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Delays caused by the RCMP’s work-from-home directives in the early days of the pandemic are the reason for the collapse of a criminal case against a former Agriculture Canada scientist who was accused of illegally taking payments from China.

The Saskatchewan RCMP arrested the scientist, Yantai Gan, in November, 2019, and he stopped working for the federal government shortly afterward. He was charged with breach of trust by a public official, as well as fraud.

The Globe and Mail reported last week that a Saskatchewan court had dismissed the case in accordance with a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as Jordan, which obliges prosecutors to complete their cases within 30 months, barring “exceptional circumstances.” A court transcript obtained by The Globe details the reasons for the court’s decision.

The transcript covers the January pretrial hearing where the case was thrown out. It says the Crown had attributed delays in the case to “exceptional circumstances,” which prosecutors claimed had taken place as the pandemic erupted in 2020. The Crown said an RCMP officer who had been tasked with gathering around 900 documents for disclosure to the defence was under orders to work from home at the time, and couldn’t access the force’s secure files.

Justice Timothy Keene, of the Saskatchewan Court of King’s Bench, rejected the idea that working from home in 2020, when lockdowns were prevalent across the country, was an exceptional circumstance. He found that the RCMP’s failure to facilitate access to the documents contributed to six weeks of delay. This was fatal to the case, because even though the Crown had won grace periods for other pandemic-related delays, the disclosure issues stretched the prosecution timeline to two weeks past the 30-month limit.

“I appreciate this is close to the line,” Justice Keene said, but he added that he had no choice. “In my view, Jordan sets a hard cap and even if this appears a close call, I must find in favour of the applicant and not the Crown.”

The case’s dismissal is an inconclusive turn in a high-profile investigation into suspected foreign interference, at a time when the federal government is warning universities to curb research partnerships with China. The government is also probing allegations of meddling by Beijing in the past two federal elections.

Justice Keene’s legal logic exemplifies the kinds of calculations now taking place in courts across Canada, as other cases collapse under similar time pressures. In faulting the Crown for unnecessary delays, the judge reminded prosecutors that the pandemic had caused hardships for everyone.

“EMTs still did their work, doctors still went into the ERs, nurses still went to the hospital. Schools were shuttered for a time, but remote teaching sprung up,” he said. “In my view, the work of getting the disclosure together still needed to be done.”

Records filed in court show that the RCMP’s federal policing wing began pursuing Mr. Gan in 2018, after a financial intelligence agency in Ottawa flagged his bank accounts for suspicious transactions from China and the United States.

Investigators believed the money flows could not be explained by Mr. Gan’s civil-service job at Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Swift Current, Sask. He was a long-standing federal employee, and the government had celebrated him for his work on minimizing the environmental impacts of pulse crops, such as lentils.

In 2019, the RCMP raided the Swift Current research centre as Mr. Gan was arrested. There was never any accusation that he had betrayed Canadian secrets; he was accused of violating his employer’s code of conduct by not disclosing payments from Gansu Agricultural University, in Lanzhou, China, among other entities. He stopped working at Agriculture Canada that November.

Mr. Gan could not be reached for comment. His defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle said last year that Mr. Gan “is asserting his innocence and looks forward to a prompt resolution of these matters.”

Prosecutions of researchers accused of illicit dealings with China remain rare in Canada, even though they are relatively routine in the U.S. For years, American prosecutors have been targeting researchers who draw double salaries and do not disclose their relationships with Chinese entities.

The American prosecutions have been pursued under a U.S. Department of Justice initiative that seeks to safeguard U.S. trade secrets and national security against foreign influence and foreign competitors.

Legal experts say Canada’s criminal justice system imposes more obstacles for prosecutors to clear in these types of cases, meaning the Crown needs to manage its workload closely if it is to avoid delays like those that affected the case against Mr. Gan.

“It shows that there was a lack of prioritization,” said Leah West, a Carleton University professor who studies national security law.

Michael Nesbitt, a law professor at the University of Calgary, said COVID-19 exacerbated the chronic problems that have always delayed prosecutions in Canada – especially in small towns, which can lack police and judicial resources. “The Jordan timelines are probably evidently more workable in large city centres,” he said.

Mr. Gan’s trial had been slated to start in a Swift Current court this spring.

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