Canadian Bar Assocation calls arrest of humanitarian worker indefensible

Posted by admin on Oct 31st, 2007

November 01, 2007 . Nicholas Keung in Toronto Star

The Canadian Bar Association has taken the unusual step of demanding that Ottawa drop charges of human smuggling and trafficking against a refugee aid worker arrested for helping Haitians entering Canada. In a letter obtained by the Star, the group accuses Ottawa of breaking its 2002 promise that a law making it an offence to “organize, induce, aid and abet” the entry of people who don’t have a visa or passport wouldn’t be used to prosecute those doing “humanitarian work.” The law is part of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, 65, director of the Pennsylvania-based Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, was arrested Sept. 26 in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., as she helped 12 Haitian nationals cross the border to claim asylum. She is due back in court Nov. 30.

“Ordinarily, when a person is charged, even inappropriately, the CBA would leave the matter to be dealt with through the normal court processes,” association president Bernard Amyot wrote in the two-page Oct. 25 letter to Attorney General Rob Nicholson and Immigration Minister Diane Finley. But “prosecuting a human rights worker for this humanitarian work is indefensible,” he wrote. “It cannot be justified on the basis that the accused will eventually be acquitted.”

Besides dropping the charges, the association wants Ottawa to amend the Immigration Act to ensure it does not apply to individuals and groups that help refugee claimants for humanitarian purposes.

Amyot said immigration and justice officials had testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee that humanitarian workers were protected from the smuggling and trafficking clause. Those assurances were echoed by former immigration minister Elinor Caplan.

“There is no suggestion that (Hinshaw-Thomas) is engaged in human smuggling and trafficking, nor that she was assisting the Haitian asylum seekers for personal gain,” noted Amyot. Canada recognizes that Haiti is rife with human rights violations, he said, to the extent that it has a policy against deporting Haitian refugees.

“Ms. Hinshaw-Thomas not only ensures that the individual claimants are protected, she promotes respect for human rights.”

The letter follows a plea by the Refugee Lawyers’ Association of Ontario. The group’s spokesperson, lawyer Andrew Brouwer, said the government must ensure “the rights of asylum seekers … are fully protected.”

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