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‘A unique ability to not remember’: Mystery man fights for freedom

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Mohsin Abdelwahep is believed to be Egyptian. But he has also claimed to be Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian.

He’s used four different names. And Abdelwahep — who is also known as Ali Hassan Ahmed — is either 55 or 59.

One fact about him is certain: he’s behind bars. Not for any criminal act, but because Canada Border Services agents can’t identify him in order to begin the process of deporting him.

But after more than two-and-a-half years of trying to figure out who the mystery man is, the CBSA may soon be forced to set him free.

‘An unknown entity with a history of lying’

A member of the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Immigration Division ordered Abdelwahep’s release last month.

The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness has applied in Federal Court for a judicial review of that decision.

The bulky court record — which CBC has reviewed — throws a spotlight on both the contentious issue of immigration detention and the lengths investigators will go to in order to discover credible information about the people in their care.

Abdelwahep has undergone linguistic analysis and had his DNA submitted to an ancestry database. Agents have sent Facebook messages to possible fifth and eighth cousins. They’ve considered going to the media.

He’s drawn the line at hypnosis for fear it might « mess with his mind. »

The Canada Border Services Agency submitted Mohsin Abdelwahep’s DNA to Ancestry DNA in the hopes of finding relatives. They have reached out to possible fifth cousins. (Jason Proctor)

And yet, Abdelwahep’s true identity remains as much a puzzle as it was in July 2016 when one of the many Immigration Division members he has appeared before predicted he could look forward to a « very long time » in detention.

« You’ve demonstrated a unique ability to not remember anything about your own past, to be a person completely and utterly alone in the world, unable to obtain any documents, unable to provide any contacts who can confirm your identity, » Marc Tessler told Abdelwahep.

« You are essentially an unknown entity, with a history of lying. »

All dead ends

Abdelwahep was first detained after making a refugee claim at an inland Citizenship and Immigration Office on April 5, 2016. At that time, he claimed to have arrived in Canada on a ship from Italy.

But his story unravelled when fingerprint analysis showed he had actually been in the United States for many years, including the time he was supposed to have been on the boat.

Further checks found Abdelwahep had — in fact — unsuccessfully applied for asylum in Canada in 2007. He told investigators he spent time in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands but only Italy has any record of him.

Fingerprint checks suggest that Mohsin Abdelwahep was arrested in Las Vegas under the name Ali Hassan Ahmed. He was also married in the desert city. But his wife is dead. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun via Associated Press)

Over time, pieces of information have emerged — but all dead ends. He was married to a woman in Las Vegas. She died. CBSA has been unable to find her relatives, and questions about former roommates have gone nowhere.

The linguistic analysis suggests he grew up in Cairo.

According to the court records, the CBSA has yet to supply him with an application for an Egyptian birth certificate or travel documents.

In any case, he has allegedly refused to fill them out if they did.

‘Do I deserve to be treated this way’

Abdelwahep claims that he has consistently told investigators what he remembers — but he doesn’t remember much.

And his stay in a B.C. Corrections pretrial centre doesn’t appear to be helping. The court records include pages of details about in-custody arguments and fights.

He has spent much of his time in segregation and, at one point, suffered a « brain bleed » after an attack by other inmates.

Mohsin Abdelwahep is currently an inmate at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam, B.C. He has spent much of his time in segregation. (Shutterstock)

Abdelwahep expressed his frustration — and his view of the Canadian legal system — in December of last year, when he made a personal plea for his release to yet another Immigration Division member.

« According to the law in Canada, if I kill a person, if I am drunk, they will indict me for three years. What is the reason they put me in prison for two years without committing any crime? » he asked.

« Do I deserve to be treated this way? I’m not a criminal and I’m not a terrorist. That’s why I’m asking you to release me today and I will comply with any conditions that you impose on me. »

No ‘single, simple answer’

The issue of immigration detention has arisen repeatedly in the courts in recent years.

According to evidence given at a 2017 Federal Court case, nearly 5,900 people were detained for immigration purposes in 2016. People can be held if they are deemed to be a flight risk, a danger to the public or unwilling to prove or reveal their genuine identities. But the Immigration Division holds regular hearings for the CBSA to justify continued detention.

One South African man, Victor Vinnetou, was detained for 11 years before he was released. He arrived on a false passport and — like Abdelwahep — was accused of refusing to co-operate with efforts to establish his identity.

South African man Victor Vinnetou was detained for 11 years before he was released. He was accused of refusing to co-operate with efforts to establish his identity. (CBC )

Detainees who signed affidavits as part of the earlier court case have been incarcerated in provincial jails for anywhere from eight months to three years. They included women and men. Several said they had been severely beaten by other inmates.

The judge in the case found that extended immigration detention doesn’t automatically amount to a violation of a prisoner’s rights.

« The reasonableness of an individual’s detention will vary with the circumstances, » wrote Justice Simon Fothergill.

« The question of when detention for immigration purposes is no longer reasonable does not have a single, simple answer. »

‘Detention is an extreme measure’

Toronto immigration consultant Macdonald Scott is part of the End Immigration Detention Network, an intervenor in a number of similar cases.

« Detention is an extreme measure within our society, » he says.

« And to hold someone just because you can’t identify them, you’d never be able to do that in any other context. And what I wonder about is why the Department of Justice is spending Canadian resources to fight what’s obviously a very reasonable decision. »

Immigration advocates argue that the Canada Border Services Agency should not detain immigrants indefinitely over issues of identity. (CBC)

Advocates point out that a release from jail isn’t a release from responsibility. Detainees still have to abide by whatever terms and conditions they undertake in exchange for release.

And Scott says taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay the cost to house and feed them.

‘They’re trying to catch the wind’

Karina Henrique, the Immigration Division member whose release order sparked the Federal Court battle, noted that Abdelwahep is not considered a flight risk or a danger to the pubic.

She put the blame for the delay in identification on both Abdelwahep and the government.

« It does not, however, appear that his identity will be established in the near future and there is potential therefore of his future detention becoming unduly lengthy, » she wrote.

« His detention has been significant, and his future time in detention is unknown. These factors weigh in favour of his release. »

He’ll remain behind bars pending the outcome of the judicial review. The next court date is in November.

The government argues that releasing Abdelwahep would undermine « the very purpose, objectives and explicit legislative intent » of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Which leaves the mystery man and the CBSA locked in a kind of needle-in-a-haystack stalemate.

At one of his last Immigration Division hearings, the agency explained efforts to reach out to some of the hundreds of people identified as possible cousins through Ancestry DNA.

Abdelwahep’s counsel, Christopher Ghirardi, said one officer described it as « a long shot to establish identity. »

« Mr Abdelwahep used a different phrase with me earlier, » Ghirardi said.

« It seems like they’re trying to catch the wind. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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