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It's time to shine a light on those who turn a blind eye

I don't know much about Suaad Hagi Mohamud, the Canadian woman who was stripped of her passport and held in Kenya for three months, but I know this: I trust her version of events more than that of the federal government and its officials.

Ms. Mohamud belatedly came home to Toronto last weekend - thin, apparently sick, but rather dignified for all that - for a tearful reunion with the 12-year-old son she left with friends when she set out late last April to visit her ailing mother in Nairobi.

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She was trying to return on May 17 when Kenyan officials said she didn't look like the woman in her passport photo (according to documents filed in Nairobi court, "the passenger's lips were different from that of the passport holder") and sent her passport to officials at the Canadian High Commission. There, she was promptly pronounced an "imposter" and her passport voided and returned to Kenya for prosecution.

She spent eight days in a Nairobi prison before being released on bail without any travel papers and with criminal charges, among them being in Kenya illegally, hanging over her head. In the weeks that followed, Ms. Mohamud adamantly maintained she was who the passport said she was, offered up various confirming pieces of identification, volunteered her fingerprints and finally demanded DNA testing to prove her identity.

Yet according to her Toronto lawyer, Raoul Boulakia, and friends here, Canadian consular officials, in addition to sinking her by calling her an imposter, did little if anything to help her in Kenya.

As Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said of the debacle, with magnificent understatement, "From where we see it now, it looks like it needs a bit of an explanation."

Not really; what's needed is not another quiet little review, but rather a proper exercise in accountability, with those responsible for labelling Ms. Mohamud a fake - from consular officials to Mr. Van Loan and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon - called on the carpet to explain themselves.

Ms. Mohamud isn't the first Canadian to be given rough or dismissive treatment by some of the very people employed by the taxpayer to look after the interests of those abroad who find themselves in crisis.

And while not all of those equally ill-served by their consular officials were as blameless and likeable as Ms. Mohamud appears to be, they were nonetheless citizens of this country who looked to their government for help and found none.

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The already-forgotten case of William Sampson, the born-in-Nova Scotia, Vancouver-raised Canadian who was tortured, and ordered beheaded, during 31 months of solitary confinement in Saudi Arabia, is particularly instructive.

Mr. Sampson, who then held joint British/Canadian citizenship, was working for a Saudi development bank in Riyadh in December of 2000 when he, and three other foreigners, were arrested and charged in two car bombings, one of which killed a British engineer. Mr. Sampson confessed, under torture, to being a British spy, but once the British government refuted that notion, the allegation morphed into an accusation that he and the others were bootleggers involved in a turf war.

He later fought back against his treatment and launched a so-called dirty protest, whereby he refused to bathe and wiped his feces on the Koran. He refused to speak to Canadian consular officials or his lawyers.

But by then, it appears, Canadian officials had fallen for the bootlegger allegation hook, line and sinker - one of them actually repeated it to Mr. Sampson's father, Jim, telling him that his son was akin to a Hell's Angel.

After his release - it is unclear why it happened, but Canadian news organizations were campaigning on his behalf, Mr. Sampson's lawyer had pleaded for clemency, and there were rumours there may have been a quiet deal among the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia that saw five Saudis released from Guantanamo Bay - Mr. Sampson was scathingly critical of the blind eye Canadian officials had determinedly turned to his plight and to those few voices who were, back in Canada, trying to help him.

"I was fighting alone, in solitary confinement, against the behaviour of your officials," he later told the Commons foreign affairs committee.

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Mr. Sampson appeared before the committee only two days after Maher Arar, who was tortured in his native Syria, and by then, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was also dead - found in her Iranian prison cell on July 11 of 2003, with all the telltale marks of torture on her body, though Iranian officials first claimed she had suffered a stroke.

"It would appear there is now a track record with the Department of Foreign Affairs," Mr. Sampson told the committee, "that requires immediate investigation and an immediate interrogation of all officers involved in the case."

Some of the Canadian officials who, according to Mr. Sampson, hadn't lifted a finger to help him, basically attempted to take credit for his release, claiming they'd known he was being tortured, but had remained quiet out of fear publicity could see his treatment worsen.

No wonder his dad, in a film later made about his son's ordeal, snarled in it about "the scum that work for the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department, the lowest scum on Earth."

Bill Sampson eventually renounced his Canadian citizenship.

And here we are again, with Ms. Mohamud's case, her release coming only after the Canadian media gave her plight extensive attention. Her lawyer hasn't been given the file yet, and said this week he fears there's already a "whisper campaign" from federal officials leaking stories about her to the media. The lady herself has kept those notorious lips shut, and shown remarkable dignity.

As with Mr. Sampson, that resilience undoubtedly served her well while she was in prison and in limbo, but has won her no friends in official Ottawa.

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