The Very Strange Case of Hussein Ali Sumaida

A double agent for Saddam’s notorious Mukhabarat and Israel’s Mossad has returned to Canada. How did he get here? Did Canada once deliver him into torture? And has Sumaida finally found sanctuary?

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Hussein Ali Sumaida is back.

The bald, stocky, clean-shaven, forty-two-year-old, self-confessed spy sits in his lawyer’s Toronto office sporting faded designer jeans, a white T-shirt, and a blue cotton jacket. Sumaida is relaxed, flashing an engaging smile as he begins to recall playing both sides of the espionage divide, having worked as an operative for former dictator Saddam Hussein’s ruthless intelligence service and for Israel’s espionage agency, the Mossad.

But the Iraqi-born double agent isn’t supposed to be in Canada.

In a split decision of sorts, this nation’s gatekeepers, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), ruled in 1991 that while Sumaida would likely be persecuted if sent back to Iraq or his adopted Tunisia, the more odious aspects of his espionage career made him complicit in crimes against humanity and therefore excluded from refugee status.

The Canadian government faced a quandary: it wanted Sumaida out, but where to ship him? The solution arrived in 2004 when Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) ruled that Sumaida would not be at risk of torture, death, cruelty, or punishment in Tunisia. With its decision, after a thirteen-year legal wrangle, Ottawa deported the married father of three to Tunis in September 2005. Canada thought itself finally rid of Hussein Ali Sumaida.

Canada was wrong.

In August 2006, just eleven months after his deportation, Sumaida engineered his return to Toronto. He insists he came back to Canada for a normal life, free of fear and the duplicitous world of spies. “This is [my] last chance,” Sumaida says, with a hint of an accent. “Tunisia will not take me alive.”

Unconvinced, Ottawa ordered the ex-agent back to Tunisia within days of his unexpected return last summer. Sumaida and his lawyer, Rocco Galati, fought the deportation order, and on April 30, 2007, they won a reprieve. In a volte-face, CIC stayed the order and ruled that Sumaida would face persecution if sent back to Tunisia or Iraq.

This latest twist adds another layer to Sumaida’s stranger-than-fiction story. The tale of his time in Tunis and how he masterminded his reappearance in Toronto brims with ambiguity, intrigue, deceit, and accusations that Canadian officials hand-delivered a man into imprisonment without charge and then forgot about him.

“[Canada] said: He’s not our problem. He’s not a Canadian citizen,” says Galati. “We don’t care where he is held.” Now Canada, he insists, must grant his client safe haven. “We can’t deliver non-Canadians to torture.”

Sumaida was born into privilege and wealth in Iraq. His Tunisian-born father, Ali Mahmoud Sumaida, a senior member of Hussein’s Baathist regime, was rewarded with top diplomatic postings in Europe and the US. Growing up, his son enjoyed the lavish by-products of his father’s nomadic lifestyle and, occasionally, the company of the Iraqi dictator’s sons Uday and Qusay.

Like other members of the Iraqi elite, Sumaida was sent to school overseas. In 1983, he attended the University of Salford in England to study computer electronics. There, he grew disenchanted with Hussein’s authoritarian regime and gravitated to al-Da’wah, a Shia Muslim opposition movement. Later, he became convinced that al-Da’wah was determined to establish a theocratic dictatorship in Iraq. So, despite his disdain for Hussein, Sumaida agreed to become a mole for the Iraqi secret police – the notorious Mukhabarat – informing on as many as thirty-five al-Da’wah members active in England. He also provided the Mukhabarat with details of a route that al-Da’wah members used to secretly re-enter Iraq. (In its 1991 ruling, the IRB concluded that Sumaida was a “valuable asset” to the Mukhabarat.)

By 1985, Sumaida, then 20, grew disillusioned with his role in Hussein’s “killing machine,” and to exact some measure of revenge, he contacted the Mossad and began feeding information on two members of the Palestine Liberation Organization in London and Brussels. An Arab collaborating with Israel’s spy service, Sumaida has said, was “akin to a Jew working for the Gestapo.” Nevertheless, his double-dealing satisfied an appetite for intrigue and money. “It was a very fast life,” Sumaida says.

