POLITICS

Mexican journalist in B.C. fears for life if deported after exposing corruption

01/19/2012 02:18 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - Her voice is strained as Karla Ramirez recounts seeing the butt of a gun, a man telling her she'd better be careful or her body might turn up in an empty lot.

Yet she proceeds to name names, defiantly alleging corruption in the highest echelons of a Mexican government ministry that she says she unearthed while working there as a journalist.

"Names are here," she said, thumbing through her book The Talent of Charlatans, at a news conference Thursday.

The book was written and published with the help of Vancouver's University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University last July.

"I'm talking about prestigious people, I'm not talking about drug dealers," she said. "But at the end, they cover everything. The story is here."

The 38-year-old mother of two baby girls fled to Canada and sought asylum in 2008 after blowing the whistle on what she said were pocket-padding officials in her native country.

But her refugee application has been denied, and she's now pleading with the federal government to allow her to stay in Surrey, B.C. on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Publicizing her allegations has sent a wave of threats her way, though on Wednesday she was leveraging the tools she knows best to create support.

"Because the truth, the voice, the story, the pen — and of course the evidence — is all I have to protect myself and my family," she told reporters. "I am here because I believe in a better world."

Ramirez, who uses the pen name Karla Lottini, outlined in her book schemes by officials in Mexico's cultural ministry to steal public money.

She said she has evidence that funds were diverted after paying ghost workers for jobs. She also discovered employees were being illegally hired as part-time freelancers, and then being forced to work eight-hour days without medical benefits.

Such allegations prompted new threats to reach her by email, and that changes the facts and urgency of her case even since she was denied refugee status in 2010, she said.

"Karla is exactly the type of person that our refugee system is supposed to protect," said one of her lawyers, Lobat Sadrehashemi. "She believes with all her being that it is her duty to expose the corruption, or else it will just continue."

A report released by PEN Canada last June found that Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world to be a journalist, with nearly 70 killed over the past five years.

The group, which advocates for freedom of expression, called on the Conservative government to place human rights protection of Mexican media workers on the foreign policy agenda.

Johanne Nadeau, a spokeswoman with the federal immigration ministry, said in an email Canada's refugee system is considered "one of the fairest and most generous in the world" and meets Canadian and international legal obligations.

"All refugee claimants in Canada have the right to due process, and when they have exhausted all legal avenues, we expect them to respect our laws and leave Canada," she said, noting she couldn't comment further on the case.

A federal court dismissed an application by Ramirez for judicial review after her refugee claim was denied. At the time, an adjudicator found she didn't have a well-founded fear of persecution. A request for review of the denial of her pre-removal risk assessment is still before the courts.

Nadeau said the decision as to whether a person can stay on humanitarian grounds is exceptional and discretionary. Factors that are considered include the best interests of children who might be affected, ties in Canada and factors related to the country of origin.

A person can be deported from Canada even while an application on those grounds is being considered, she said.

Ramirez has not been given a deportation date.

Her other lawyer, Shane Molyneaux, said he's still hopeful the woman will be permitted to stay.

"The facts are strong, I think the evidence is strong and I think the facts have changed substantially since the refusal of the refugee decision," he said, adding she has received numerous letters of support from academics and B.C. union and municipal officials.

Melissa Anderson, with the Immigration and Refugee Board, said in an email the acceptance rate of refugee protection claims has been historically low, rarely creeping above 25 per cent or dropping below 10 per cent. Numbers for the first three quarters of 2011 put the acceptance rate at 17 per cent.

"This is the highest it has been since 2006," Anderson said.

Alexander Dawson, director of Latin American Studies with SFU, said the federal government should act in a less restrictive manner in cases like Ramirez's.

"Vendettas that are unrelated to the drug war are often carried out with complete impunity under its cover," he said in a letter. "This is why I believe (her) claim is credible."