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Journalist’s work uncovers systemic gaps

Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi is the subject of a warrant so he can face charges of sexual assault, assault, forcible confinement, uttering threats, criminal harassment, dangerous driving and assault with a weapon. His former lawyer says he left the country, something a local immigration attorney says would be impossible without help from the Saudi embassy. File/Chronicle Herald
Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi is the subject of a warrant so he can face charges of sexual assault, assault, forcible confinement, uttering threats, criminal harassment, dangerous driving and assault with a weapon. His former lawyer says he left the country, something a local immigration attorney says would be impossible without help from the Saudi embassy. File/Chronicle Herald - Steve Bartlett

After an exhaustive search for answers, Aaron Beswick doesn’t know if there’s anywhere else to look.

Since January, the Chronicle Herald journalist has tried to determine how often foreign embassies help their citizens flee Canada’s justice system.

He’s had no luck.

“A big regret is not being able to quantify it,” he admits.

It’s an important story.

Mohammed Zuraibi Alzoabi piqued Beswick’s interest in it.

The international student from Saudi Arabia forfeited $42,500 in bail and fled Canada, as he faced a slew of charges in Cape Breton.

The alleged offences include sexual assault, assault, forcible confinement, uttering threats, criminal harassment, dangerous driving and assault with a weapon.

Alzoabi also owes $68,967 in traffic fines.

With police holding Alzoabi’s passport, an immigration lawyer said it should be impossible for him to leave Canada unless Saudi Arabia provided travel documents.

That launched Beswick’s journalistic journey.

He wanted to know more about Alzoabi, what Ottawa was doing, and how frequently people facing charges fled.

He went to Sydney, knocking on doors of Alzoabi’s former neighbours and employers for more info.

He sent numerous inquiries to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

And he contacted prosecutions in each province as well as every law school and law society in Canada to determine how often this happened.

Beswick eventually tracked Alzoabi down, and on FaceTime, asked if he was still in Canada.

“Probably not,” Alzoabi said. “… I can’t tell you that.”

He also told Beswick the charges were unfair and that he wouldn’t be answering to them.

With scant response from Foreign Affairs, Beswick filed an access to information request to see what kind of departmental discussion had resulted from his emails.

He received 87 heavily-redacted pages and discovered no one in Foreign Affairs contacted the Saudi embassy.

Minister Chrystia Freeland had previously told reporters her department was investigating.

Through his other efforts, Beswick also learned no provinces, law schools or law societies were tracking how often people from other countries were fleeing charges.

Web searching revealed the Oregonian/Oregon Live newspaper uncovered five cases where Saudis had escaped prosecution in that American state.

With the help of court reporter Steve Bruce, he found two other instances in the Herald archives, one involving a Saudi Arabian and another a Chinese man.

All this has Beswick thinking the problem is more widespread across Canada.

The lack of federal action on Alzoabi, that no bureaucrat even contacted the Saudi Arabian embassy, puzzles the reporter.

“That’s their job, and they are paid well to do it.”

Beswick has written four stories on Alzoabi and fears an anti-immigration group might use his words to further their narrative.

He’s quick to point out there are thousands of international students in Nova Scotia each year and those who commit crimes are the exception.

“These are isolated cases,” he stresses, noting he found three over a decade and there are local students who get into trouble too.

It surprises Beswick that the issue of embassies helping their citizens avoid justice hasn’t been taken up by a politician.

If the public is concerned, he suggests letting their MP know.

He also wonders what court reporters across Canada would find if they searched for instances of people from other countries forfeiting bail and fleeing.

Beswick has done some impressive journalism trying to find answers for these stories.

It’s the kind of effort reporters undertake when they see a gap in the system, people being wronged, or that someone needs to be held accountable.

But right now, after all he’s put into it, Beswick admits he doesn’t know what else he can do to get answers.

Has he reached a dead end? Hopefully not, because there is clearly a problem.

The victims are Beswick’s main concern. Mine too.

“Everyone is busy and no one is flagging it, but meanwhile,” Beswick says, “you do have people who suffer very real additional harm on top of the harm they’ve already been put through when people flee the jurisdiction and when their federal government shows no interest in sticking up for them.”

Steve Bartlett is senior managing editor of SaltWire Network. Reach him at steve.bartlett@thetelegram.com.

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