But Sumaida wasn’t done flipping sides. When the Mukhabarat became suspicious that he was dealing with the Mossad, Sumaida “confessed” that he was framed into working for the Israelis. The ploy worked and his life, he says, was spared by Hussein himself on condition that he act as a double agent. Eventually, he returned to Iraq and continued working for the Mukhabarat, in one case helping to broker an arms deal with Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the infamous 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

In the meantime, Sumaida made plans to leave Iraq. He obtained a Tunisian passport (through his father’s citizenship) and travelled to Yemen, where he obtained a Canadian temporary visitor’s visa. Carrying that vital document he arrived in Toronto on April 26, 1990. His long legal journey to remain in Canada had begun.

Sumaida got busy while his quest to find sanctuary in Canada meandered through immigration tribunals and the courts. He married a Christian (who later obtained refugee status in Canada) and they had two children. He built a lucrative leather business in Toronto that financed a home, two cars, and a comfortable life. In 1991, Sumaida co-wrote a bestselling book with Canadian journalist Carole Jerome, recounting his years as a double agent. (Sumaida says he now regrets writing Circle of Fear: A Renegade’s Journey from the Mossad to the Iraqi Secret Service, ruefully calling it “a mistake.”)

On July 9, 1991, an immigration panel ruled that Sumaida was a “credible witness” who had a “credible basis” to make a refugee claim. However, on December 12, 1991, the IRB denied him asylum, concluding that his work for the Mukhabarat might have led to the deaths of Iraqi dissidents. The panel found that while “there is a reasonable chance that [Sumaida] would face persecution should he return to Iraq or Tunisia,” the former spy “personally participated in exposing large numbers of persons and their families to probable torture and execution.” Sumaida acknowledged passing on information but emphatically denied any role in torture or killings. (Sumaida has never been charged with crimes against humanity.)

For the following decade, Sumaida worked to undo the panel’s decision. In November 1995, the Federal Court of Canada gave Sumaida renewed hope when it set aside the IRB’s ruling and ordered the refugee board to review its decision. But after a series of duelling appeals, the Federal Court restored the IRB’s original ruling on January 7, 2000. Later that year, Amnesty International took up his case, insisting that Sumaida would face grave risks if Canada shipped him back to Iraq or Tunisia. The appeal had little effect. On December 6, 2004, CIC concluded that Sumaida wasn’t at risk if he returned to Tunisia and ordered him out of the country immediately.

It wasn’t immediately, but on September 6, 2005, Canada finally got its wish when Sumaida boarded an Alitalia flight, with two immigration officers in tow, destined for Tunisia via Milan. At Toronto’s international airport he bid his new wife – Sumaida divorced his first wife in 2003 – and a newborn son, John Paul, an emotional farewell. The Canadians handed their charge over to Tunisian security officers when they arrived in the capital, Tunis, following the thirteen-hour journey.

With his lawyer nearby and in a calm voice, Sumaida recounts the story of his detention and questioning in detail. He was whisked to a compound about a half-hour’s drive from the airport and ordered to remove his tie, wedding ring, Seiko watch, and belt. He was photographed and fingerprinted. (Amnesty International later reported in an “Urgent Action” alert that Sumaida was “believed to be held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior’s State Security Department . . . and at risk of torture or ill-treatment.”)

Ushered into a larger room, Sumaida was ordered to sit on a wooden chair while several plainclothes officials watched. His hands were secured tightly behind his back with a set of metal handcuffs. A middle-aged, stocky, balding man then entered the room and began questioning him in English about his family and personal history.

The interrogation turned violent, Sumaida says, about half an hour later when his inquisitor began peppering him with questions about his relationship with the Mossad and Israeli intelligence operations in Tunisia. “That’s when it start[ed] to get really messy.”

He was struck on the left side of his head and neck when he was unable to answer the questions, paused, or stuttered. The blows, he says, were delivered with an open hand or clenched fist by a young, dark-haired Tunisian official who was sitting in front of him. “[The blows] kept coming. I started crying. At that moment I felt, that’s it . . . I had that feeling that [I] was going to die.” His inquisitors called him a liar and repeatedly taunted him as a “jasous Yehudi” (Jewish spy). Sumaida suffered a broken tooth and he bled from the nose, ear, and mouth. He recalls tasting the warmth of his blood as it congealed inside his cheeks.

Sumaida believes he was questioned for about twelve hours on his first day in detention. He was then thrown into a large street-level cell that featured a small hole carved out in the corner of a concrete floor that served as his lavatory. The cell was littered with graffiti from the Koran. His handcuffs were removed, but he was kicked and spat on. He did not receive a blanket, water, or food.

