A Canadian woman who was stranded in Kenya by false claims she was an impostor is owed an apology from Ottawa and a public inquiry into her ordeal, her lawyers said Friday as she launched $2.5-million lawsuit against the federal government.
An inquiry would find out whether Suaad Hagi Mohamud’s race was a factor in her alleged mistreatment by Canadian officials, her lawyers said.
“I was alone when my government let me down,” said Mohamud, 31, who was born in Somalia.
“I don’t care about money. … I’m only (going) to court so this never happens to another Canadian citizen.”
Mohamud, who has lived in Canada for 10 years, was detained and barred from leaving Kenya after authorities said her lips did not match her four-year-old passport photo.
Canadian officials branded her an impostor, voided her passport and handed it over to Kenyan authorities for prosecution.
Mohamud was jailed for nine days, not knowing whether she would ever see her 12-year-old son again.
It was a “horrible time,” she said. The prison was overcrowded. She slept on the floor. Children were locked up with their mothers.
“One lady had blood on her hand. They said it was blood from the person she killed,” she said. “I was afraid. I couldn’t sleep.”
Mohamud returned to Toronto last Saturday after genetic tests proved her identity and the charges against her were dropped.
Her son Mohamed, who was left in the care of family friends, is so traumatized that every time she leaves, he’s afraid that she will never return, Mohamud said.
One of her lawyers, Julian Falconer, called her ordeal Kafkaesque, saying he’d never seen anything like it.
“If a Caucasian person had been in Suaad’s position in Kenya, would she have received the callous and reckless treatment she did?” Falconer said as he called for an inquiry.
“We don’t know the answer. We need someone to look at it and answer that question, because frankly, I find it hard to believe that a white, Anglo-Saxon person in her position would have been treated the same way.”
Lawyer Raoul Boulakia, who tried to secure Mohamud’s return through the courts, said federal officials refused to provide information that would have shed light on what happened to her.
The public may never see the results of an internal government investigation into Mohamud’s case either, he added.
“I believe it’s because they didn’t want to give me all the ammunition to prove that they did a completely negligent job of investigating her identity,” he said.
Boulakia, who took up Mohamud’s case after hearing of her plight, choked up as he spoke of her experience in Kenya, and had to pause for a few moments to collect himself before continuing.
“Suaad is working class and I am middle class. Suaad is black and I’m white. Suaad is Muslim and I’m Jewish,” he said.
“We’re both Canadian. We’re both human beings. Every person deserves fair treatment.”
Falconer also represented Maher Arar, a Canadian who was jailed and tortured in Syria, in his lawsuit against Ottawa.
Arar received $10.5 million in compensation and an apology from the federal government after a $20-million public inquiry found he had been wrongly accused of terrorist links by the RCMP.
The two cases are completely different, Falconer said.
“This is a pretty serious but simple example of extreme callousness and incompetence, and an independent inquiry could be done efficiently and produce answers,” he said.
“But it is absurd to suggest the people that were behind these investigations in the first place that led to this injustice should now investigate themselves.”
The lawsuit, which was filed Friday on behalf of Mohamud and her family, names Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and several officials at the Nairobi embassy and the Canadian Border Services Agency as defendants.
The statement of claim alleged that embassy officials “deliberately and-or negligently” failed to conduct a competent investigation of Mohamud’s identity and abandoned her “to the whims of Kenyan authorities” for three months.
It also alleges that Cannon, Van Loan and Kenney failed to take the appropriate steps to rectify the situation when they became aware of Mohamud’s case.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, would not say whether the government would apologize or call an inquiry into the matter.
“Ministers Van Loan (and) Cannon have asked their departments for a full review on all the details of what occurred,” he said in an email.
“The review will be thorough and complete and we are not going to prejudge the outcome.”
Foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the Opposition will continue to push for answers, but isn’t expecting an apology from Harper.
“Well, he’s not famous for accepting responsibility or for apologizing,” Rae said.
“I hope he does. I hope it’s done quickly and with dignity.”
Mohamud, who was visiting her mother in Kenya, was trying to board a flight back to Canada on May 21 when airline and Kenyan authorities questioned the validity of her passport.
She sought help from the Canadian embassy and produced 12 pieces of identification, photos, even receipts from Toronto stores, the claim alleges. She also offered fingerprints and the names of people in Canada who could confirm her identity.
Instead of helping Mohamud, the vice-consul at the High Commission, Liliane Khadour, sent a “false and defamatory” letter to Kenyan officials which stated that after conclusive investigations, the embassy had determined that Mohamud was an impostor, the suit alleges.
“Khadour falsely implied that Ms. Mohamud was dishonest, had committed criminal misconduct, and that she was not who she claimed to be,” the statement said.
It alleges that Cannon also libelled Mohamud when he told reporters July 24 that there was “no tangible proof” that she was who she claimed to be.
According to the claim, Mohamud and her family are seeking damages for defamation, malicious prosecution, negligent investigation, negligence, misfeasance in public office, nervous shock and violations of her constitutional rights.