The RCMP is standing by its decision to announce human-trafficking charges against a West Vancouver woman while she was out of the country, even though it could mean she's less likely to return to Canada.
Mounties earlier this week announced that Mumtaz Ladha had been charged with one count of human trafficking and one count of human smuggling under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Ms. Ladha, 57, is accused of luring a young African woman to Canada with the promise of a job at a hair salon. Police say the young woman was instead forced to work long hours at Ms. Ladha's luxury home with no pay and little food.
RCMP spokesman Constable Michael McLaughlin said investigators have reason to believe Ms. Ladha is out of the country, though he wouldn't specify where she might be or when she could return. He said Ms. Ladha is aware of the charges and the onus is on her to face them.
"If, after a certain amount of time, she chooses not to do that, we do have other options that we can pursue in terms of getting an international warrant," he said in an interview.
Constable McLaughlin said it's "not the right time" to go that route, since Ms. Ladha still has an opportunity to return. He couldn't say when the right time for such a move might be, or if extradition would become a possibility.
"We don't believe that there's an imminent risk to anybody by her not facing this charge right away. Now, if at some point the public interest starts leaning the other way, where it becomes a serious public-interest issue that she needs to face these charges, obviously we would revisit the idea of obtaining some kind of international warrant."
The African woman, now 23, arrived in West Vancouver in 2008. Police said she was forced to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and sometimes ate just leftovers. She was often only allowed to sleep when everyone else in the house was doing so. In June of 2009, the woman was advised to seek help at a women's shelter. Constable McLaughlin wouldn't say from whom that advice came.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, a federal government agency, approved charges last week, nearly two years after the woman fled the home. RCMP announced the charges Monday.
When asked why Mounties didn't wait until Ms. Ladha returned, Constable McLaughlin said a charge is laid when it's ready, not at the convenience of the accused. He said police couldn't force the woman to stay in Canada because charges hadn't been laid.
Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer, said it's certainly conceivable Ms. Ladha won't return. However, he added it's also possible she will, since she does not have a criminal record and this would be her first offence. The maximum penalty for one of the offences alone would be a fine of up to $500,000 and a 10-year prison term.
Benjamin Perrin, an assistant law professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of Invisible Chains: Canada's Underground World of Human Trafficking, said he, too, was caught off guard by the timing of the announcement.
"I have to admit to being a bit surprised that the charges would be announced while the suspect is out of Canada. It's not clear why they did this, or how long the person's been out of the country."
But Prof. Perrin said he didn't want to second-guess the RCMP's strategy and agreed the house and woman's family were compelling reasons for her to return.
Prof. Perrin said the good news is charges have been laid at all, since such arrests have been rare.
Lee Lakeman, of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, said it has seen five or six human-trafficking cases in the past couple of years. She said most have involved sex slavery, though there have been cases of domestic slavery as well. She said some of the cases involved women who were trapped in luxury homes.
The young woman in the West Vancouver incident is still in British Columbia, though police won't say where. She is getting support from a number of social-assistance agencies.