trying to catch the wind'

Karina Henrique, the Immigration Division member whose release order sparked the Federal Court battle, noted that Abdelwahep is not considered a flight risk or a danger to the pubic.

She put the blame for the delay in identification on both Abdelwahep and the government.

"It does not, however, appear that his identity will be established in the near future and there is potential therefore of his future detention becoming unduly lengthy," she wrote.

"His detention has been significant, and his future time in detention is unknown. These factors weigh in favour of his release."

He'll remain behind bars pending the outcome of the judicial review. The next court date is in November.

The government argues that releasing Abdelwahep would undermine "the very purpose, objectives and explicit legislative intent" of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Which leaves the mystery man and the CBSA locked in a kind of needle-in-a-haystack stalemate.

At one of his last Immigration Division hearings, the agency explained efforts to reach out to some of the hundreds of people identified as possible cousins through Ancestry DNA.

Abdelwahep's counsel, Christopher Ghirardi, said one officer described it as "a long shot to establish identity."

"Mr Abdelwahep used a different phrase with me earlier," Ghirardi said.

"It seems like they're trying to catch the wind."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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