Canada’s border agency is asking the public to help track down one of its most-wanted fugitives—again.
In a first, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has posted to its “Wanted” website the name and mug shot of a man who was apprehended once already thanks to the same high-profile list, only to be released under strict conditions that he promptly ignored.
Mohamed Ratni, a failed refugee claimant with admitted ties to an Algerian terrorist group, was originally arrested in June 2012 after someone at a Montreal coffee shop recognized his face from the agency’s “Wanted” website, an FBI-style initiative launched by the previous Harper government to help flush out alleged war criminals and other violent immigrants who disappeared before they could be deported. Now 41, Ratni was among the 30 men featured on the inaugural list when it went live in the summer of 2011.
But it turns out Ratni was never removed from Canada following his much-publicized capture, and when the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) set him free after 19 months in detention, he did exactly what the federal government feared he would: he vanished a second time. Now he is on the wanted list a second time.
Not that the border agency is highlighting that particular fact. Labeled “New” in red letters, Ratni’s latest entry on the web page neglects to mention that he was already located once before with the help of the wanted program—then freed instead of flown out of Canada. Only when questioned by Maclean’s did the agency confirm that Ratni’s is indeed a familiar face. “Mr. Ratni is the only person to be featured on the ‘Wanted by the CBSA’ website twice,” a spokesman said.
How is that possible? How does a once-wanted man, securely in custody, end up back on the same roster of wanted fugitives? The full story—laid out in hundreds of pages of Federal Court records and IRB transcripts obtained by Maclean’s—is actually all-too-familiar. In fact, put aside Ratni’s unique claim to fame, and his case file reads like so many others: yet another reminder of just how difficult it can be to deport even the most egregious fraudsters and liars.
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It is also a real-world example of why there are no easy solutions in the ongoing debate over immigration detention. In Ratni’s case, the CBSA needed one more thing—travel documents from the Algerian government—before putting him on an outbound plane. But during his 19 months in detention, Algerian officials never produced the necessary documents, nor did they indicate when, or even if, those documents would be issued. In the meantime, the IRB’s Immigration Division, which conducts monthly detention reviews, initially agreed with the federal government that Ratni was a severe flight risk who should stay behind bars. But by January 2014, with no travel documents in sight, board member Marie-Louise Côté sided with Ratni’s lawyer: keeping him imprisoned indefinitely, she ruled, was a violation of his Charter rights.
Should anyone be surprised about what happened next? Hardly. But what was the alternative? What if two more years had passed and the Algerian government still hadn’t issued the documents needed to fly Ratni to his home country? “This is an eternal problem because there are countries who refuse to take back their own citizens,” says Sergio Karas, a prominent immigration lawyer in Toronto. “It is a no-win situation, but you can’t let these individuals free to roam the streets.”
Who is Mohamed Ratni? The record paints varying portraits.
He was 24 when he arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport nearly 18 years ago, with a false French passport and tight lips. Cagey from the moment he landed, he refused to even tell immigration officials which airline he flew on, and in the months to come he would provide various explanations for how he obtained his bogus passport. (At one point, he said he paid a friend $300 for the document; later, he said someone else gave it to him for free.) He claimed asylum and settled in Montreal.
In his refugee claim, Ratni admitted to collaborating with the Armed Islamic Group (know by its French acronym GIA), an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization bent on overthrowing Algeria’s secular government. According to his version of events, he was working as a farmer in 1995 when a “recognized terrorist” approached him to procure food supplies—as well as other substances, such as naphthalene, ammonia and sulfur. “Fearing for his life,” he said he did as he was told, buying 50 kg of potatoes and 13 kg of naphthalene. (He wasn’t able to find sulfur or ammonia, he said, because “stocks were depleted.”) Although Ratni was adamant that he stopped working with the extremist group, he said he feared returning to Algeria because he’d become a target of both the state (which considered him a terrorist) and the GIA (which considered him a traitor).
The IRB could not have been less convinced by his version of events, ruling in April 2002 that Ratni was “absolutely not credible” and “devoid of sincerity and honesty.” He “tried to downplay his role” in the Armed Islamic Group, the two-member panel concluded, and provided inconsistent details about critical periods of his life, including stints living in Syria, Turkey and Hungary. Although there was no evidence linking Ratni to a specific atrocity, the board found him complicit in crimes against humanity because he was a member of an organization with “a limited, brutal purpose.” (At the IRB, the burden of proof is much lower than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” To deny an asylum claim, the board must have only “serious reasons for considering” that the claimant is complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity.)
“He did not say the whole truth,” the panel concluded. “The claimant has attempted to minimize his role within the Armed Islamic Group in order to protect himself.”
By the time the IRB rendered its ruling, Canadian authorities were well aware of the GIA and its activities here. Confessed member Ahmed Ressam, a former Montreal resident, had already admitted his role in a made-in-Canada millennium plot to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport; he had also fingered numerous accomplices. Another of his former associates, a Montreal shopkeeper named Fateh Kamel, had just been convicted of terrorism offences in Paris (“I am GIA,” Kamel boasted during one conversation captured by a police intercept). In July 2002, three months after the IRB concluded that Ratni was a member of the Armed Islamic Group, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government listed the group as a banned terrorist entity. It remains listed today.
