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The Plan to Free a 'Forgotten' Canadian Man, Stuck in a Chinese Prison for a Decade

If you get arrested overseas, there's no telling what governments like Canada's will do to get you out. This plan aims to change that.

by Rachel Browne
Jan 27 2016, 3:30pm

Kamila Celil and Mohamed Fahmy. Photo via Daily VICE/Matthew Delaney

Three months since he was freed from an Egyptian prison and pardoned for widely denounced terrorism charges, journalist Mohamed Fahmy is calling on the West to adopt a suite of ideas into law that would improve the way it deals with citizens who get arrested in other countries.

Fahmy, alongside Amnesty International Canada, is hoping to start with Canada.

The group has a few cases in mind that they say need renewed attention from the Canadian government. One is the case of a man who has been sitting in a Chinese jail cell for nearly a decade. And they're begging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help.

"I believe in this new era of change," Fahmy said of the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. "I believe it is time for an overhaul to enshrine the right to receive consular assistance and the obligation to provide it in Canadian law."

As it stands, the Canadian government can provide as much, or as little, assistance to Canadians detained abroad as it sees fit.

The team met with Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion on Tuesday to present a "Protection Charter" that lays out how Canadian politicians and consular staff should intervene when Canadians are imprisoned abroad, and help prevent it from happening in the first place.

Next month, he's planning to take his charter to the UN in hopes other countries will get on board.

The Charter proposes the government create an independent office to provide backup to consular officials during these situations and implore the government to give equal attention to Canadians who hold dual or multiple citizenships. This could include providing assistance to someone like imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who doesn't hold Canadian citizenship, but has family living in Quebec.

"This time last year, I was languishing in an Egyptian prison cell, only dreaming of freedom."

"This time last year, I was languishing in an Egyptian prison cell, only dreaming of freedom," Fahmy, who served as bureau chief for Al Jazeera English in Cairo before he was arrested, told reporters at a press conference following the meeting.

Fahmy, a Canadian born in Cairo who renounced his Egyptian citizenship last year in hopes he would be deported back home to Canada, has repeatedly slammed the previous Conservative government for how it dealt with Egyptian authorities and botched his release.

Related: Mohammed Fahmy is Back in Canada — And Lashing Out at PM Stephen Harper

Fahmy added that changing the law would ensure that other Canadians won't "suffer like I did."

At the press conference, Fahmy was flanked by family members of Bashir Makhtal, who is currently being held in an Ethiopian prison, and Huseyin Celil, who is jailed in China. Celil, a member of the Uighur minority and a human rights activist, has been held on terrorism charges for a decade. His wife, Kamila, pleaded through tears with the Canadian government to do more.

Kamila says her husband has been "forgotten" by the Canadian government.

"Please, Mr. Trudeau, you can help me. I need your help. My husband needs your help."

"Please, Mr. Trudeau, you can help me," she implored. "I need your help. My husband needs your help."

While Fahmy and Amnesty admitted that the Charter couldn't force any government's hand, it would at least offer a roadmap for how Canadian politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats handle every case.

Fahmy and Amnesty are also calling on Canada to improve oversight and accountability for its intelligence agencies, to avoid situation where Ottawa itself is responsible for its citizens' arrest — and, in several cases, torture. The federal government has been repeatedly reprimanded by the courts for sharing information with foreign governments, especially ones with bad human rights records, that has led to the arrest of Canadian citizens.

Related: Torture Victims Win Legal Battle in Fight Against Canadian Government

Fahmy is optimistic that the Canadian government will heed his advice.

"What we are seeing now in the Middle East and globally is an unprecedented attack on press freedoms and human rights defenders."

"What we are seeing now in the Middle East and globally is an unprecedented attack on press freedoms and human rights defenders, and I believe that this so-called war on terror is being used as an excuse, a license to murder and imprison people. And that's why we need to upgrade our laws."

Fahmy says the Charter would force the government to be transparent about how it goes about securing the release of Canadians imprisoned abroad. "So we would know how the minister would intervene, how he deals with the family, when he speaks with lawyers, when the government should use quiet diplomacy versus bullhorn diplomacy," he said.

Hélène Laverdière, the critic for foreign affairs for the New Democratic Party, told VICE News she supports Fahmy's quest for change.

"We have to look a lot at what the Conservative government has done and, rightly or wrongly, we had the impression that not everybody received the same treatment," she said. "Generally, it's an excellent initiative and indeed there's a number of issues that the Liberals and Minister Dion have made, and I'm planning to press them so that they fulfill their commitments."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne

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