Death penalty concerns delay extradition from Thailand for man held 1,200 days in British Columbia custody

A man wanted for murder in Thailand has asked to be released as Canadian officials seek assurances that he will not face the death penalty if he is extradited, a process that has already dragged on for nearly two years.

The caseheard last month in the British Columbia Supreme Court, highlights the constitutional obligations and delicate diplomacy involved in Canada’s extradition system.

The defendant, who goes by the name Mzwake Memela but goes by the name Prince Michael Obi, was arrested after arriving in Canada in 2019 and, according to his lawyer, has been in the North Fraser Pre-Trial Center for approximately 1,200 days.

Twice Obi has asked to be released, first in 2021 and then again in 2022, arguing that the government lacks the “sufficient cause” required by the Extradition Act to keep him in detention, but both times his requests have been rejected.

During Obi’s latest attempt, Judge Heather MacNaughton reiterated that his prolonged detention has been the result of the Justice Department’s continued work to ensure he does not face capital punishment, something she said officials are “constitutionally required to do” before to transfer custody, and it is “for the benefit of Mr. Obi”.

Obi is charged with the murder of Susama Ruenrit, a woman who was found dead of suffocation in a Bangkok hotel room in March 2019. There are 35 capital offenses in Thailand, including murder.

“Seeking a satisfactory death penalty warrant amounts to ‘sufficient cause’ against Mr. Obi’s release,” MacNaughton wrote in his decision, which was published online this week.

Canada abolished the death penalty, for the most part, in 1976, some 14 years after the country’s last execution. Capital punishment for members of the armed forces was subsequently abolished in 1998.

Then Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that it would be unconstitutional to extradite two men accused of a brutal triple murder to the United States without a guarantee that they would not face state execution.

Those terms have since been enshrined in the extradition treaty between the two countries, but the situation is much more complicated with Thailand.

In Obi’s case, the court heard that Canada’s attorney general first requested a death penalty guarantee via diplomatic note in July 2020, and one was provided by Thai authorities in September of that year.

However, Canadian officials were not satisfied with the initial assurance provided by Thailand, and further diplomatic notes were exchanged in October 2020 and April 2021.

With the Canadian government still unconvinced, there were additional communications with Thailand through June 2021, the court heard, and more in July that also involved Global Affairs Canada and the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Monthly communications continued through March 2022, culminating in two virtual meetings and eventually a third death penalty guarantee from Thailand in May. Thai authorities also promised that Obi, if he is ultimately convicted, would receive credit for the time he spent in Canadian custody.

In his latest request for release, Obi argued that Canada has a “long history” of requesting and receiving such guarantees without hindering extradition for so long, though he mainly pointed to cases involving the US.

MacNaughton noted that prior to Obi’s extradition proceedings, Canada received a satisfactory death penalty guarantee from Thailand in “only one case”.

He cited a different extradition process involving Thailand that lasted about a decade, from 2001 to 2011, and was blocked in part by a 2006 military coup in the Southeast Asian nation that added to existing uncertainties.

In the end, Canada agreed to extradite the defendants without guarantees, but with numerous reasons believe that he would not face the death penalty.

“Thailand did not have national legislation at that time authorizing guarantees of the death penalty,” MacNaughton noted in his decision. “This doesn’t seem to have changed.”

The judge previously described the evidence against Obi in Ruenrit’s murder as “totally circumstantial” but found that this had nothing to do with the process. For now, that leaves him in limbo in the care of BC Corrections.

“While diplomatic discussions about the death penalty guarantee are ongoing between Canada and Thailand, Mr. Obi’s circumstances do not warrant relief,” MacNaughton wrote.

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