Published On Sat Aug 13 2011
Ramiro Cristales is still haunted by the brutal deaths of his parents and seven siblings at the hands of Guatemalan soldiers in Las Dos Erres, Guatemala.
Overnight, 251 people were killed, leaving Cristales, then only 5, and another child the only survivors of the December 1982 massacre.
Cristales was thrilled when he learned in January that one of the alleged perpetrators, Jorge Sosa Orantes, was picked up and arrested in Lethbridge, Alta.
Now 34 and a Canadian citizen, Cristales is eager to see justice served in his adopted homeland. But he is not holding out much hope.
Although Orantes, a dual Canadian and American citizen, has a court date in Calgary later this month, it is for his extradition to the United States where he faces charges not related to the mass murders but for lying on a citizenship application about his role in the Guatemalan military.
“Deporting a criminal is not real justice,” said Cristales, who came here in 1999 under a witness protection program.
Federal laws allow Ottawa to prosecute alleged war criminals for war crimes committed abroad. Yet, since Canada’s war crimes program was launched in 1998, only two individuals — both Rwandan genocide suspects — have been charged under the Criminal Code.
“The program will require increased resources if it is to be effective,” said the government’s own program review in 2008.
It is no secret the program, with its $15.6 million annual budget unchanged through the years, is grossly underfunded. And the program’s yearly budget is about to be slashed by almost half, to $8.4 million.
“We have a robust program on paper only,” said Matt Eisenbrandt of the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for International Justice. He estimates about 2,000 alleged war and human rights criminals are living in Canada.
Ottawa’s approach to suspected war criminals in Canada is evident in the recent announcement by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews: round them up and kick them out.
Although the publication of names and photos of 30 alleged war criminals in July has yielded six quick arrests, critics accuse Ottawa of trying to sweep these cases off Canada’s front step.
Worse, they say, it leaves the culprits impugned, adding insult to injury for victims and survivors of war crimes.
Bertha Oliva, executive director of the Committee of Families/Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH), a Honduran human rights group, said she and others fear the return of Cristobal Gonzalez-Ramirez, one of the 30 fugitives identified by the government.
Gonzalez-Ramirez, deported from Canada after his July 22 arrest, is an alleged member of the Intelligence Battalion 3-16 responsible for the “forced disappearance” of Honduran dissidents in the 1980s.
“I am absolutely certain that now he is back, there will be no charges, no trials,” said Oliva, whose activist husband, Tomas Nativi, went missing in 1981. “To see these people walking freely on the street re-victimizes us. It takes away our hope for justice.”
Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson Natalie Glister said if a foreigner is deemed inadmissible because of involvement in war crimes or crimes against humanity, officials can remove the person to a third country where the individuals faces prosecution for these crimes.
“The CBSA does not have the mandate or the authority to monitor individuals once they have been removed from Canada,” she said.
Peruvian officials in Ottawa say they only learned about Manuel de la Torre Herrera and Henry Pantoja Carbonel — two of the 30 fugitives, both from Peru — and their alleged war crimes through the media.
“War crimes are serious crimes, but we have not been officially informed,” a Peruvian embassy official told the Star. “As far as we know, these two men are not subjects of any investigation or criminal procedure in Peru.”
Deportees could also face unjust prosecutions by corrupt regimes back home, said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, which has been critical of the government’s approach.
“No one should be deported to a country where they would be at risk of human rights violations and torture,” he said.
While acknowledging the exponential legal costs and complexity of prosecuting war criminals in Canada, Neve said individuals should be tried here if there is sufficient evidence. Successful prosecutions and due penalties can also deter bad elements from coming, he added.
Justice department spokesperson Carole Saindon said the struggle against impunity for grave crimes is a global effort.
“Among nations, the criminal prosecution of war criminals who have committed offences in another country is an exceptional measure,” she wrote in an email reply to the Star.
To date, she said, only nine countries have prosecuted individuals for war crimes committed beyond their borders.
Randy Gordon, former manager of Immigration Canada’s modern war crimes unit, said it all comes down to political will.
Eleven of the 30 alleged war criminals Ottawa publicized in July have been on authorities’ radar since the 1990s, when Gordon was in charge of the unit.
“The program is a total failure. They look at the easiest way to deal with a case. These people are excluded from the refugee system, ordered to be deported. They are not detained and then they disappear,” said Gordon, author of a 1997 report detailing the state of war criminals in Canada.
“We can’t be the babysitter of the world, but I’m getting tired of hearing the same old government line that ‘Canada will not be a haven for war criminals.’ This rings a little hollow, to say the least.”
Actions against War Criminals: 1998-2008
Entries prevented: 4,047
Suspects excluded from seeking asylum: 621
Intervention in refugee hearings: 1,969
Visa cases reviewed abroad: 19,967
Cases reviewed in Canada: 16,293
Modern war crimes cases concluded: 36,260
Criminal prosecutions: 2
Canada War Crimes Program 2008 report