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Ottawa’s Refusal to Give Journalist Mohamed Fahmy a Passport Means More Problems than Just Travel

According to Fahmy's Canadian lawyer, "Canada has imposed a condition that the Egyptian authorities themselves haven't imposed."

by Chalaine Chang
Apr 8 2015, 9:00pm

Mohamed Fahmy in court with colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Last week, journalist Mohamed Fahmy went to the Canadian Embassy in Cairo to get a replacement for his Canadian passport that had been seized by police during his arrest in 2013. Rather than being given the customary application papers, he was instead handed a sheet of paper stating that he would be unable to receive an official passport until his travel restrictions, imposed by the Egyptian courts as part of his bail conditions, had been lifted.

"The passport is needed for marriage, for security purposes, and my daily life—renting a flat, staying in a hotel, to travel within the country, to even provide a power of attorney," Fahmy said in an interview with VICE Canada. "Right now I am walking around with an A4 paper that the police don't recognize."

New Democratic Party MP Paul Dewar raised concerns in Parliament in regards to Fahmy's predicament, asking what Ottawa has been doing to provide him a passport. The minister of state and consular affairs, Lynne Yelich responded that "when Mr. Fahmy is able to travel, we have a travel document ready."

Fahmy, who was working as Cairo's Al Jazeera English bureau chief, was arrested and jailed in December 2013 alongside journalists and colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. In June 2014, an Egyptian court handed him a seven-year sentence with charges that included "conspiring with terrorists," "producing false news," and "using unlicensed equipment." The charges received widespread international condemnation, while the Canadian government came under fire for its lukewarm response.

The court of cassation ordered a retrial for the trio on January 1 of this year, with the first session to begin on February 12. In the interim, however, Greste was deported back to Australia under a decree from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi that allows foreign detainees to be repatriated following clearance from the prosecutor general and the Egyptian cabinet.

Fahmy's own deportation to Canada seemed not only probable, but was heavily anticipated. Fahmy gave up his Egyptian nationality earlier this year to be eligible under the deportation decree. Soon after news broke that Greste was on a plane home, former Foreign Affairs minister John Baird stated that the Canadian journalist's release and return was "imminent."

Fahmy, who still had not been repatriated back to Canada nearly two weeks later, stood alongside Mohamed in court, where after over 400 days in prison, the judge ordered the two be released on bail. In response, Yelich, who took up the file after Baird stepped down from office, said that Ottawa welcomed the news of the bail, but that "the prospect of Mr. Fahmy standing retrial is unacceptable," adding that Canada would continue to push for his "immediate and full release."

Fahmy told VICE Canada that the judge presiding over the case had specifically advised him to try and retrieve his Canadian passport from a police station, and in the case that it was lost, to seek assistance from the Canadian Embassy.

When he did go to the police station, Fahmy was told that his passport had indeed been lost by the authorities, and so he pursued attaining a new passport with the Canadian Embassy. There he was given the letter that cited Article 9 of the Canadian Passport Order "that requires that court-imposed mobility restrictions are respected."

However, according to Gary Caroline, one of Fahmy's Canadian attorneys, the letter misinterprets the article. "What Article 9 says is that the minister may refuse to issue a passport, subject to certain limitations," said Caroline. One of those limitations is if the person "stands charged outside of Canada of any offense, that in Canada would be considered an offense."

But Baird had already stated publicly that Canada would not recognize the charges brought up against Fahmy," Caroline said. Given the legal structure of the Passport Order provision, "it is still under the minister's discretion," he added.

"We thought the judge was the one making obstacles at first—both Canada and my attorneys had asked for them to release a passport to me," said Fahmy.

"Canada has imposed a condition that the Egyptian authorities themselves haven't imposed," said Caroline.

When asked whether there has been a shift in Ottawa's stance since February for pushing for Fahmy's immediate release, Erica Meekes, Yelich's communications director stated, "We respect the judicial process of the host country," and maintained that the "travel document" would be available from Fahmy once his "travel restrictions" are rescinded.

Police presence has increased under el Sisi, and while having a passport could seem trivial without travel plans, showing proper identification is a reality in a city where security and police checkpoints are peppered throughout the place. "I spent half an hour at a police checkpoint, and the officer asked, 'Aren't you the journalist from the Marriott Cell?' So this brought up more suspicion."

Given the notoriety of the Al Jazeera trial, the fact that he has given up his Egyptian citizenship, and not having a proper official documentation, Fahmy said he felt that he could face complications from the police. "I was lucky, because it would have been likely that any other officer would have taken me to the police station."

Fahmy added that not having a passport was affecting those around him: "The situation is so sensitive and I'm already under the microscope. My mother and fiancée are paranoid I could be arrested at a checkpoint."

Fahmy has also been planning to marry his fiancée Marwa Omara for months. Once he was released on bail, they went to the foreign marriage office and were told that without a passport Fahmy was ineligible to be wed. According to Fahmy, the Canadian ambassador even accompanied them, to guarantee that Canada had no problems with the proceedings. Still, they were refused.

"The justice ministry basically said that Mohamed doesn't have rights. And if the embassy can't get an exception get us married, how will they help get him out of the country?" asked Omara. She said that Baird had also told her that her she could expect her fiancé to be released. "I depended on the Canadian government. I was very disappointed. I feel they over-promised us."

Fahmy maintains that Canadian consular services have been helpful.

"They visited me while I was in prison, they kept in contact with my family, they checked in on my health." But he says, "it seems they [consular services] are getting orders from Canada."

"I think Ottawa has shackled the Canadian ambassador's efforts in Cairo and that their hyper conservative approach has manifested a political blockade that left me behind after I renounced my Egyptian citizenship in order to be deported. And once again and for a matter that should be a purely Canadian decision," he told VICE Canada.

"This is not good for Canada's reputation. They are setting a precedent and it gives the impression that Canada cannot take care of its citizens," said Fahmy. Rights groups and Fahmy's supporters have criticized Canada's response to the situation, calling Ottawa's handling of the case overly mild, delayed, and ineffective. Fahmy's family launched a Twitter campaign #HarperCallEgypt, to encourage the prime minister to engage more directly in discussions with the Egyptian government.

"My lawyers requested that I speak to [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper directly to clarify the situation, and said that it would be a confidential conversation. However, he refused," said Fahmy. He added that Baird had also turned down a request from his lawyer, Amal Clooney, to discuss his situation back in January.

"I intend to start a constructive debate in Canada, and I will speak publicly about the shortcomings of the Harper government in this regard, so that in the future, someone else won't end up in this horrific situation."

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