Convicted former RCMP officer, facing decades in prison, receives support from Kovrig

OTAWA –

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was detained for years in China, is among those urging a judge to avoid a harsh prison sentence for Cameron Jay Ortis, convicted of violating Canada’s secrets law.

In a letter filed in Ontario Superior Court, Kovrig, a former professional acquaintance of the former RCMP intelligence officer, says leaving Ortis “to rot in a prison cell for purposes of deterrence and retribution” strikes him as “an exercise of gratuitous cruelty”. “

Kovrig, who spent more than 1,000 days in Chinese custody, says in the letter that only those who have experienced prolonged confinement can truly appreciate the terrible toll it takes on a person.

“The mental horror is even more acute for an individual like Cameron, blessed as he is with great intelligence and a curious mind, someone accustomed to doing relevant, impactful and intellectually demanding work,” Kovrig writes.

He suggests “more restorative means of justice”, such as supervised and monitored activities such as research, teaching or problem solving through which Ortis could repay his debt to society, rather than “sitting in a prison cell doing time or doing menial jobs.”

Ortis, 51, headed the RCMP’s Operations Investigation group, which gathered and developed classified information on cybercriminals, terrorist cells and transnational criminal networks.

The Crown argued at a hearing Thursday that Ortis, convicted in November of violating the Security of Information Act, should be sentenced to decades behind bars.

Prosecutor Judy Kliewer told Judge Robert Maranger that the sentence should send a message to the public and Canada’s partners that revealing classified material has consequences.

“His conduct betrayed the RCMP,” he said. “It endangers the safety of Canadians.”

Jon Doody, Ortis’ attorney, argued that his client, who has no criminal record, should simply be sentenced to the time he has already served since his arrest in September 2019.

Ortis has exhausted his savings, has no assets and will be forever scarred by the criminal case, Doody told the judge. “He has lost everything.”

Maranger said he would consider the arguments and sentence Ortis on February 7.

In November, jurors found Ortis guilty of three counts of violating the confidentiality law and one count of attempting to do so.

Each of these charges is punishable by a maximum of 14 years in prison.

Kliewer said Thursday that the Crown is seeking maximum consecutive sentences for the first two counts of violating the secrecy law, amounting to 28 years in prison. The Crown wants sentences to be served simultaneously for the two remaining offenses related to the secret law.

The jury also found Ortis guilty of breach of trust and fraudulent use of a computer system. The Crown is also seeking concurrent sentences for these offences.

Since the Crown seeks a blanket sentence for multiple offences, the “totality principle” would require the judge to ensure that the blanket punishment is not excessive.

The Crown says a sentence for Ortis in the range of 22 to 25 years would be appropriate, when considering this principle.

Ortis pleaded not guilty in court to all charges, including violating the confidentiality law by disclosing classified information to three persons of interest to the police in 2015 and attempting to do so in a fourth instance.

Ortis testified that he did not betray the RCMP. Rather, he offered classified material to targets in an attempt to get them to use an online encryption service created by an allied intelligence agency to spy on adversaries.

The Crown argued that Ortis had no authority to disclose classified material and was not doing so as part of a legitimate undercover operation.

Ortis’ position entrusted him with the keys to the most sensitive information the RCMP had access to at the time, Kliewer told the court Thursday.

It deserves a ruling that shows the public and Canada’s international partners that the system meant to protect information “has strength,” he said.

Ortis was briefly released on bail following his arrest in late 2019, before being returned to an Ottawa jail for more than three years. He was granted bail again under strict conditions in December 2022 while awaiting a trial that took place last fall.

Applying pre-sentence rules, the Crown says Ortis should be given five years and four months.

Doody recounted the unusual difficulties Ortis experienced while in custody due to the nature of the case and presented a different explanation.

He said Ortis spent years alone in protective custody, contracted COVID-19 and was repeatedly strip-searched and x-rayed while reviewing paperwork related to his case at a secure off-site facility.

Ultimately, Doody argued that Ortis should be sentenced to seven years and two months, the amount of time he should be credited with having served.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2024.

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