Several cases of Canadians imprisoned by foreign countries have become high-profile news stories in recent years, particularly when the reasons for the detention are questionable. Canadian citizens such as Maher Arar, Brenda Martin, Bashir Makhtal and Omar Khadr became household names both in Canada and internationally as the media caught wind of their unfortunate situations and followed the international tug-of-war as Canadian authorities sought to ensure that their rights were not infringed and attempted to bring them back home. Regarding Maher Arar, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once said to CBC news that, "Canada has every right to go to bat for one of its citizens when the government believes a Canadian is being unfairly treated". These situations made Canadians ponder the question: what powers does the Canadian government have when helping its citizens in foreign countries?
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) indicates that it receives 190,000 calls every year from Canadians abroad in need of some sort of aid. This can range from vacationers who have lost their travel documents to more serious cases of hijackings or kidnappings. In these instances, the Canadian government's nearest consulate will maintain contact with the local authorities and also keep family members informed of developments. The Canadian government cannot directly intervene in the legal proceedings of a foreign country unless invited to do so. For instance, when Omar Khadr was arrested as a war criminal by the United States, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) was permitted to interview him in prison. By far, the case where the government has been involved in helping its citizens abroad most directly occurred during the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, where Canada chartered boats to evacuate around 15,000 Canadian citizens from the war zone.
When a Canadian citizen is imprisoned in a foreign country, international convention allows for them to contact his or her nearest consulate or embassy. Through this means, they can also apply for a transfer to a Canadian prison, which must be approved by authorities from both countries. There are agreements in place that allow for this, such as the Commonwealth Scheme for the Transfer of Convicted Offenders and the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons.
The case of Brenda Martin illustrates these agreements. She had been a Canadian working in Mexico since 1998 and found guilty of fraud by the Mexican courts in relation to a pyramid scheme run by a former employer and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and a fine. She applied for a prisoner transfer to Canada, which was granted in 2008, and served one week at the Grand Valley detention centre before being paroled, with the Canadian government paying her fine.
Some countries do not recognize dual citizenship and can confiscate Canadian passports and deny dual citizens consular services. This happened to Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian citizen since 1994 who is currently imprisoned in Ethiopia after being arrested in Kenya in 2006 as a terror suspect, but not charged with anything. It is speculated that he is a terror suspect associated with the Ogaden National Liberation Front because his grandfather was a Somali independence activist in Ethiopia in the 1950s. While in prison, Bakhtal was interrogated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation but Ethiopian authorities denied holding him until personal letters from him were smuggled out of prison in April of 2007. Since then, the Ethiopian-born Makhtal has received some visits from Canadian officials beginning in summer of 2008, but attempts to have him transferred to a Canadian prison have been futile.
In the case of Maher Arar, the government can also make mistakes when its citizens get in trouble abroad. While returning from a vacation to the Middle East, Arar was detained at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City by U.S. officials who believed that he had connections to a terrorist cell. He was then deported to his birthplace of Syria and imprisoned and tortured for a year before being returned to Canada. There is evidence to suggest that the RCMP supplied false information that Arar was no longer a Canadian resident and later tried to cover it up. Moreover, Arar remains on the American terrorist watch list, but was cleared of any terrorism connections by Ottawa.
Appealing to individual politicians can certainly help one's case as well. Several people have brought attention to their plights by appealing to Ottawa power brokers. Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day have both personally asked U.S. officials to take Maher Arar off its terror watch list. Kitchener-Waterloo area politicians were instrumental in raising awareness of Brenda Martin's situation to the proper authorities. Even independent MP Bill Casey of Nova Scotia got involved, calling for a Canadian boycott of Mexico. Bashir Makhtal's imprisonment saw MP John Baird meet with the Ethiopian ambassador to Canada and MP Deepak Obhrai make two trips to Addis Ababa on his behalf. They only received assurances that his rights would not be infringed upon and managed to get him transferred to a more hospitable prison, though. Thus far, Canada has not officially asked for the U.S. to extradite Omar Khadr to Canada, but there are a growing number of people and groups beginning to put pressure on the government to begin such negotiations, particularly since the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is slated for closure by the new administration and the fact that he has been held there for six years awaiting trial as a war criminal.
Based on these experiences, we can see exactly what kind of power the Canadian government has when called upon to help its citizens in foreign countries. Consulates can act as intermediaries in relaying information to families and helping imprisoned Canadians navigate foreign legal systems. Influential individuals can grant some favors by cutting through some red tape and media coverage helps to generate awareness. Basically, it helps to educate yourself on the laws and culture of a foreign country before going there for a visit. If you have multiple citizenship, you should read up on the other country and see how its laws apply to you. Despite the presence of international agreements between Canada and other countries, there is no guarantee that you will be returned to Canada if you get into legal trouble as there is no overseeing body that enforces such agreements. It is best to follow travel advisories and keep your nose clean.