Montreal

Ottawa not doing enough for Canadians jailed abroad, supporters say

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department has turned a cold shoulder to the plight of Canadians locked in jails abroad, say some of those desperately seeking information about friends and family at the mercy of foreign justice.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department has turned a cold shoulder to the plight of Canadians locked in jails abroad, say some of those desperately seeking information about friends and family at the mercy of foreign justice.

Accusations of indifference and a lack of transparency have been aimed at Ottawa following several recent high-profile cases of Canadian citizens seeking help in being released from foreign jails.

"I'm in a black hole here," Sylvia Itzhayek, whose brother Saul has been languishing in a remote jail in northeast India since last May, said in an interview.

"I don't know what's happening."

Itzhayek, who has a wife and two children in Montreal, was in Nepal on business when his driver was arrested at the Indian border with his travel documents, which were seized.

He filed sworn statements saying Indian police offered him safe passage back into India to collect his documents. Instead, they arrested him for entering the country illegally.

Itzhayek's case was raised with Indian authorities by Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier during a visit to New Delhi earlier this month.

But aside from a one-line statement in a news release following the meeting, Sylvia Itzhayek has not received any information about the diplomatic efforts to free her brother.

"What are they doing? Why are they not helping Canadian citizens abroad?"

The office of Helena Guergis, junior minister responsible for consular affairs, did not respond to an interview request on Wednesday.

'Foreign Affairs, basically, is almost disinterested'

Itzhayek is not alone in feeling the Foreign Affairs Department fails to take decisive action to free imprisoned Canadians who protest their innocence.

"Foreign Affairs, basically, is almost disinterested for the most part," said Debra Tieleman, whose longtime friend Brenda Martin has been stuck in a Mexican jail for nearly two years. "They don't have a clue about what's going on."

Mexican authorities charged Martin in 2006 with money laundering and participating in a conspiracy in connection with an alleged investment scheme.

But Waage, who is serving a 10-year sentence in the United States, has sworn an affidavit claiming he knew nothing of the scheme.

"They [Foreign Affairs] just don't seem to have much time for this case," Tieleman said.

The Opposition Liberals claim the lack of progress in such cases is a product of the Conservative government failing to take the issue seriously.

Consular affairs critic Dan McTeague says elected officials need to show a greater willingness to get personally involved.

"Canadians have to be reasonable about what can be done," he said. "But when a problem does occur it does often require the minister's intervention. That clearly doesn't happen here."

For McTeague, who was closely involved in efforts to free William Sampson from a death sentence in Saudi Arabia, discussions between diplomats must eventually be ramped up by politicians, including the prime minister.

Each case is different

But career diplomats caution that kicking up a storm at every instance isn't always productive and can waste precious diplomatic capital.

"We can't ratchet it up for every case and we do have to look at the merits of each particular case," said Martin Collacott, a former ambassador in Asia and the Middle East, and now a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

"Once you go overboard for one case, then everyone can expect the same thing. You really have to measure things carefully so the person gets a reasonable level assistance."

Collacott stressed that Foreign Affairs takes instances of Canadians being locked up abroad very seriously.

"Sometimes the expectations are very high because the Canadian government has an image of being able to intervene on behalf of Canadians anytime, anywhere," he added.

Yet those with loved ones facing dismal conditions in jails abroad complain that consular officials have to be prodded into being helpful. That has left some disillusioned, convinced the government will not be there when it is needed most.

"We need a complete overhaul of our consular services," said Tieleman. "It's as though your Canadian passport isn't worth anything."