Court forces release of documents in refugee's lawsuit
OTTAWA - Federal lawyers have handed more than 850 new documents to defence counsel in the case of Benamar Benatta, a refugee who is suing the Canadian government for shipping him to the United States on terror suspicions one day after the 9-11 attacks. The disclosure of hundreds of new pages spanning several years comes despite previous federal assurances there were no further records relevant to the security case.
It's the latest hurdle in Benatta's fight to be compensated for spending almost five years in U.S. prisons where he was held in grim conditions and allegedly beaten by guards.
Nicole Chrolavicius, Benatta's lawyer, said it's "very frustrating" to represent a client without being sure the other side has revealed all relevant information.
"There's an obligation on the government to play fairly and to make sure that every step it takes in litigation is in accordance with the rules of the court."
Benatta defected from the Algerian military while on training in the United States. In early September 2001, he made his way to the Canadian border at Fort Erie, Ont., where he told officials he intended to claim refugee status.
Canadian authorities drove him over the border one day after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, handing him to U.S. authorities for investigation.
Benatta was cleared of involvement in terrorism by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation two months later. However, he was held in U.S. prisons for close to five years.
Benatta was returned to Canada in 2006 and obtained refugee status the following year. Meantime, he took the federal government to court, alleging breaches of the Charter of Rights and international law.
The government says it followed the law and argues that Benatta is trying to hold Canada responsible for alleged misdeeds by the Americans.
Chrolavicius sensed something was amiss when she independently obtained records related to Benatta's case through the Access to Information Act that had not come out through the court process.
Still, the government said in a submission to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that additional documents and information "simply do not exist."
It said the allegation that the Crown's search for documents had been deficient was based largely on speculation, intuition, guesswork and erroneous assumption.
In December, the court ordered the government to come up with a more complete list of documents, saying the original was "deficient in form and substance."
Initially the government said 113 relevant documents existed, but it now acknowledges 972 items.
Chrolavicius, who cannot discuss the substance of the material because of legal restrictions, says she's still not sure the government has handed over all relevant documents.
"I'm looking at everything through a microscope, and I'm not satisfied at this point that no stone's been left unturned."
Kristina Dragaitis, the Justice Department lawyer handling the case, refused to comment, referring a call to the department's media relations branch.
A Justice spokesman subsequently passed the inquiry to the Canada Border Services Agency, which said it could not comment immediately.
Chrolavicius still hopes the government will settle the case.
"Litigation is a nightmare of a process for all parties," she said.
"That's why we were hoping, and continue to hope, that the government will do the right thing and come forward with some kind of public acknowledgment and commitment to redress what went wrong."