Thank you, Alex.
Good afternoon, everyone. I am thankful and privileged that I have been given the chance to share my first-hand experience with you, and I would have preferred to be there in person.
I started drafting parts of the protection charter in prison after a careful, constructive assessment of the situation. I'm honoured to present you with the first-hand experience that led me to pursue this call for reform and, most specifically, an urgent call to enshrine a law that obligates the right to consular assistance and equal treatment in Canadian law.
As a journalist, I was caught up in a security sweep at a very turbulent time in Egypt, in 2013, when the government was in a violent conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group designated as terrorist by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Syria, and Russia. I faced trumped-up charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and accusations of fabricating news to serve their agenda.
I spent over a month in solitary with a broken shoulder, in a maximum security prison, and was incarcerated with terrorists and Islamic extremists who were considered enemies of the state. I am very grateful for the intervention of the Canadian consular team at the time, who visited me in my place of detention and communicated with my family.
Unfortunately, it became quickly evident that the case was of a complicated political nature and based on geopolitical score-settling between regional powers. The intervention of the embassy to move me to a hospital to get the proper medical care for my broken shoulder was not successful. There was a malunion in my shoulder bone, as I continued to sleep on the floor in solitary confinement and was transported in handcuffs many times in uncomfortable positions in police vehicles while my shoulder was broken.
I was only transferred to the hospital seven months later, where I underwent surgery, after my unjust seven-year sentence, and today I continue to live with a permanent disability, a fate I've accepted. I consider myself lucky as I watch other journalists and Canadian citizens beheaded at the hands of Islamic extremists in many parts of the world.
I understand that there is a protocol in place, but I am also convinced that our previous prime minister could have alleviated and improved my treatment in prison had the highest order of the government been obligated to intervene effectively and swiftly from the start and to communicate with the highest order in Egypt.
Through my experience as a journalist, a human rights defender with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a former political prisoner, I know that an immediate and effective intervention from the government when a Canadian is detained abroad could really mean life or death. Torture and disappearance of prisoners usually happens in the first hours and days of the incarceration. A swift and powerful intervention from the highest order of the government, without political, trade, or other considerations, could save a life.
Let us not forget the case of Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi, who was raped and killed in Evin prison in Iran, and the case of the academic Kavous Emami, who died a questionable death this week, also in an Iranian prison.
Many observers were critical of the intervention process during my case, because some felt there was discrimination in the level of consular support I received in comparison to other cases in the past. Right or wrong, I believe that this perception and uncertainty—and the fear I faced—which surely many of the hundreds of Canadians detained abroad experience today, can be eliminated when there is a law set in stone: legislation that obligates the government to follow specific guidelines of intervention so that it is not left to the discretion of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Uncertainty and fear are every prisoner's nightmare. Is the government going to bat for me hard enough? Am I on the agenda on the next trip? Legislation would end this dilemma and allow every Canadian leader to operate relieved of red tape and any political concerns of the case at hand.
During the course of my multiple-decade career in the field, I have not witnessed such an unprecedented attack on journalists and human rights defenders as we are seeing today, with more than 250 journalists behind bars worldwide.
Some Canadians have lost their lives and/or remain behind bars due to this increasing danger. That is why article 4 of the protection charter calls on Canada to put new mechanisms in place to better protect journalists abroad.
Finally, I will always remember a conversation with my former lawyer, Amal Clooney, during the course of the two-year battle for freedom, and how frustrated I was. I was anxious to receive more information from the government in Ottawa about their efforts, and had to worry about access to information and privacy laws, or about the government being simply too busy. She would say that there was no obligation, and then continue her mission to free me.
In this age of terrorism and the vague laws that I experienced during my trial, as well as increasing threats to Canadians travelling abroad, I believe that establishing the position of an independent officer of Parliament, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is extremely essential to providing equal consular assistance and advocacy on behalf of fellow citizens.
I have joined dozens of human rights advocates and NGOs in a recent campaign calling on the United Nations to appoint a special representative who deals specifically with the safety of journalists because of similar concerns that the attack and jailing of innocent journalists doing their job is unprecedented and requires more attention and a specific office that will virtually save lives. I believe this is the same case, when we call for the appointment of a special representative to deal with consular affairs, an independent officer.
Once again, I am privileged enough to speak worldwide about my experiences as a journalist and former prisoner through many lectures in Canadian universities. Specifically, students always ask me the same question—why do the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and many countries in the EU have some sort of legislation that obligates the government to intervene while Canada doesn't? I can't answer that. But I always tell them that Canada remains a model to the world when it comes to education, democracy, inclusion, and diversity. So I am extremely excited to continue to pursue this call for reform and, hopefully, provide better protection for fellow Canadians abroad.
Thank you very much.