Tuesday, March 11, 2008

'Buyer beware' for Canadians visiting Mexico?

Monday, March 10, 2008

National Post

Published: Monday, March 10, 2008

Glenn Bradbury/Canwest News Service

With snow becoming a four-letter word for many Canadians, you might be glad to know you can get away to the sun in Guadalajara, Mexico, for around $600.

Then again, if you've read about the case of Brenda Martin, who has been languishing in a Mexican jail for the past two years without trial, you might decide that you are better off cold of feet but safely swaddled by the Canadian justice system.

Ms. Martin, 51, is a victim of a medieval judicial system, bureaucratic indifference and political lethargy. She has been in jail awaiting trial for two years and two months in Guadalajara -- for the first 18 months without any official contact from anyone at Canada's consulate in the city.

Her "crime" was that she worked as a chef for a convicted fraudster, Alyn Waage, who bilked investors worldwide out of about $60-million. He bribed his way out of Mexico and is currently serving a 10-year sentence in an American prison. While in Waage's employ, Ms. Martin argued with her former boss and was given a one-year severance package of $28,000. After re-investing this sum, she was charged with money-laundering and being part of a criminal conspiracy by the Mexican authorities -- even though Waage has provided a sworn affidavit saying she is innocent. She was not provided with an interpreter during questioning, even though she does not speak Spanish. Her lawyers say there is no evidence of any wrong-doing.

Since being incarcerated, she has lost one-third of her body weight and is now on suicide watch, having spent two years crammed in a tiny cell with up to eight other women, including a convicted murderer. This is in direct contravention of an international agreement, which says untried prisoners should be kept segregated from the general prison population.

Monday, a federal judge rejected a constitutional challenge of her treatment, meaning she now faces a criminal trial.

The political blame for this disgrace lands squarely at the feet of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Helena Guergis. She claims Canadian consular officials have been in contact with Ms. Martin over 75 times and that the Canadian government has taken steps to ensure she receives regular medical attention.

In January, Ms. Guergis travelled to Mexico and met with that country's attorney general, foreign minister and other officials and asked for Ms. Martin's legal proceedings to be expedited. Despite being 20 minutes from Ms. Martin's prison cell, she did not visit her. "That's not my job. There are 13 Canadians in Mexican jails and if I visit one, I have to visit them all," she said in an interview last night. "It's not my job to meet them -- it's my job to advocate for them."

She said there is a very limited role for the government in this case. "We cannot go in and take her home and that is what her request has been....I'm not going to pass judgment on a judge's decision."

Ms. Guergis says she feels bad for Ms. Martin. Not as bad as Ms. Martin feels, one would wager.

The Secretary of State's efforts were taken right out of the consular playbook -- a minimal response that emphasizes the privacy of the individual case, the inability to interfere in the judicial system of another country and the re-assurance that the prisoner has access to consular services -- which are often about as much use as a pulled tooth.

As in the case of William Sampson, the Canadian who endured years of torture in a Saudi jail, Canada's quiet diplomacy has been found lacking. The policy is predicated on a rigid belief in justice -- as long as it doesn't adversely impact relations with a trading partner.

Both Dan McTeague, the Liberal MP who performed the role of "point man" for Canadians in trouble abroad for the Paul Martin government, and NDP critic Paul Dewar are scathing about Ms. Guergis's performance -- criticism that goes far beyond the usual partisan carping.

"This is a so-called secretary of state who is given to condescending remarks and running away from cameras when she is asked to explain herself," Mr. McTeague said. "She didn't go to the prison when she was only 18 minutes away to see a woman who's been mistreated by a judicial system as random as the weather."

Ms. Guergis cannot be blamed for the Mexican justice system. In fact, the federal government states in large, bold letters on its Web site:

"Under Mexican law, you are considered guilty until proven innocent."

But Canadians have a right to expect the government to go to the wall for them if there is a miscarriage of justice as blatant as in the Brenda Martin case.

"Is the government saying that when you go to Mexico ‘buyer beware -- we can't help you there?' " asked Mr. Dewar. "I'm not sure I would book a flight to Mexico tomorrow."

Both Mr. McTeague and Mr. Dewar are calling for Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier or Prime Minister Stephen Harper to issue a diplomatic note of protest demanding Ms. Martin's release on the grounds that Mexico has broken a number of treaty obligations -- including the lack of an interpreter, the lack of segregation from convicted felons and the length of the pretrial period.

As Mr. Sampson said on his release from a Saudi prison, quiet diplomacy only works when you have influence and you are willing to use it. Mexico is a country that receives a million Canadian tourists a year -- we have influence there. If Canada were to threaten to issue a travel advisory to Canadians, Brenda Martin would likely be out of prison in a week. It's time to use that influence.

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