Eritreans in Canada say consul still demands cash from them
UN says threats common against Eritrean families to get relatives living abroad to pay up
There are calls to expel Eritrea's top diplomat in Canada because he presides over a system that's milking money from the Eritrean community in this country.
Evidence obtained by CBC News suggests Consul Semere Ghebremariam O. Micael is again soliciting taxes despite a threat by Canada eight months ago not to renew his credentials if he kept at it.
But one Eritrean in Toronto, who has asked not to be identified, tells the CBC it was business as usual just a few weeks later when he had to pay.
"You have to go to the consulate and they arrange how you have to pay the money. They want two per cent … they don't give you a reason. You have to pay the money."
What would happen if he didn't?
"My family [in Eritrea] would get in trouble if I don't pay," he said.
Threats and intimidation
A United Nations report last year indicated that state threats and intimidation were commonly used against families in Eritrea to get their relatives living in Canada and other countries to pay up, though now the government sometimes uses a financial middleman.
"As far as I'm concerned it's a ruse, doing indirectly what the government told them not to do directly," said David Matas, a Winnipeg human rights lawyer who represents some in the Eritrean community who resent it.
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 up to $500, described on the Eritrean government clearance form as a "donation to national defence against Ethiopian invasion."
On Sept. 10, 2012, Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs advised the Eritrean consul in Toronto 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 audio provided to CBC News by Eritrean-born Teklezghi Yohannes Gabir from a meeting he attended in Winnipeg on April 21, 2013, reveals a voice he identifies as that of the consul sounding as if he is again soliciting money.
"What we are saying is that you have to fulfil the law of the country to be an investor because you are a citizen of the country" it says in a translation done for the CBC to English from Tigrinya, the language of business in Eritrea.
"Therefore, since what it comes down to is national honour and law, any service that requires a permit will have to remit two per cent."
Refusing to pay
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.
"I was there personally, and it was all aimed at collecting money and sending it to Eritrea," he said. "I think the Canadian government didn't follow up and they don't know what is going on."
But a source tells CBC News that Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), is familiar with the story and has been in contact with the Eritrean community seeking information about the tax scam.
And the issue was also laid out to federal officials as recently as three months ago, according to Ghazae Hagos, who was present at the meeting.
Hagos, a former journalist in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, speaks for HIDMONA, the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba.
He says he and a colleague met last February with Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, and a deputy director from the Africa division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
"They said they were very concerned about it. They said they would seriously study the matter and take the appropriate action," Hagos said.
In the past, Eritrean Consul Semere Ghebremariam Micael denied there's opposition to the tax and said as much on the radio network Voice of America (VOA) on Sept. 27, 2012, just days after Canada told him to get out of the business or lose his accreditation.
"I don't have much doubt that this is going to be an obstacle to the people … the public is still doing it, saying about this matter.… 'It is our right to pay.' We don't have any problems with our community," he said.
Reliance on diaspora for cash
Eritrea is one of the youngest and poorest countries in Africa. And with 10,000 political prisoners filling its jails, according to an Amnesty International report this month, one of its most repressive. Independence came only after decades of conflict with Ethiopia, with which it maintains an uneasy peace today.
Consequently, the 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.
Through it all, the consul has not been shy about his country's intention to keep collecting cash no matter how Canada views it.
In the VOA interview on September 2012, he interpreted Canada's warning just a few days earlier, as a green light for Eritrea to keep collecting.
"What the government of Canada is saying is that the task of a consulate office is not to collect a tax of two per cent, and it is not your mandate to do that, so you cannot collect payment here.
"But the law of Eritrea is still there as it is, and they have not said anything about that. Therefore, it is not that Eritrea should not ask payment, but you cannot charge here."
To that end, Ghazae Hagos of HIDMONA says Eritrea has adopted some opaque banking methods.
Money wired to Germany
In a sworn affidavit seen by CBC News, an Eritrean who has asked not to be identified describes being schooled in the tax payment process by officials at the Eritrean Consulate in Toronto, three months after Canada warned the office to end its involvement.
Several hundred dollars of his money were subsequently wired from a Canadian bank, to a second financial institution in Germany called the Deutsche Zentral-Genossenschaftsbank (DZ Bank) of Frankfurt.
From there, the documents show the funds were wired to a third institution, the Housing and Commerce Bank of Eritrea in the capital city of Asmara, of which the majority owner is the ruling regime, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice.
"They should stop," said Winnipeg human right lawyer David Matas. "But they were already asked to stop and they didn't, so I think they should be evicted. I mean, they're thumbing their noses at the Canadian authorities."
If Canada doesn't do something, Matas worries it's setting up people from Eritrea and potentially other expatriate communities to become walking ATMs for other regimes.
"If Eritrea gets away with it, we're going to start seeing China doing it. And Iran doing it. And North Korea doing it. And I think we have to make every effort to stop this right now, or else we're going to see it mushroom."
Ghazae Hagos of the Eritrean-Canadians Human Rights Group of Manitoba said he would like to see the Eritrean Consulate closed.
"Canada has to go beyond threat of pressure, of threat of expulsion of the consul. I think the closure of the consulate office is long overdue if Canada is really serious about it."
CBC News contacted the Eritrean Consulate three times in the past week to request comment, but telephone calls were not returned.