ottawa might protect you. then again

You’re in a less-than-progressive foreign country. You’re in a bar, having a drink. A fight breaks out.

You’re in a less-than-progressive foreign country.

You’re in a bar, having a drink. A fight breaks out. A guy is knifed and you’re clunked on the head.

You come to your senses being dragged outside by police.

You are jailed.

Eventually, you appear before a group of officials. They don’t speak English or French. But your appointed defender tells you, in broken English, that you are in trouble.

Once the dust settles — about 90 minutes — you learn you are on death row, convicted of murder.

You’re in a tough spot.

But Canada hasn’t got the death penalty. It abolished it in 1976 (though the last state-sponsored execution was in 1962).

And, since ‘76, Canada has fought to save the lives of its citizens when they are issued the death penalty on foreign soil.

So, you’ve got Foreign Affairs in your corner, right?

Not necessarily.

As of November, Stephen Harper’s government has started cherry picking which foreign death penalty cases it will champion.

Oddly enough, this profound change of national policy came the day after Canada joined 72 other countries to urge the UN to call for an international moratorium on the death penalty.

It was sparked by the case of Ronald Allen Smith, an Albertan who faces lethal injection for the 1982 murder of two men.

“We will not actively pursue bringing back to Canada murderers who have been tried in a democratic country that supports the rule of law,” Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day told the Commons in November.

“It would send a wrong message. We want to preserve public safety in Canada.”

And, in a black-and-white world, that might make sense.

But the world is murky. Even in stable democracies.

Take the US.

The rule of law in the US is a tricky business these days.

Recently, an Italian lawyer visiting his girlfriend was tossed in a rural Virginia prison for more than 10 days without charge or legal representation by border officials in Washington, D.C.

It took the efforts of a US Senator, two former immigration prosecutors and the New York Times to get the guy released.

“He’s just really scared,” his girlfriend told the Times. “He asked me if Virginia has the death penalty.”

And there’s the Omar Khadr case, where a Canadian child has been held in a US military prison since 2002.

There is strong evidence he was tortured while imprisoned, and that testimony obtained by officials through the use of torture will be used against him.

According to US Supreme Court rulings, Guantanamo Bay legal processes violate that nation’s domestic law as well as international human rights obligations.

That hasn’t done Khadr much good.

Neither has his Canadian passport.

Khadr is the only foreign detainee still in captivity in the prison — more evidence Canada has turned its back on its citizens. Well, some of them, anyway.

But the US legal system is definitely more sophisticated and fair than most nations.

There will be dodgier cases.

And now Ottawa will have to review and decide whether a foreign nation is a stable democracy with a decent legal system.

A quick look around the world suggests there’s no way all those assessments will be clean and neat.

And, with Ottawa choosing which cases to champion, things get messier still.

Imagine sitting in that dingy cell, awaiting your beheading, and wondering why Ottawa ignored your case.

Is it because the country that’s jailed you is a stable democracy with a good legal system?

Or is it because that nation’s officials wield considerable influence over a Canadian mining play?

Did Ottawa turn its back because your parents were Muslim immigrants?

Did it ignore your case simply because you’re relatively poor and lack influence back home?

Could it be that you’re gay?

Or, God forbid, you belong to the wrong political party?

Preposterous, right?

You hope so.

But, these days, hope is all you’ve got.

Because Harper’s Conservative government has, on a whim, changed the rules.

It is no longer championing all Canadians.

It is picking and choosing those it decides are worthy of help. (RM)