Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi may have hoped to quietly disappear from his sexual assault trial in Cape Breton, never to be seen or heard from again in Canada.
Instead, the 28-year-old man is attracting national attention from lawyers and advocates for sex-crime victims who are arguing measures must be taken to prevent this kind of escape from justice procedures.
In addition, there’s pressure emerging on Ottawa to officially investigate what role the Saudi embassy played in his disappearance — just the latest in what appears to be a series of mysterious departures by Saudis accused of serious crimes in North America.
Little is known of Alzoabi’s whereabouts, other than a brief note from a sheriff on Dec. 8 citing his lawyer saying he “fled the country sometime ago.”
But how did he disappear? Police had seized the former Cape Breton University student’s passport, expecting that would keep him in the country for his criminal trial in early January.
Lee Cohen, one of Halifax’s most experienced immigration lawyers, has said the likeliest scenario is that Alzoabi managed to obtain special travel documents from the embassy. Cohen says obtaining falsified or forged travel documents is also a possibility, but these documents are difficult to find.
The embassy doesn’t respond to emails and calls requesting comment. However, the Crown prosecution service indicates it has clearly has been involved with Alzoabi in the past.
Prosecutors say the embassy posted $37,500 of Alzoabi’s bail last year in relation to the alleged sexual assault, criminal harassment, assault and forcible confinement of a woman in incidents alleged to have occurred 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, and he has over 36 violations of motor vehicle regulations, with thousands of dollars in fines assessed.
Helen Morrison, executive director of the Cape Breton Transition House, said Alzoabi’s departure has been frustrating for advocates for victims of sexual violence on the island.
“This should be looked into. It’s an instance of the victim being let down … This victim came forward, which is difficult to do,” she said in a telephone interview.
“The message sent to victims out there is that if you’re powerful enough and you have enough money, you can elude and you can get away with very serious crimes.”
Meanwhile, Peter Edelmann, a British Columbia-based immigration lawyer, said the case could have future implications for whether other Saudis receive bail.
“I would note that if the Saudi (or any other) embassy develops a habit of issuing travel documents to individuals whose passports have been surrendered to the court, the surrender of passports for nationals of that country will eventually become a less meaningful indicator for the court,” he wrote in an email.
“A strategy of undermining court orders by an embassy might backfire by pushing the court to impose stricter conditions or not release nationals of that country at all in some cases if the surrender of a passport is meaningless.”
Robert Currie, a professor of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, has called the case “a flagrant violation” of Canada’s sovereignity.
It’s the second time he’s found himself commenting on this kind of case in the past 11 years.
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.
Meanwhile, in the United States, there have been similar incidents in recent years.
The Oregonian newspaper has reported recently on the flight last year of Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Portland, Oregon, community college student who jumped bail in the hit-and-run death of a 15-year-old Portland girl and apparently fled the United States.
The news site reported it has found criminal cases involving at least five other Saudis who vanished before they faced trial or completed their jail sentence in the state. They include two accused rapists, a pair of suspected hit-and-run drivers and one man with child porn on his computer.
Currie says national governments and the courts are going to have to act to prevent these kinds of incidents from continuing.
Ottawa should investigate, and consider an official protest if there’s evidence of embassy involvement, he said.
It remains unclear just what, if anything, Ottawa plans to do.
In a brief comment to reporters Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said officials were “looking into” the case.
Meanwhile, the existing controls at the border to prevent people who are on trial from leaving vary, depending on what information the Canada Border Services Agency has received, said Edelmann.
He’s heard of instances of RCMP and CBSA officials being tipped off and actually boarding planes to arrest foreign nationals attempting to flee the country.
A spokesman for the CBSA, Allan Donovan, says it won’t comment on whether it knows if Alzoabi left the country, based on airline boarding manifests.
However, Donovan said in an email that with the coming into force of Bill C-21 in December, Canada will have the authority to collect basic biographic information on all travellers who leave the country by land and by air.
Regulations are being developed to enable the application of the bill, with the agency’s website saying there will be electronic passenger manifests received directly from the airlines that its agents can view.
Until then, the agency says it doesn’t “systematically collect exist information” for people boarding planes for foreign destinations.
However, Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer based in Vancouver, says he thinks it’s just a matter of common sense, and he believes existing enforcement could have noticed a departure like Alzoabi’s.
“The embassy-issued travel document is not a ‘regular’ passport, so the airline can get a CBSA person to verify the document,” he wrote in an email.
“The CBSA person checks the computer and bingo! The person is caught in the act, in the departure lounge, attempting to breach bail conditions. He’ll go from airport detention to downtown lock-up.”
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press