War crimes suspects' prosecution uncertain

There are no guarantees that any of the suspected war criminals recently nabbed with the help of an online "wanted" list will actually face justice in their home countries.
A Canada Border Services Agency officer stands behind Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney as they announce the capture of a fourth war crimes suspect on July 27, 2011. There's no guarantee the deported suspects will be prosecuted in their home countries. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

There are no guarantees that any of the suspected war criminals recently nabbed with the help of an online "wanted" list will actually face justice in their home countries.

Federal ministers said Wednesday Canada simply wants to get rid of the men because their alleged crimes make them inadmissible. 

Human rights advocates say the federal government is dodging its responsibilities by deporting – not prosecuting – the suspects. 

"Our concern here is that this is furthering a long-established practice in Canada to overwhelmingly make use of our immigration system rather than our criminal justice system in dealing with cases of this sort," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. 

"There doesn't seem to be even any pretence of turning to the criminal justice system, or putting some measures in place to ensure that the people on this list, if the allegations are well-founded, will actually face justice."

On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews held the second news conference in as many days to report the capture of a suspected foreign war criminal with the help of the Canadian public. 

Henry Pantoja Carbonel of Peru was found in Toronto, and will be subject to deportation. He's the second Peruvian national to be caught in the campaign.

But Peru has a spotty record on prosecuting former war criminals, many of whom were former military and police personnel who in some cases have not been subject to the same rigorous trials as other citizens. One government decree ordered the "partial acquittal" of former soldiers if investigators took longer than three years to lay charges, and personnel are to be tried by military courts instead of civilian ones.

Although Canada generally does not deport suspects to countries where torture or the death penalty are possibilities, Toews indicated there is no similar verification of whether prosecutions are undertaken. 

"The focus of this is to remove individuals from Canada who are inadmissible," Toews said.

"We are not making a finding of guilt or innocence in terms of the actual criminal charge."

The ministers said there are no plans to prosecute any of the men in Canada. The government has only ever prosecuted two alleged war criminals in Canada, both from Rwanda, under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.

"Usually the crimes are prosecuted in the countries where they're committed, or through the UN – that's the most appropriate jurisdiction," Toews said. 

"There are certain rare cases where individuals are prosecuted in this country for crimes committed elsewhere, but that's not the general rule. It's not a particularly effective way of prosecuting given that the evidence is in other countries."

It's best to have a trial where the crimes have allegedly been committed when there can be a fair trial and no possibility of torture or the death penalty, Neve said. But in some cases that is simply not possible.

That's why countries have collectively recognized the principle of "universal jurisdiction" in crimes of the highest order such as atrocities or disappearances, he added.

"When we simply turn to our immigration system to sweep people off of our front step without taking meaningful steps to ensure that here or somewhere else they will face justice, we fail to live up to that responsibility."

In the United Kingdom, a suspected Peruvian torturer was convicted Tuesday of entering the country on a false passport. The British government is still investigating his alleged war crimes with a view to prosecuting him under a new law.

There has been no information on the exact nature of the war crimes or crimes against humanity the men in Canada are alleged to have perpetrated.

Fabiola Bazo, a Vancouver-based writer and consultant on Peruvian issues, said the vast majority of Peruvian fugitives are former military officers who participated in the government's brutal crackdown on leftist rebels between 1980 and 1992. Peru has also been trying to track down former members of corrupt president Alberto Fujimori's regime.

A former officer dubbed the "Butcher of the Andes" was extradited from the U.S. to Peru two weeks ago. In the United States, he had faced a civil trial brought by victims of a 1985 massacre.

Bazo said she's cautiously optimistic that a new, leftist government in Peru will bring changes to the justice system and the process for prosecuting human rights abusers, despite the fact the new president Ollanta Humala was a former military officer himself. 

"The appointments of the new ministers by the new president are quite promising, and the minister of justice is a good person and respectful of human rights. I can say the same for the minister of foreign relations," Bazo said. "They have always been against amnesty towards former military officers."