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The Globe and Mail

Consular officials reportedly visited Canadian detained in Mauritania

A screen grab of a July 29, 2012, article by the Mauritanian periodical Al Houriya  says Aaron Yoon, of London, Ont., was held at the central prison in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

Canadian officials have paid several visits to the Ontario man jailed in Mauritania under suspicion of terrorism, according to a Canadian government source familiar with the case.

In a CBC interview that aired Friday evening, Aaron Yoon denied the allegations against him and said he was not getting adequate help from Canadian diplomats.

"I've been in prison for a year, almost for two years now and I don't see any help from the Canadian government," Mr. Yoon said.

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The government source told the Globe and Mail that Mr. Yoon's suggestion that Canada has not been at all helpful is false. Consular officials, the source said, have visited Mr. Yoon in prison nine times over the past year or so.

Mr. Yoon was arrested as a terror suspect in December 2011, and then sentenced to a two-year jail term, according to an Amnesty International researcher, Gaëtan Mootoo. Mr. Yoon, who is in his early 20s, is a former high-school friend of two now-dead Canadians who were implicated in a terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed dozens of hostages in January.

The London man told the CBC he has been "beaten" and "tortured" since being imprisoned. "I still don't see any medical attention, I don't see any help from the Canadian government in my release," he said.

While Canada cannot interfere in another country's judicial affairs, officials can request regular access to a detainee, relay any health concerns to local officials and non-governmental organizations, and make every effort to ensure a Canadian's equitable treatment under the local criminal justice system.

"Canadian officials continue to provide assistance to the individual as they would for any Canadian detained abroad," Josh Zanin, director of communications for Diane Ablonczy, Minister of State of Foreign Affairs (Americas and Consular Affairs), said in an email Saturday.

"This assistance should not be construed as a belief of his guilt or innocence."

Mr. Mootoo visited Mr. Yoon in jail during the summer of 2012, but the Canadian said he didn't want the human-rights group to lobby on his behalf. "He didn't want Amnesty to campaign for him so I have to respect that," Mr. Mootoo said in a telephone interview from Paris on Friday.

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Mauritanian prisons are reputed to be overcrowded, with poor sanitation and little medical care. However, Mr. Mootoo said the young Canadian is detained in the country's capital at the Nouakchott civil prison, where most of the country's terror suspects are held in better conditions. He said Mr. Yoon is in good health, has regular meals and is able to pray.

In July 2012, six months before the Algeria attack, the Mauritanian magazine El Hourriya reported that a Canadian named Haroun Yoon was in custody on suspicions that he was a jihadi with the radical Salafist movement. It also reported that Mr. Yoon had a urinary infection but couldn't get medical treatment, so inmates dropped him near the prison gate and left him there unconscious.

In the CBC interview on Friday, Mr. Yoon said he traveled to Mauritania to study Arabic and that he was arrested without cause. Denying links to terrorism, he said had no idea why his two of his friends from London were involved in an apparent suicide mission in Algeria.

"You know what? It's more of a shock to me than it is to you," Mr. Yoon, a Muslim convert, told the CBC. "I have no idea. I've been in prison. In reality I don't really care."

Asked for his thoughts on how Mr. Katsiroubas, also a convert, and Mr. Medlej died he said: "Who knows ... You think you know someone and the next day you really don't."

Back home in London two days before the CBC interview aired, Mr. Yoon's family insisted he is not behind bars. "We have no evidence of that," his brother said, adding that they have spoken on the phone with Mr. Yoon many times, as recently as Sunday.

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"He assured me that everything was fine – that everything's okay," the brother said. "I hope Aaron comes back and clears all of this up … We're waiting for his call."

The government source would not elaborate on the nature, duration or outcome of the consular visits to Mr. Yoon, citing privacy and national security.

With reports from Colin Freeze and Tu Thanh Ha.

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