Thursday, May 23, 2013

Eritrea still collecting money in Canada for military regime: Documents | Toronto Star

Canada is investigating allegations that Eritrea's consulate in Toronto has continued to solicit money from Eritrean-Canadians despite the government's warnings to stop.
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The Eritrean government is still collecting taxes from expatriates in Canada to bankroll its military regime, despite being warned by the Department of Foreign Affairs to stop, a human rights group alleges.
New documents appear to show the Consulate General of Eritrea in Toronto has been imposing a 2 per cent income tax and a national defence fee of up to $500 on Eritrean-Canadians as recently as January.
According to the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Canada, the tax and fee are collected in exchange for standard documents such as visas, passports or birth certificates.
Canada warned Eritrea in September to either stop soliciting the payments or recall its consul, Semere Ghebremariam O. Micael. The Eritrean Foreign Ministry responded in writing that it would comply.
The fees are illegal due to United Nations Security Council sanctions against the Northeast African country. Eritrea is among the most militarized nations in Africa and a supporter of Al Shabab, the Somali-based terror group.
But the human rights group says the consulate did not stop collecting the taxes, as shown by forms issued in November and January that appear to be requesting payment.
The only change that seems to have been made since September is that money no longer changes hands at the consulate; recipients of the forms are told to transfer funds to a German bank account.
David Matas, senior counsel for the human rights group, said the consulate is attempting to use a loophole to continue imposing the fees.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re doing indirectly the same thing they were told not to do directly,” he said. “They should be evicted. They were warned and they didn’t comply.”
But Ahmed Iman, head of consular affairs at the Eritrean consulate, said it had ended its practice of requesting tax payment in exchange for standard documents.
Since September, the consulate has sought payment only from those who wish to do business in Eritrea — including those looking to inherit, buy or sell property — because it is the country’s law, he said.
“You want to do business, you must obey the rules of the country,” he said. “It’s an obligation to all Eritreans. This country is starting from zero, from scratch. The money is for helping the people.”
Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Consular officials have long claimed the fees are not used to fund the military, but to build schools and hospitals in the impoverished country.
Iman added that the consulate has never used scare tactics to convince expatriates to pay, despite a UN report in July that said Eritrean-Canadians feared arrest or threats to their family in Eritrea if they refused.
Ghezae Hagos, who speaks for the Manitoba chapter of the human rights group, called Iman’s claims “outright lies.”
He said that many Eritrean-Canadians had been “shaken down” for money even if they had no business in the nation. Hagos urged the Canadian government to close the consulate immediately.
“The issue is not about the consulate office anymore, which has continued to openly and aggressively defy Canada. It is about the resolve of the Canadian government,” he said.
One Eritrean expatriate in Toronto, who asked not to be named out of fear, said he was forced to pay the tax in late September so that his sister in Eritrea could have her business licence renewed.
“They find out if you have family living out of the country so they can collect as much money as possible,” he said through a translator.
The Department of Foreign Affairs website warns expatriates against paying taxes to the Eritrean government. “Payments made in support of military and similar activities . . . may be prohibited under Canadian sanctions,” it states.
Rick Roth, Baird’s press secretary, said the department is investigating the new allegations and has communicated its concerns to the Eritrean government both in Eritrea and Ottawa.
“We take these allegations very seriously, and are currently working to determine if the Eritrean consulate is continuing to disregard Canadian law,” he said. “These actions, if true, will have repercussions. We expect the Eritrean government not to test our resolve.”


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