Edward Snowden

Canada has been ‘dragging its feet’, Human Rights Watch says as it calls on minister to accept asylum seekers who housed Edward Snowden

Group of seven refugees who helped former NSA contractor in Hong Kong may face deportation as appeal cases in city have yet to make headway

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 10:57pm

An international NGO advocating human rights has accused Canada of ‘dragging its feet’ in accepting seven asylum seekers who helped American whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and sent a letter to the country’s immigration minister.

The move from Human Rights Watch came as the hearing for an appeal filed against Hong Kong’s Immigration Department by one of the refugees is set to begin on Monday.

“Canada has been dragging its feet on these applications, apparently waiting out the protracted legal process, and likely rejection by Hong Kong, and the psychological toll on these poor people has been enormous,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch.

Refugee claims were filed in January last year in Canada on behalf of the asylum seekers who sheltered the former US National Security Agency contractor in Hong Kong in 2013. But their cases have not yet been processed, despite repeated calls from lawyers, advocates and the refugees.

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Their protection claims were rejected in Hong Kong in May last year, sparking fears of eventual detentions and deportations to their home countries where they claim to face persecution. They have meanwhile filed appeals and are still in the city.

The letter sent to the Canadian minister, Ahmed Hussen – who has discretionary powers to speed up the screening – highlighted the case of one of the seven asylum seekers, a 45-year-old former soldier from Sri Lanka, Ajith Pushpakumara. According to the NGO, he “experienced horrific treatment at the hands of the military police, including beatings, torture and rape” in his home country.

His appeal hearings in Hong Kong are scheduled for next Monday and Wednesday. “But his psychiatrist is doubtful he can participate meaningfully or safely, given his acute post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and the re-traumatisation,” the letter stated.

Pushpakumara’s lawyer, Robert Tibbo – who also provided legal advice to Snowden in the city – said he hoped the case could be decided in Canada.

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“The case should be adjourned until he is able to participate,” Tibbo said. “He’s been stuck in limbo in Hong Kong since 2003 without the social welfare and psychiatrical support he needs.

“Furthermore, there is no confidence that any of my clients’ cases will be successful in Hong Kong based on the closed screening system.”

An emergency visa request was filed on Pushpakumara’s behalf last month in Canada.

If the Torture Claims Appeal Board in Hong Kong rejects their appeals, the group has three months to request a judicial review with the High Court. Claimants face detention and deportation if both instances fail.

There is no confidence that any of my clients’ cases will be successful in Hong Kong
Robert Tibbo, lawyer

Hong Kong does not grant asylum, but the local government is obliged to screen torture and persecution claims, a process that usually takes several years. The few recognised cases are then referred to the UN, which is responsible for finding a third country for resettlement.

The group of seven see Canada as their last hope.

Last year, their legal team in the country filed an order of “mandamus” – an injunction in which they asked the federal court to order the government to expedite their claims. However, it was rejected.

PoKempner said of Pushpakumara’s plight: “It is shameful that Ajith, who fled horrific torture and who still has persecutors tracking him, is unsafe and unprotected, all the more so because he helped Edward Snowden, whom he knew only as a fellow asylum seeker.”

The other members of the group that helped the former NSA contractor in Hong Kong in 2013, after he left the US and leaked confidential documents, are Supun Thilina Kellapatha, his wife Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis – both from Sri Lanka – and their two children, as well as Vanessa Mae Rodel from the Philippines, who has a six-year-old daughter. Their appeals in the city have already been heard but no decisions were handed down.

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Meanwhile, For the Refugees – an NGO set up in Quebec by three lawyers to help the group of seven – this week launched a new campaign to raise funds for the asylum seekers.

Snowden took to Twitter to call for support.

“Please help us get these brave families to a safe place,” he posted. “If you can give, please do. If you can’t, help us spread their story. Your support can change seven lives for the better.”