OTTAWA – Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon recently spent more than two hours answering questions under oath as part of a lawsuit filed by a Montreal man seeking compensation and an apology from the federal government for his prolonged detention in Sudan.
Abousfian Abdelrazik, who was imprisoned by the Sudanese before being stranded in the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum, put questions to Cannon — now Canada’s ambassador to France — through his counsel during a closed-door examination process, a precursor to trial.
Abdelrazik’s lawyer, Paul Champ, says while particulars of the session — which took place in Ottawa last Thursday — are confidential at this point, his client found the experience both cathartic and challenging.
“He sat across the table from Mr. Cannon which was, I think, quite a difficult moment for him,” Champ said in an interview.
“It was a very powerful moment for him.”
Abdelrazik, 51, launched the lawsuit against the federal government and Cannon in September 2009 over his detention and torture due to alleged terrorist ties.
He denies any involvement in terrorism.
Abdelrazik came to Canada from Africa as a refugee in 1990 and attained citizenship five years later.
He was arrested but not charged during a 2003 visit to see his ailing mother in Sudan.
Abdelrazik says that while in Sudanese custody the Canadian Security Intelligence Service interrogated him about suspected extremist links.
He also claims he was tortured by Sudanese intelligence officials during two periods of detention, but Canada says it knew nothing of the alleged abuse.
Days after Abdelrazik’s second release from prison, in July 2006, his name turned up on a United Nations Security Council blacklist that prevented him from flying back to Canada.
Five years ago he was granted haven in the Canadian Embassy in the Sudanese capital, but Canada refused to issue him a travel document to fly home. Finally, it said Abdelrazik must have a valid plane ticket before a passport could be provided.
Even after a group of Canadians chipped in to buy him a ticket, no travel document was forthcoming.
Cannon was foreign minister at the time.
“We wanted to ask Mr. Cannon why — why did he turn down that emergency passport despite the fact that Canada had repeatedly promised to Mr. Abdelrazik that he would be allowed to return to Canada,” Champ said.
“Mr. Abdelrazik became seriously depressed and even suicidal when he was in the embassy and embassy were very concerned about his mental health and arranged to have him see medical professionals.
“So we wanted to know to what extent Mr. Cannon was aware of Mr. Abdelrazik’s personal circumstances, and therefore what the personal toll on him was of being left there and stranded in Khartoum.”
Amid blaring headlines about his case, Abdelrazik, who has four children, returned to Montreal in June 2009. That same month, the Federal Court of Canada concluded CSIS was complicit in Abdelrazik’s 2003 detention
Still, the federal government denies CSIS knew he would be abused in Sudanese custody. It also tried unsuccessfully to have Cannon removed as a defendant in the case.
Cabinet ministers have been sued before, but usually they’re able to get their names struck from the file, Champ said. “It’s extremely exceptional and rare that a minister of the Crown is called to account and required to go through these discovery procedures in civil litigation.”
When Abdelrazik lived in makeshift accommodations in the embassy reception area, he would gaze up at an official photograph of Cannon on the wall, Champ said. Last Thursday the former Conservative cabinet stalwart became more than just a politician an ocean away.
“Now he had this person across the table from him.”