But if Canadian authorities were even remotely worried that Ratni posed a security threat, they didn’t show it. Five years after his negative IRB ruling, Ratni was still living in Montreal, largely unbothered by the CBSA. It wasn’t until 2008, after he was convicted of numerous criminal charges, including fraud under $5,000, that the agency kick-started the process of deporting him. That August, when Ratni failed to show up for a scheduled interview related to his removal, the service issued a warrant for his arrest.
That warrant was still active three years later, when the CBSA selected the initial 30 mug shots—Ratni’s included—for the Harper Conservatives’ new wanted list.
The federal program has endured its share of controversy over the years. The privacy commissioner scolded Ottawa for its “potentially misleading” use of the term war criminal, pointing out that none of the men on the site has ever been charged with a war crime, let alone been convicted. (Again, they were declared inadmissible to Canada, under a much lower burden of proof, by the IRB.) A few weeks after that, Maclean’s actually tracked down one of the missing men, calling into question just how hard authorities are searching for them. Another, arrested just two days after the list was released, was quietly set free because his lawyer successfully argued that all the publicity surrounding his case could put him at risk in his home country.
Still, the website has no doubt worked: at last count, 68 missing individuals have been located. Ratni was the 26th, his arrest trumpeted in a press release issued by then-Public Safety minister Vic Toews. “The Government of Canada remains committed to identifying, detaining and removing those individuals who pose a threat to the safety and security of Canadians,” he said.
Ratni was living at a friend’s apartment when he was captured. He has no family in Canada, and was surviving on odd jobs, including one at a car wash. At his first detention review hearing, he demanded “a guarantee” from the CBSA that he “is not going to have problems in Algeria,” but as the months wore on, he became increasingly resigned to his fate. More than once, he said he was ready to go home.
All he needed were the travel documents from Algeria—which had yet to arrive, despite regular communication between the CBSA and Algerian diplomatic officials in Canada.
At yet another detention review hearing on Jan. 24, 2014, Ratni’s lawyer, Vincent Desbiens, argued that his client should walk free after 19 months behind bars. Without a concrete timeline from the Algerians, he said, Ratni is stuck in indefinite detention, a clear breach of his Charter rights to liberty and to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment. Desbiens specifically noted that the government has branded Ratni a flight risk—never a security risk—and that strict house arrest would be enough to ensure he complies with his eventual removal, whenever that day should come.
“Mr. Ratni, if you are released today by the commissioner, are you going to respect the conditions that are going to be imposed on you?” he asked his client, under oath.
“Yes,” Ratni replied.
“Are you ready to go to the Border Services Agency office as many times as required?”
“I have no problems with that.”
In her ruling, issued later that day, Côté agreed that the CBSA has reached “a certain impasse” with the Algerian government, placing Ratni in “indefinite” detention. She also made clear that Ratni “is not a danger to the public or to national security,” because if he did pose a threat, the government would have certainly said so in its attempts to keep him locked up. “Mr. Ratni has been detained for nineteen months, since June 29, 2012,” she wrote. “This is a very long-term detention, especially for a person who does not represent a danger to the public.”
As for the government’s key argument—that Ratni is a flight risk unlikely to show up for his removal from Canada—Côté concluded that the risk of him going back underground “has declined with the passage of time.” The fact that Ratni isn’t facing imminent removal, she added, should make him even more motivated to abide by his release conditions.
In the end, Ratni was ordered to live at a friend’s apartment, abide by a 6:00 p.m. curfew, and check in with the CBSA once a week. He did not. Nicholas Dorion, the CBSA spokesman, says the agency then issued yet another arrest warrant, and after “continued efforts” failed to locate him, his profile was reposted to the wanted site on Sept. 22, 2016—minus, of course, any hint of the fanfare that accompanied his original inclusion or his 2012 arrest.
“The CBSA makes every effort to locate individuals who fail to show up for their removal or any immigration proceeding,” Dorion said in an emailed statement. “Warrants are issued and shared with law enforcement partners so that all law enforcement agencies can assist in their apprehension. The CBSA has listed Mr. Ratni on the ‘Wanted by the CBSA’ website again to solicit assistance from the public in apprehending him.”
Anyone with information on Ratni’s whereabouts is encouraged to call police, or the Border Watch Line at 1-888-502-9060. “We remind anyone who sees Ratni or anyone featured on the ‘Wanted by the CBSA’ list not to try to apprehend them themselves,” Dorion says.
The Algerian embassy in Ottawa has yet to respond to questions from Maclean’s. Desbiens, Ratni’s former lawyer, did not respond to an interview request.
As for Mohamed Ratni, he has managed to elude detection yet again. Wherever he is hiding this time, it’s a safe bet he is steering clear of the local coffee shops.