Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs says privacy rules prevent its officials from saying whether they provided consular assistance to an elderly Canadian who died in Britain after he was mistakenly taken into immigration custody.
Alois Dvorzak, an 84-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who was flying from British Columbia to Slovenia to visit his daughter, was detained while in transit at London’s Gatwick Airport in January, 2013. He was held for nearly two weeks until his sudden death while in handcuffs.
A doctor who examined Mr. Dvorzak when he arrived at the detention centre says she alerted the Canadian High Commission in London, according to an interview aired last week by Britain’s Channel 4 News.
The doctor also warned British officials that Mr. Dvorzak was too frail and confused to be kept in detention. “I feel as if nothing I said or did made any difference,” the doctor told Channel 4 News.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Canadian diplomats are in touch with British officials about the case.
“We take the well-being of our citizens very seriously and look forward to the outcome of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Dvorzak’s death,” spokeswoman Béatrice Fénelon said in an e-mail. “To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further comments on this case cannot be provided.”
When pressed for specifics, she replied five days later that the Privacy Act requires that the federal government protect “the personal information of deceased Canadians for 20 years following their death.”
In Britain, Mr. Dvorzak’s death has been raised in the House of Lords by David Ramsbotham, a former U.K. Chief Inspector of Prisons.
“ It’s a terrible story,” Lord Ramsbotham said in a telephone interview from London.
He said he wanted to know why a traveller in transit ended up at the Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, an overcrowded facility where staffers have been criticized for their excessive use of restraints.
“Why on Earth did border officials take him off his flight from Canada to Slovenia? What was the reason for it? I haven’t yet gotten an answer,” Lord Ramsbotham said.
According to a report released in January by Nick Hardwick, the current Chief Inspector of Prisons, Mr. Dvorzak was refused entry to Britain on Jan. 23, 2013.
He was taken to Harmondsworth, where the doctor ruled on Jan. 30 that he was not fit for detention.
An attempt to remove him on Feb. 6 failed because he was unfit to fly, so he was sent back to Harmondsworth. He died of a heart failure during a hospital visit on Feb. 10, after he was kept in handcuffs for five hours.
GEO Group U.K. Ltd., the private firm contracted to run Harmondsworth, has told The Globe and Mail that handcuffs are only used “where there is a documented risk of absconding.”
Lord Ramsbotham said, however, that employees at Harmondsworth didn’t consider that Mr. Dvorzak, who suffered from dementia, could have acted erratically because he was in a panic from being held in an unfamiliar place.
“It doesn’t strike me that the staff behaved with any sense of civility and decency with him,” Lord Ramsbotham said.
He said the U.K. Home Office, the department responsible for the removal centre, has long been criticized for the way it handles immigration detainees.
The day before the revelation about Mr. Dvorzak on Channel 4 News, British prosecutors charged three private guards with manslaughter in connection with the October, 2010, death of an Angolan deportee. Jimmy Mubenga, 46, died after being restrained while on board an Angola-bound plane.
“One of the things I’ve been particularly concerned about has been the inappropriate use of restraint techniques by immigration centre staff, which are based on prison techniques and are completely inappropriate for an immigration detainee,’ ” Lord Ramsbotham said.
Mr. Dvorzak’s case is now being investigated by the British Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
A widower with no family in Canada, Mr. Dvorzak was on his way to Slovenia to see an estranged daughter.
“He had no reason to be in England other than the fact that he was transiting through Gatwick,” Lord Ramsbotham said. “So there was no one who knew him or could have spoken for him.”