A former Haitian prime minister is accusing Canada of using unverified Google searches to “target” him and other political elites in a case that illustrates the lack of transparency in Canada’s sanctions regime.
“This is a scandal, and I intend to fight it for my honour and my dignity,” Laurent Lamothe told The Canadian Press in an interview from his home in Miami.
Canada sanctioned Lamothe last November, alleging he facilitated gang activity in Haiti, a charge he vehemently denies.
Lamothe said he asked Global Affairs Canada multiple times for the evidence they used to determine had any gang involvement. He claims the department sent him two articles, both found through Google, and neither of them mentioned his name.
Lamothe declined to provide copies of the articles, saying his lawyer advised him against it. Global Affairs Canada would not comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing court challenge.
“You want to destroy my life, based on a false narrative? That’s not Canadian,” Lamothe said.
“If your process is based on Google, then that becomes a dangerous process that can hurt Haiti, rather than help.”
In the past year, Canada has sanctioned thousands of people in connection with human-rights breaches in countries like Russia, Iran and Haiti.
Using the Special Economic Measures Act, the government has frozen funds and banned travel to Canada for 17 political and economic elites it accuses of contributing to the rise of armed groups in Haiti.
The Caribbean country has been in chaos for months, with violent gangs warring in Port-au-Prince, leading to widespread sexual assault and a breakdown in access to food and medical care.
Lamothe said he played no part in sowing the chaos and he hasn’t visited his country in the past three years. He claims to have been a “nightmare” for gangs during his time in office from 2012 to 2014.
He argued structural problems and poorly executed reforms have fuelled the gang crisis. In December, he filed an application for the Federal Court to review his sanctioning.
Under sanctions legislation, people can ask the minister for a revision, and a month after receiving a refusal, they can ask Federal Court to review the case.
Michael Nesbitt, a University of Calgary law professor who specializes in Canada’s sanctions regime, isn’t sure if anyone’s succeeded through either pathway.
“I can’t think of a meaningful challenge, if there has been one,” he said.
Global Affairs Canada did not answer questions about how many times people have successfully overturned sanctions, citing “privacy considerations.” The department similarly declined to arrange an interview with any officials.
“When implementing sanctions, the Government of Canada complies with all applicable legal frameworks, both domestic and international,” spokeswoman Sabrina Williams wrote in an email.
“The sanctions that Canada has imposed are intended to stop the flow of illicit funds and weapons and weaken and disable criminal gangs,” she wrote, adding that the listings are based on unspecified “credible information.”
In 2018, under a separate sanctions law, Ukrainian politician Andriy Portnov unsuccessfully asked Federal Court to provide the materials used to justify freezing his assets. Ottawa argued the documents should be withheld under laws that shield sensitive information relating to international relations, or which constitute advice or recommendations to cabinet.
In 2021, Federal Court tossed out an application by Venezuelan politician Rangel Gomez, who had argued that Ottawa violated procedural fairness by not giving him enough of an explanation for his sanctioning.
A judge deemed it sufficient that Global Affairs Canada gave Gomez a list of media reports accusing his government of allowing trafficking and smuggling at mine sites, and accusing him of accepting bribes.
Meanwhile in 2019, Canada voluntarily delisted Venezuela’s former spy chief, Manuel Cristopher Figuera, because Figuera joined an uprising against dictator Nicolas Maduro, which ultimately failed.
Experts like Nesbitt say Canada does a poor job explaining the grounds it uses to list people and how they can clear their name.
Britain publishes a summary of what every sanctioned person stands accused of, and the U.S. issues guidance on how sanctions work and on what grounds people can contest a sanction.
William Pellerin, a trade lawyer with the firm McMillan LLP, said the lack of transparency means the department gets a flurry of requests from people trying to clear their name, and companies looking for exemptions or clarity.
“We’re the only Western country that lacks such guidance,” he said.
Julia Webster, a lawyer specializing in sanctions with the firm Baker McKenzie, said the policies are essentially ad hoc and have no deadlines.
“It’s an administrative procedure that doesn’t really have any process set out,” she said.
In fact, it’s cases like Lamothe’s that end up having judges set the rules, Webster said.
“It’s really a question of how much discretion the minister has, how much deference the courts will pay to the minister’s decision.”
In January, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, said Ottawa had been sharing confidential dossiers about Haiti’s elites in a bid to convince countries like France to sanction those only targeted by Canada.
That evidence is not shared with the public, and Rae suggested doing so might breach Canadian law.
The government had been frustrated with a slow-moving UN process that has only listed a single person on a global sanctions listed related to Haiti since it was put in place last October.
Lamothe served as prime minister under the presidency of Michel Martelly, who is among numerous members of the PHTK political party accused of gang links. He insisted he’s not a member of that party.
“I am a victim of this policy of targeting,” he said in French. He noted that most of the people sanctioned by Canada have opposed Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was installed with the support of countries like Canada without an election after the 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moise, who led the PHTK.
“It is political targeting aimed at eliminating an entire class of Haitian politicians to favour another class, under the false pretext of association with gangs,” Lamothe alleged in French.
The Liberals have insisted they’re not using sanctions to favour any political party.
Lamothe said he’s contesting the sanctions to clear his name, and he argues Canada’s approach will undermine finding a solution to the crisis in Haiti by deepening the political divide.
“It’s a recipe for disaster, actually.”
— With files from Emilie Bergeron