An Asian passenger who disguised himself as an elderly Caucasian man before boarding an Air Canada plane in Hong Kong is being outed in a sensational way by Canadian officials "playing dirty," says the man's lawyer.
Lee Rankin said Saturday that his client is a defenceless young man in his 20s and has no idea of the media maelstrom that's swirling around him as he's being detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Mr. Rankin said that while the elaborate silicone mask the man donned before boarding Flight AC018 on Oct. 29 is unique, it's not much of a departure from the dyed hair, wigs, fake passports and other false means that thousands of people use to enter Canada illegally every year.
"It's an interesting twist but I deal with this every day of every week and I don't understand why they're making an example out of him," he said.
Mr. Rankin said he's speaking out because his client's privacy was violated after CNN obtained a copy of an internal alert by the Canada Border Services Agency and the man's disguise and photo, with a digital blindfold over his eyes, was broadcast around the world.
"It really bothered me how somebody within the Canadian governmental bureaucracy, I don't know how, decided it would be funny or interesting to leak this to CNN and expose this person simply because he wore a mask - not that I'm advocating or recommending or thinking it's a great thing to do."
Mr. Rankin, who said he has represented thousands of asylum seekers from around the world for more than two decades, is also concerned that his client's privacy has been violated in a country where care is taken to preserve refugee claimaints' privacy.
"You're dealing with a person who's in the custody, the safeguard, of the Canadian government and seeking protection. And somebody's gone out of their way to expose him and make an example of him."
Mr. Rankin said revealing the man's photo, even with a blindfold, could also expose him to risk in China, a country that "doesn't appreciate its nationals embarrassing them."
His client's disguise is a more sophisticated way for so-called snakehead gang members to elude airport security as they helped the man come to Canada for a hefty price, Mr. Rankin said.
"I'm positive it as a situation where there was a snakehead involved in this," he said.
"I can assure you that on a daily, monthly basis, people who arrive and have flushed their fake documents down the toilet on airplanes and arrive by air rather than leaky boats, virtually all are assisted by smuggling agents - whether they're coming from the Islamic Republic or Iran or the People's Republic of China," Mr. Rankin said.
"He's obviously been instructed to use a disguise and come in (to Canada) the way he did," Mr. Rankin said. "He didn't strike me as different from any of the many young Chinese nationals that arrived in Canada and claimed asylum."
Mr. Rankin said his client will be kept in custody until officials are able to verify his identity from a so-called household document sent from China by his family.
Meanwhile, an Air Canada spokesman said "rumours" that airline staff in Hong Kong accepted an Aeroplan card as identification from the Asian man are "totally unfounded."
The carrier said Saturday it's conducting an internal investigation with Singapore Airport Terminal Services, or SATS, which verifies passports at the boarding gate on behalf of Air Canada and other airlines.
"Upon being alerted by flight crew, Air Canada security advised Canadian Border Services Agency officials to meet Flight AC018 on Oct. 29 in Vancouver to investigate a passenger who altered his appearance while onboard," spokesman John Reber said in a statement.
The incident, which a Canada Border Services Agency bulletin described as an "unbelievable case of concealment," has raised alarms about airport security.
Mr. Reber said there are multiple identity checks before departure at the Hong Kong airport, including Chinese government-run passport control, and a final passport check at the gate.
He said Air Canada will not be making any further comments while the company and CBSA officials conduct internal investigations.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appeared to downplay the incident Saturday at an international security forum in Halifax.
He said that aside from the silicone mask, there was nothing unusual about the case, which came to light after CNN obtained a copy of an internal alert by the Canada Border Services Agency.
"In this particular case, as a result of a leak to a news agency it became public knowledge," Mr. Toews said.