The Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) expressed its deep disappointment today with the Supreme Court of Canada decision to give immunity to foreign governments and their officials who commit torture. CCIJ said it will continue to call on Parliament to provide Canadian torture survivors the opportunity to seek justice in Canadian courts.

The ruling upheld a Quebec Court of Appeal judgment that applied Canada’s State Immunity Act (SIA) to Stephan Kazemi’s lawsuit against Iran and Iranian officials for the torture, rape and murder of his mother, Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in Teheran in 2003. To date, no one has been held accountable for her torture and death, and today’s ruling effectively terminates Kazemi’s case in Canada.

“It is disheartening that the Supreme Court of Canada felt constrained by theState Immunity Act and obligated to block access to justice in this case,” said CCIJ’s Legal Director, Matt Eisenbrandt. “We had hoped the court’s ruling would be more responsive to the growing need of families and survivors to obtain redress but now, if Parliament doesn’t act, Canadian torture survivors will likely never achieve justice,” he added.

Justice LeBel, writing for the court, was clear that the responsibility for creating an exception to immunity lies with Parliament. The Canadian government has changed the SIA before to address abuses. In 2013, Parliament passed an amendment to the SIA – the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act – that removed immunity for states that support terrorism. CCIJ and others have previously called on Parliament to do the same for lawsuits involving torture as well as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. These abuses are already illegal under Canadian law and the Canadian government has authority to criminally prosecute those who commit them.

“It has always been somewhat shocking to see Canadian government lawyers standing on the same side of the court room as Iran to argue against Stephan Kazemi’s right to hold someone accountable for his mother’s torture and death,” said CCIJ’s Executive Director, Jayne Stoyles. “They have done that because of the SIA.” “Most individual officials have already been stripped of immunity in criminal cases involving the most serious international crimes,” she added, “yet criminal cases in Canada and internationally are often not feasible and civil lawsuits therefore provide an important avenue for redress.”

The Kazemi case is not unique in Canada. Canadian courts gave Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime immunity when Maher Arar pursued a civil lawsuit for his torture. Other Canadians have also experienced torture or other atrocity crimes but have been unable to pursue civil remedies because of the SIA.

“Even though I was already a Canadian citizen when I was tortured, I’ve had to look outside Canada to seek redress against those responsible for my three-year imprisonment in Sri Lanka,” said Roy Samathanam, a Tamil-Canadian torture survivor and CCIJ client. Knowing that the SIA would likely block a lawsuit against Sri Lanka in Canada, he instead filed a complaint last year with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. “It is a shame that Canadian courts are closed to Canadians who have suffered atrocities, preventing us from ever getting justice and fully recovering from the abuses we have endured,” he added.

CCIJ was an intervener in the Kazemi case at all levels of court and was represented at the Supreme Court of Canada by John Terry and Sarah Shody of Torys LLP.

10 October 2014, Ottawa


For comment:

(English) Matt Eisenbrandt, Legal Director, Canadian Centre for International Justice: 604-569-1778, meisenbrandt@ccij.ca

(French, English) Dr. François Larocque, CCIJ advisor and counsel to intervener Amnistie Internationale (Section Canada Francophone): 613-894-4783, FrancoisLarocque@uOttawa.ca

For more information on the Kazemi case, please our case page