Ottawa bows to backers of U.S. aid worker who helped asylum-seekers
Nov 09, 2007 04:30 AM
Ottawa has dropped human smuggling charges against a U.S. refugee aid worker who helped asylum- seekers enter Canada, in the face of mounting pressure from lawyers, churches and a dissenting letter signed by former federal ministers – including Conservative stalwarts Joe Clark and Flora MacDonald.
But supporters of Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, director of the Pennsylvania-based Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, vowed to fight for an amendment to Canadian law to protect humanitarian activists.
"The damage has already been done. The law has got to be changed immediately," said Refugee Lawyers' Association of Ontario spokesperson Andrew Brouwer.
Hinshaw-Thomas, 65, was arrested Sept. 26 in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., as she helped 12 Haitians cross the border to claim asylum. She was due back in court Nov. 30, but her lawyer was told yesterday that charges had been dropped.
Her arrest unexpectedly put Attorney General Rob Nicholson in the spotlight.
In a letter to the federal government dated Nov. 6, a group of former federal ministers questioned whether Nicholson had consented to the charges as required under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The letter was signed by Clark and MacDonald as well as former Liberal attorneys general Irwin Cotler and Allan Rock, and immigration ministers Elinor Caplan and Lloyd Axworthy.
The act is intended to target criminals that profit from abetting illegal border crossings.
As "individuals who were once responsible for the application and enforcement of these provisions, we can attest to the fact that they were never designed or intended to allow for the prosecution of humanitarian aid workers," said the letter addressed to Nicholson, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and Immigration Minister Diane Finley. "The fact of her arrest telegraphs the deeply disturbing message that it is now illegal to assist asylum seekers to ask Canada for protection from persecution."
Their concern was echoed in a Nov. 1 letter from 12 faith leaders representing the Anglican, Baptist, Christian Reform, Evangelical Lutheran, Quaker, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Catholic and United churches, and a Jewish congregation. Decrying the "injustice" of the charges, the joint letter said the churches are "mindful of the effect these charges have on others who are helping to protect refugees."
"Individuals and organizations serving refugees must now live with the fear of criminal charges, instead of being honoured for working to uphold Canada's humanitarian ideals," the letter said.
Dan Brien, a spokesperson for Nicholson, acknowledged the act requires the attorney-general's consent but said that power is now delegated to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, created last year to "initiate
and conduct prosecutions under federal jurisdiction."
"The attorney general has no control, no role in the arrest, charges or any proceeding personally in this case," Brien said.
"That power has been delegated to PPSC. It's the regional manager (André Morin) who exercised the discretion in this case" based on information received.