Ottawa, 24 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International criminals view Canada as a "destination of choice" but they are not having much luck getting into the country due to the Organized Crime Division of the Canadian Immigration Department.
Michel Gagne, director of the special unit, says that in the last four years, Canadian immigration officials have barred nearly 1,000 known -- or suspected -- Russian mobsters and Asian Triad members from entering the country.
The Organized Crime Division has established a data-bank on seven-thousand suspected criminals and their families. The data-bank contains aliases, physical descriptions, known and suspected criminal activities, associations and links to various criminal organizations of 7,000 suspected criminals, as well as their parents, wives and children.
Under Canada's Immigration Act, if officials have "reasonable grounds to believe" applicants are connected to organized crime, entry to the country can be denied.
Gagne says "we don't have to show that the person participated in a crime, just that the person is a member of an organized crime group. We are working on the basis that when people knowingly associate with criminal groups that the burden of proof is on them to show it would not be detrimental to Canada to allow them in."
The special immigration unit works closely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada's federal police force), the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (the national intelligence agency), Interpol "and law enforcement officials from Kyiv to New York to Hong Kong," says Gagne. Immigration officers at Canadian diplomatic missions around the world have access to the data-bank as they screen visitors and would-be immigrants. If a name in the data-bank shows up, Gagne's 10-member unit is notified immediately.
Using this system, Canada has, since 1994, denied visas to 807 known or suspected Russian mobsters -- out of a total of 44,665 visas issued to Russians. Gagne says that last year, there were about 22,000 "checks" carried out of Russians, their companies, their Canadian hosts and companies and that 180 Russians were refused visitor's visas because of suspected criminal connections.
He says: "now that the borders are open, Russians are traveling more and the bad elements are coming with them. We are not targeting every Russian. There has to be a reason we'd look at them in depth." He points out that "there has been a 625 percent increase in the number of cases of Russians applying for visitor's visas whose names get referred to the unit. Every week we have someone."
Among the Organized Crime Division's "major victories," says Gagne, is Vyacheslav Sliva, one of Russia's most important organized crime figures, a "thief-in-law," a secret society of hundreds of Russian criminals. He had arrived in Canada in 1994 on a visitor's visa and settled in Toronto, Canada's largest city and home to thousands of Russian emigres. He was deported in June, 1997 after a police investigation and wire taps on his telephone linked him to Vyacheslav Ivankov, a Russian mob boss currently in jail in New York for conspiracy offenses. The two are also related by marriage.
Another "thief-in-law," Vatchagan Petrossov, the alleged head of the Russian mob in Denver, Colorado was denied a visitor's visa to Canada in June, 1996.
Currently, Gagne's staff is investigating the case of a man said to be one of the wealthiest people in Russia, Michael Cherney. He has applied to immigrate to Canada with his family. Gagne says that this past June a would-be Russian immigrant arrived at Toronto's Pearson Airport. His name showed up in the data-bank and he "ended up being interviewed by immigration and police officers for 11 hours. After 800 or so questions, he gave up, withdrew his application and flew home. He was a 'thief-in-law.'"
Gagne says that after being questioned about their alleged involvement in organized crime groups, "many simply abandon their bid" to come to Canada. Those who are turned down overseas can appeal the decision to Canada's Federal Court or, he says, "they can try to convince the Minister of Immigration that their presence will not be detrimental to Canada's national interests." Applicants who are in Canada at the time of their rejection have hearings with immigration adjudicators who decide whether there are reasonable grounds to believe the person belongs to an organized criminal group. While the hearings are held in public, the "reasonable grounds" can be kept secret at the discretion of immigration officials.
Gagne says that most applicants don't make it that far. He says: "Many of those who are questioned at the border abandon their application because they don't relish the publicity. It makes them lose face and their organization looks bad." He concludes by pointing out that about 100 million people crossed Canada's borders last year "which makes identifying those with criminal connections an exercise in quick judgment and precision and a lot of help from the data-bank."