A Canadian freed from a North African prison will face a regime of heightened anti-terrorism laws – including the possibility of an investigative hearing – after he is deported as early as this week.
Aaron Yoon, 24, who is from London, Ont., was released on Tuesday after 18 months in prison in Mauritania, according to a local official. He appears bound for Canada, where authorities have been trying to piece together his foreign travels with two friends who died taking part in a terrorist attack that killed 37 hostages in Algeria early this year.
Mr. Yoon was imprisoned in Mauritania for alleged terrorist ties months before the January massacre was planned, and has disavowed any knowledge of or role in it.
As a citizen, he has a right of return to Canada, where it is not clear he could be implicated in a crime.
This places Mr. Yoon in a legal grey area. However, pre-emptive anti-terrorism powers passed by Canada’s Parliament came into force on July 15.
For example, a renewed investigative-hearing power allows police to compel terrorism suspects to divulge what they know about past or impending attacks. The national police force, however, says it has no immediate plans to use the provision against Mr. Yoon or anyone else.
“The bill only came into effect last week, and we have not sought [attorney-general] permission for an investigative hearing,’ said Julie Gagnon, a spokeswoman for the Mounties. She added that “the RCMP will not speculate on what will happen when Mr. Yoon arrives in Canada.”
A Canadian of Korean heritage who embraced radical Islam, Mr. Yoon travelled to Africa two years ago with two friends from London, Ont., Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej.
After Mr. Yoon was arrested in Mauritania in 2011, Mr. Katsiroubas and Mr. Medlej joined a terrorist faction aligned with al-Qaeda known as The Signed in Blood Battalion. In the months that followed, the two men became key planners of a siege at a gas-plant complex in Algeria, a bloody standoff that ended in the deaths of the kidnappers and the 37 hostages from Western countries.
Last week, U.S. authorities announced charges against the mastermind of that attack, Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is at large and has been the subject of a sealed indictment since February. A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman would not say on Tuesday whether any other suspects or material witnesses are being sought.
A Mauritanian official said on Tuesday that Mr. Yoon had been released from his Mauritanian prison. The official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not directly responsible for the release, said police would watch Mr. Yoon until he is returned to Canada.
The official did not give precise timelines, but the CBC is reporting that Mr. Yoon will be deported by Thursday.
Earlier this month, a Mauritanian appeals court ordered his release after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison – or time served. Prosecutors had been seeking a 10-year sentence for what they claimed was Mr. Yoon’s “link to dangerous terrorist activity and his role in the recruitment of jihadists.”
Mr. Yoon, who has said he was tortured during his detention, insists he went to Mauritania to learn Arabic and study the Koran.
Canadian diplomats who visited him several times in prison are saying little. “To protect the private and personal information of the individual concerned, further details on this case cannot be released,” said Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, a spokesman for Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department.
Over the past decade, Canadian officials have grappled with the repatriation of other citizens suspected of links to terrorism. Judges and watchdog bodies have faulted federal officials for denying such suspects passports, delaying their repatriation, or having intelligence officials pose as diplomats to visit them in prison.
Canadian officials have also been faulted for handing over such suspects to U.S. authorities, or putting together criminal cases based on torture-tainted information. Evidence or witnesses from overseas can be very difficult to introduce into Canadian courts.
With a report from Associated Press