Foreign-Held Prisoners Fight Conservatives to Serve Time in Canada

Canadian offenders serving time in prisons abroad are increasingly turning to Canada’s courts to win transfers to domestic prisons in light of the Harper government’s crackdown on allowing such inmates to finish their sentences at home.

There are at least nine cases before the Federal Court in which offenders – mainly drug dealers serving time in United States prisons – are asking judges to overturn decisions by the federal public safety minister denying their transfer applications on grounds they are likely to engage in organized crime once they’ve served their time in Canada.

Vancouver lawyer John Conroy, who specializes in the international transfer of offenders, attributed the government’s “trend of denials” to the escalation in court challenges, which he said did not exist during the years of Liberal rule because transfers applications were never rejected.

“In the past, Canada used to approve people; it was rare to not be approved,” he said.

The International Transfer of Offenders Act, created in 1978, has permitted Canada to swap prisoners with 80 other countries.

The idea behind the treaty is that it promotes inmate rehabilitation, reintegration and public safety if offenders serve time in their home country before being released, rather than being freed abroad and coming to Canada with no supervision, so that authorities cannot keep an eye on them.

It also allows Canadian inmates access to rehabilitation programs that they are often denied in foreign detention.
“There are public safety reasons for transfers to their home country,” Mary Campbell, the Public Safety Department’s director general of corrections and criminal justice, recently told the House of Commons public safety committee.

Campbell confirmed the number of transfer approvals dipped a few years ago, but have since increased.

Figures from the Correctional Service of Canada show that the previous Liberal government approved all applications. In comparison, 27 per cent of requests were rejected during the first year of Conservative government, followed by 30 per cent in 2007-2008 and 20 per cent in 2008-2009. Figures for 2009-2010 are not available.

“The previous Liberal government put criminals first. We put public safety first,” said Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Campbell noted there have been 10 court decisions dealing with rejected applicants in the last five years – six of whom won their cases.

The Harper government’s record on transfers prompted the U.S. State Department to send a diplomatic note to the Canadian Embassy in Washington last December outlining concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice, sparking concern here that it could impact Canada-U.S. relations.

Conroy said that the pattern of rejection, given the stated goals of transferring offenders, “makes no sense” in that denying applications threatens public safety, rather than enhancing it.

Conroy was in Federal Court in late October fighting for the transfer of five men from U.S. prisons, where they are serving terms of six to 10 years for dealing drugs.

CSC officials acknowledge in records filed in court that all five men would eventually be deported from the U.S., with no supervision once they landed on Canadian soil.

Former public safety minister Peter Van Loan turned down their transfer applications in 2009, after they had been approved by the U.S.

“Drug trafficking is deemed to have a significant impact on the community, given the possibility of an extensive victim pool of users and non-drug users,” Van Loan wrote in denying a transfer to one of the men, Medhi Vatani, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to transporting 48 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.

“In light of the volume of drugs and the applicant’s actions, I believe that he will, after the transfer, commit a criminal organization offence,” he added.

The public safety minister has discretion under the Transfer of Offenders Act to reject offenders if he believes they threaten public security or are likely to engage in terrorism or organized crime. But the litigants contend the minister doesn’t have enough evidence to reach informed conclusions.

The government introduced legislation earlier this year to give the public safety minister wider latitude to deny transfers, but it is encountering resistance from opposition MPs. The government could have a tough time securing enough support to pass the bill in the House of Commons.

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