The following morning, Sumaida was doused with cold water, handcuffed, and taken back for questioning by the same middle-aged official. He was repeatedly beaten and forced to sign several blank documents. “I would have given them anything,” Sumaida says. After another twelve hours of questioning, he was thrown back into the concrete cell and given a bottle of water. On his third day in custody, Sumaida was offered reddish soup in a small metal bowl and a piece of bread. He dabbed his finger in the soup and marked the days of his incarceration on a wall. The questioning and beatings continued.

Alone and feeling hopeless, Sumaida says he attempted suicide on the seventh day of his imprisonment. He had smuggled a small vial containing a liquid chemical disguised as a hand cream in his luggage. (Sumaida used a ruse to get to the seized bags.) He downed the chemical as he sat slumped against a cell wall, and became faint and finally lapsed into unconsciousness as it took effect. He woke in what appeared to be a hospital room. “It was like a dream,” Sumaida says. “I was numb.” He then recalls being dragged back to his cell wearing a white hospital gown.

Then, unexpectedly, after more than a week of being held incommunicado and without charge, he was released. Sumaida is convinced that pressure on the Tunisians from his wife, Amnesty International, and the United Nations brought about his release. “You don’t question these things, you just wait,” Sumaida says.

He was told to walk to a nearby hotel, check in, and wait. His luggage, other belongings, and $3,950 (US) were returned, but he was ordered, he says, to report to the Ministry of the Interior weekly. He was permitted to call his wife. Unable to reach her, he contacted family in Detroit and told them he was okay.

Later, his wife called and the pair had a brief and cryptic conversation. Sumaida instructed his wife to travel to Tunisia with their son immediately. (Sumaida says he was ordered to do this.) A few weeks later, he was provided with valid identification and a home, owned by a senior police officer. Asked why the Tunisian authorities had provided him with valid ID and a home, Sumaida pauses, shrugs his shoulders, and suggests that the Tunisians may have been trying to recruit him.

In early October 2005, Sumaida’s wife and infant son arrived in Tunisia. At the airport, the couple shared a long, tearful embrace. They began to build a new life together in Tunisia. “I had no other choice,” Sumaida says.

That new life was based on an old way of life. Inexplicably, the Tunisians encouraged him, Sumaida says, to begin another leather business. His wife briefly returned to Canada to sell the family home, cars, and business to underwrite the new firm, Aloush Leather, which specialized in designer leather lingerie. The couple built the venture from the ground up, finding factory space, hiring employees, and making promotional catalogues. “Within seven months our sales were $60,000 a month,” Sumaida says proudly.

The couple’s calm was shattered in March 2006, when the pair began mingling with Canadian expats living in Tunis. Sumaida says he was taken from his home, handcuffed, and driven to the Interior Ministry’s compound, where he was questioned and beaten for “a couple of hours.” He was released the following day, after being ordered not to have contact with foreigners.

In May 2006, Sumaida was detained again after jogging with a group of Canadian expats. This time, he was held for “two or three days,” and, once again, questioned and beaten. Sumaida says he was thrown onto the street in the morning wearing only his blood-soaked underwear. He hailed a cab back home.

Life in Tunisia was intolerable, Sumaida says. “There was no future. I couldn’t see what was going to happen tomorrow.” By the summer of 2006, he and his wife decided to flee Tunis. The opportunity for a plausible cover arrived in the mail with a flyer promoting a leather show just outside Amsterdam in the summer. On August 14, 2006, Sumaida obtained a visa from the Dutch embassy in Tunis and bought business class seats for a Lufthansa flight departing for Amsterdam at 3:00 a.m. on August 15. After checking in at Tunis’s Carthage International Airport, the Sumaida family moved warily to passport control, where they confronted a bureaucratic wall. A customs officer, Sumaida says, was prepared to allow his wife and son to proceed, but not him. Sumaida got through by bribing the officer with $700 (US). The couple dashed onto the plane juggling their son and baggage, and settled into their seats. Afterward, they sighed with relief, as they watched Tunisia fade into the distance. “You made it,” Sumaida’s wife told him.

In Amsterdam, Sumaida contacted Amnesty International, which gave him the name of an immigration lawyer. The lawyer advised him to return to Canada to seek protection. Sumaida told his Canadian wife and son to return to Canada and wait. The former spy then went to work using his tradecraft to hoodwink Canada’s embassy in The Hague into issuing him an emergency Canadian passport. “I had no choice. I couldn’t go back to Tunisia,” Sumaida says.

