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Halifax man first to face trial for violating Canada’s international economic sanctions

Pro-Syrian regime protesters hold Syrian flags and portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad, on the airport highway near Damascus, Syria, Sept. 26, 2011.
Pro-Syrian regime protesters hold Syrian flags and portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad, on the airport highway near Damascus, Syria, Sept. 26, 2011. AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi

A Halifax businessman will likely be the first person to face a trial after violating Canada’s regime of economic sanctions in Syria, according to an expert in international law.

Michael Nesbitt, an assistant professor of law at the University of Calgary, said that the trial of Nader Kalai for violating Canada’s Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) is one that he’ll be monitoring closely.

“This is the most interesting case we’ve ever seen in Canadian sanctions legislation and it hasn’t even started yet,” Nesbitt told Global News in a phone interview.

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The sanctions against Syria were established by Canada in 2011 after the country’s president Bashar al-Assad violently cracked down on peaceful protesters.

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Kalai, a Syrian national with permanent resident status in Canada, is accused of violating the measures imposed on Syria by making a payment of 15 million Syrian pounds — the equivalent of approximately $140,000 — to a company called Syrialink on Nov. 27, 2013.

If convicted Kalai could face up to five years in prison.

Kalai’s lawyer, Ron Pizzo of the law firm Pink Larkin, said his client intends to go to trial to contest the charges.

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According to court documents reviewed by Global News, a statement sworn by a Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) investigator outlined a two-year-long investigation into Kalai that began after an intelligence officer received anecdotal information that Kalai was in business with individuals associated with the Syrian regime.

CBSA claimed that Kalai had made false statements to Citizenship and Immigration Canada about his work history and was improperly granted a Canadian Permanent Resident Card.

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The investigation ultimately culminated with investigators executing warrants in December 2016 to search Kalai’s home on Young Avenue as well as his office, and to seize electronic devices.

CBSA laid the charges of violating sanctions against Kalai in June 2018.

Affidavits filed in May 2018 note that the Canada Revenue Agency is conducting its own investigation of Kalai for tax evasion and failure to report income.

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Nesbitt says that Kalai’s trial will be unique, with only one person having been prosecuted under SEMA since it was introduced in 1992.

“It was for a shipment to Iran which was sanctioned at the time and it resulted in a guilty plea and a small fine for a multi-million dollar company,” said Nesbitt.

“It’s a regime that we have almost never used in practice.”

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Even Nesbitt doesn’t have an answer to why that is.

“We’re going to see all of that for the first time, whether we have the capacity to marshal the evidence, whether the evidence will be sufficient to make up the case,” he said.

Pizzo said he doesn’t think it matters whether “this is the first prosecution under the SEMA Syria regulations, other than that the Act and Regulations in question in this case have never been legally interpreted before.”

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The Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) declined to discuss its approach to the relatively novel case but said that the regulations are “meant to be primarily persuasive and preventive in nature.”

“As the matter involving Mr. Kalai remains before the courts, we have no further information to provide,” said Nathalie Houle, a spokesperson for the PPSC.

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Kalai has also been placed under sanctions by the European Union.

Last January, the European Union (EU) accused Kalai of violating its economic sanctions on Syria.

As a result, he was also added to a list of individuals and companies that have had their assets frozen and a travel ban applied due to their dealings with the Assad regime.

The EU describes Kalai as being a “leading businessperson operating in Syria with significant investments in the construction industry.”

“[Nader Kalai] benefits from and/or supports the regime through his business activities.”

Kalai’s trial is set to be heard by a judge alone over three days beginning May 25, 2020.