TORONTO, Canada — What should Canada do about alleged war criminals living in the country?
It’s a question that sparked heated debate after the federal government publicized mug shots of Canada’s 30 most-wanted international suspects. With the unprecedented move, government ministers asked Canadians for help in finding the fugitives, some of whom have been on the lam for more than 20 years.
All the suspects are foreigners accused by Canada of committing crimes in their home countries. They went into hiding after their claim for refugee status was rejected, and they were ordered to leave Canada. Most of them never did. Now, the government wants them out.
“Those who are involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity will find no haven on our shores,” said Jason Kenney, the immigration minister, when he made the mug shots public last month. The Conservative government said the fugitives would be deported when caught.
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Within two weeks, six suspects either turned themselves in or were arrested after authorities received tips from the public. Two others were found to have fled Canada. Of the six arrested, three have so far been deported — two to Peru, and one to Honduras.
The Honduran, Cristobal Gonzalez-Ramirez, has been described in media reports as an alleged member of Intelligence Battalion 3-16, blamed for the torture and disappearance of many Honduran dissidents in the 1980s. The government has released no information on the two Peruvians who were deported, although
a Peruvian embassy official has said that the men are not wanted for crimes in Peru.
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Little is known about most of the accused. Without details from the government, journalists have been left to piece together their stories. This speculation has fueled criticism from refugee lawyers and the human rights group, Amnesty International.
In a letter this month to Kenney and Vic Toews, Canada’s minister of public safety, Amnesty said it was concerned the initiative “does not conform to Canada’s obligations with respect to human rights and international justice.”
Amnesty noted the government has neither charged nor convicted any of the men. Canada bases the war-criminal label on the outcome of its own administrative tribunals, which are set up to review applications for refugee status. These panels have a much lower threshold of evidence than criminal courts.
Raoul Boulakia was the lawyer for one of the 30 men, Frank Kobena Berko, in the late 1990s. Boulakia has said his client was rejected as a refugee because he was a member of a group accused of having committed human rights abuses in Ghana. But no evidence was presented at the refugee tribunal implicating Berko in the abuses, the lawyer says, and Berko has always maintained his innocence. He remains at large.
In its letter, Amnesty International warned that widely publicizing the names and faces of men it claims are war criminals could jeopardize the men should they be deported, or endanger their families — particularly if their home countries have a reputation for torture.
The human rights group also argued that deporting alleged war criminals does not guarantee that they’ll face justice at home.
Amnesty called on the Canadian government to prosecute alleged war criminals in the country, rather than send them elsewhere. Since expanding its war crimes legislation in 1998 to crimes committed after World War II, only two people — both Rwandan genocide suspects — have been charged in Canada.
The immigration minister penned a scathing response to the Amnesty letter, accusing the group of slandering Canada and described its concerns as “self-congratulatory moral preening.”
He said the men were denied refugee status by tribunals that found them “complicit in genocide, crimes against humanity or a war crime.”
One of the men still on the run, Peruvian Jose Domingo Malaga Arica, “admitted to participating in helicopter raids on villages in which women and children were machine-gunned indiscriminately,” Kenney wrote.
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The minister also described Amnesty’s call for prosecution in Canada as “quixotic,” saying that the government could not afford to spend millions of dollars prosecuting cases that occurred, often decades earlier, in foreign countries.
“In addition to the extraordinary time and cost this would require, it would burden an already-strained legal system and clog our courts with foreign criminals,” he wrote.
The tough-on crime and tough-on-immigration-cheats rhetoric helped Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party win its first majority government this spring. It has been widely accused, however, by refugee lawyers and lobby groups, of demonizing even legitimate refugee claimants.
The Harper government shrugs off the criticism. Last week, it issued another series of 32 mug shots of wanted people initially admitted to Canada as immigrants, who allegedly have since committed crimes and are due to be deported.
Toews, the public-safety minister, said: “Those who believe they are above the law will find no leniency in this country.”