Nova Scotia

Saudi man facing sexual assault charge in N.S. 'fled' after embassy posted bail

A 28-year-old Saudi man charged with sexually assaulting a Cape Breton woman has gone missing, with a leading immigration lawyer saying it may be a case of the Middle Eastern kingdom helping a citizen flee while awaiting trial.

'This is a foreign government interfering with the criminal process,' says immigration lawyer Lee Cohen

The Sydney Justice Centre where Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi was supposed to appear in court to face charges including sexual assault and forcible confinement. (Robert Short/CBC)

A 28-year-old Saudi man charged with sexually assaulting a Cape Breton woman has gone missing, with a leading immigration lawyer saying it may be a case of the Middle Eastern kingdom helping a citizen flee while awaiting trial.

Nova Scotia's prosecution service says Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi had $37,500 of his bail posted by the Saudi Arabian Embassy last year in relation to the alleged sexual assault, assault and forcible confinement of the woman between Aug. 1, 2015, and March 26, 2017.

Alzoabi is also facing separate charges of dangerous driving and assault with a car in a December 2015 incident involving a Cape Breton man.

The money the kingdom provided for Alzoabi's bail last year was forfeited when he failed to appear in court last Monday, said prosecutor Shane Russell in an interview from his Sydney, N.S., office.

'Fled the country some time ago'

A court document says the sheriff unsuccessfully tried to locate Alzoabi on Dec. 8, and quotes his lawyer at the time, David Iannetti, as saying Alzoabi "fled the country some time ago," even though police had seized his passport.

Veteran immigration lawyer Lee Cohen said in an interview that the likeliest way Alzoabi would have left the country without a passport is with embassy-issued travel documents, as airlines face heavy fines if they board passengers without the government-issued permission or a passport.

The Saudi Arabian Embassy has not responded to emails or telephone calls requesting comment.

Lee Cohen, a veteran immigration lawyer in Halifax, suspects Alzoabi had some help from Saudi Arabia in leaving Canada. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"In order for this guy to leave Canada without a passport, it had to be facilitated by the Saudi government, or some government, and there's no reason to believe that any other government would put themselves in this position," said Cohen, who has practised immigration law for decades in Nova Scotia.

"It's intriguing to me as to why the Saudi government would put up bail and then facilitate his departure from Canada before he had an opportunity to complete the criminal process. This is a foreign government interfering with the criminal process."

Chilly relationship between Canada and Saudi Arabia

The incident comes amidst continuing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Canada.

A Saudi teen has been granted asylum in Canada after fleeing from her allegedly abusive family. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun said last week the Saudi Embassy in Thailand had tried to force her return to the kingdom.

In August, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada's ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after the Canadian foreign minister called for the release of women's rights activists who had been arrested in the country.

The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and recalled their students from universities in Canada.

Disappearing tricks 

In the United States, there have been reports of Saudi students leaving the country mysteriously as they faced serious criminal charges.

The Oregonian newspaper has reported recently on the flight last year of Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Portland, Ore., community college student who jumped bail in the case of a hit-and-run death of a 15-year-old Portland girl and apparently fled the United States.

He was being monitored on a GPS bracelet, but someone cut the bracelet and he left the country two weeks before his trial.

The news site reported on Sunday it has found criminal cases involving at least five other Saudis who vanished before they faced trial or completed their jail sentence in the state.

They include two accused rapists, a pair of suspected hit-and-run drivers and one man with child porn on his computer.

'This is happening more often than maybe we thought'

Shawn Overstreet, a deputy district attorney in Oregon's Multnomah County, said in an interview that during his seven years in his position, he hasn't seen other governments provide their citizens with thousands of dollars in surety.

Relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have become increasingly strained. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court via Reuters)

In the case of Noorah, Overstreet said he viewed a cheque for $100,000 US bail from the Saudi Consulate for the young man's lawyer, which was later used by the lawyer to post bail.

"We're hearing this is happening more often than maybe we thought. We want to make sure this isn't something that continues to happen," he said.

Serious allegations against Alzoabi

The Cape Breton Regional Police said in an email Monday that they've issued a warrant for Alzoabi's arrest for failing to appear for his trial.

Russell, who is handling the sexual assault prosecution in the Alzoabi case, said he can't release many details about the two sets of charges, as neither case has been before the courts.

The woman's identity is protected under a publication ban.

However, the prosecutor said the allegations are serious, and he said the potential penalty for sexual assault is up to 14 years in prison.

"Having the court procedure hang over [the accuser] caused her stress, and it will cause her ongoing stress the longer it lingers," the prosecutor said