The first step was to go to a police station and report that his Canadian passport had gone missing. Sumaida says he gave the police photocopies of a Canadian passport, which he had previously bought in Canada for $700, that included his photograph but another person’s name. He took a train to The Hague and gave the police report about his “missing” passport to an official at the Canadian embassy. At first, Sumaida says, the official was unconvinced. But he pleaded his case and threatened that he would return with police. The embassy was edging toward issuing the passport but needed to contact his father to confirm his identity. Sumaida says he told the diplomat that he was gay and estranged from his father. The Canadian embassy relented and gave Sumaida an emergency passport that was valid for three days. He bought a one-way fare to Canada and landed in Toronto on August 29, 2006. “I arrived,” Sumaida says. “They couldn’t do anything about me.”

Sumaida was mistaken. He was detained at the airport by immigration officials. Sumaida insists that he was not permitted to contact a lawyer and that he told officials that he had been tortured in Tunisia. On August 31, 2006, Ottawa slapped Sumaida with another deportation order. Later, he was arrested and questioned by the RCMP, and subsequently pleaded guilty to possession and use of fraudulent documents. He was sentenced to forty days plus time served and was released on October 13.

Amnesty International referred Sumaida to Rocco Galati, a broad-shouldered, curly-haired Toronto constitutional lawyer. On January 10, 2007, Galati petitioned the Federal Court of Canada to review the government’s second deportation order against Sumaida, arguing that his client had little alternative but to use subterfuge to re-enter Canada. “He had no choice but to do what he did,” Galati says.

If Ottawa is convinced of its case, Galati adds, it should charge Sumaida with crimes against humanity but not deport him to Tunisia. “He should be dealt with in accordance with the law, not, ah, let’s let the Tunisians torture him.”

Unmoved, government lawyers argue that the clock had run out before Sumaida asked the court to review the deportation order. In its February 9, 2007, Memorandum of Argument filed in Federal Court, the CIC reiterates its contention that Sumaida was complicit in the “commission of crimes against humanity because of his activities in support [of the] Mukhabarat, the brutal Iraqi police organization that served as Saddam Hussein’s private army.”

Government lawyers are adamant that Sumaida “did not tell” immigration officers that he had been tortured or persecuted when he returned last August. “One would suppose that someone who had suffered eleven months of torture would mention that torture upon reaching his or her chosen country of safe haven?” the CIC lawyers wrote. They went further, suggesting it was reasonable for Tunisia to be wary of Sumaida. “As a self-confessed double or triple agent this is not surprising.” Galati calls the government’s case “utter nonsense,” adding that Sumaida’s “disappearance and torture were a matter of national and international public record . . . while he was in Tunisia.”

And in late April, Galati won a key legal victory when the CIC stayed Sumaida’s deportation order.

“I am strongly of the opinion that there is sufficient credible, objective evidence before me to conclude that, on balance of probabilities, the applicant would be subjected personally to risk to his life and to a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment if he were removed to either Iraq or Tunisia,” ruled J. Belyea, a CIC Pre-Removal Risk Assessment Officer. Belyea based the decision largely on Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and US State Department reports about Tunisia’s poor human rights record and Amnesty International’s submissions concerning the circumstances surrounding Sumaida’s detention.

For Sumaida, Belyea’s ruling “means my kids will be able to see me for [a] long time to come.”

The victory may, however, be short-lived, since Belyea added: “If it is later determined that you are no longer at risk, the stay of your removal order may be cancelled and the arrangements to enforce your removal from Canada resumed.”

Sumaida’s long battle to stay in Canada has taken a personal toll and another surprising twist. Sumaida has separated from his wife. And this spring, he says he was charged after “uttering a threat” against his estranged wife’s boyfriend. He pleaded guilty and after spending a few weeks in Toronto’s grimy Don Jail, Sumaida received a discharge (avoiding a criminal record) and twelve months’ probation. Sumaida says he’s trying to salvage his marriage and is working as a handyman and window cleaner to build a “simple life.”

Whether he enjoys that simple life in Canada remains to be seen. But Sumaida is sure of one thing: if he is forced to return to Tunisia, “I will never see light again.”

Andrew Mitrovica
Roxana Olivera