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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland listens to questions during a cabinet meeting in Sherbrooke, Que. on Jan. 17, 2019.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Federal officials are looking into how a Saudi man may have fled Canada while facing sexual assault charges, as legal experts suspect the Middle Eastern kingdom’s embassy played a key role.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Sherbrooke, Que., on Thursday evening that it’s cause for concern when anyone skips bail while facing serious criminal charges, and said, “in that particular case we are looking into it.”

Lee Cohen, a veteran Halifax immigration lawyer, has said the likeliest scenario is that the Saudi embassy provided Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi with travel documents to leave, as his passport was being held while the 28-year-old awaited trial in Sydney, N.S.

Alzoabi’s whereabouts remain a mystery, but a court document says a sheriff unsuccessfully tried to locate Alzoabi on Dec. 8, and quotes his lawyer at the time as saying the young man had “fled the country some time ago.”

Crown prosecutors say Alzoabi had $37,500 of his bail posted by the Saudi Arabian embassy last year in relation to the alleged sexual assault, assault and forcible confinement of a woman between Aug. 1, 2015, and March 26, 2017.

Alzoabi is also facing separate charges of dangerous driving and assault with a car in a December 2015 incident involving a Cape Breton man.

Chris Hansen, a spokeswoman for the Crown prosecution office, also says that Alzoabi was facing 36 different fines for various motor vehicle violations.

The bail put up by the embassy was forfeited when Alzoabi failed to appear last week in court.

Alzoabi had been in Nova Scotia attending Cape Breton University as a student in its business program, and graduated last year.

Robert Currie, a professor at the Schulich school of law at Dalhousie University, says the case is similar to an incident just over a decade ago where another Saudi student managed to return to his country as he faced sexual assault charges in Halifax, even though his passport had been seized.

He said if Saudi Arabia is assisting students who are facing trial in Canada to escape justice then it is a “flagrant violation of international law,” and Ottawa should demand explanations and formally protest.

The Saudi embassy has refused to provide any comment to media outlets since the story first became public last week.

The Cape Breton Regional Police said Friday they have no further information on Alzoabi’s location.

Spokeswoman Desiree Vassallo said, “we are working with federal policing partners on the process of having him added to the Interpol list.”

Interpol is a policing organization that includes 192 countries and is focused on finding missing or wanted people.

Currie said it’s a basic aspect of international law that nations don’t attempt to directly remove their citizens from countries after they allegedly broke criminal laws.

“It’s a fairly profound breach of state sovereignity for a foreign country to interfere with the judicial system,” Currie said.

He said it’s very difficult to obtain false travel documents, and the law teacher said he agrees with Cohen that the likeliest scenario is that the Saudi embassy provided travel documents. Airlines face heavy fines if they allow passengers to board for international flights without passports or embassy-issued travel documents.

In January 2007, a Saudi national charged with sexually assaulting two youths slipped out of Canada and returned to his home country, raising questions about how he left without his passport.

The Canadian Press reported at the time that Taher Ali Al-Saba, 19, was due to appear in Nova Scotia Supreme Court that month but failed to show up after being reported missing in August.

Police contacted the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa and were informed Al-Saba had returned to the Middle Eastern country, possibly in August.

He had been facing two counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual interference involving a person under the age of 14. The complainants, a boy and a girl, were from the same family.

Al-Saba, who was in Halifax to learn English, was arrested and charged on June 23, 2006, around the time the alleged assaults took place.

He was released on $10,000 bail, but was forbidden from leaving Nova Scotia and — like Alzoabi — had to hand over his passport to police.

As with Alzoabi, Saudi embassy officials in Ottawa refused to comment.

The latest incident comes amidst continuing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Canada.

A Saudi teen has been granted asylum in Canada after fleeing from her allegedly abusive family. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun said last week the Saudi embassy in Thailand had tried to force her return to the kingdom.

In August, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada’s ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after the Canadian foreign minister called for the release of women’s rights activists who had been arrested in the country.

The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and recalled their students from universities in Canada.

With files from Joan Bryden in Sherbrooke, Que.

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