Edmonton man barred from leaving Pakistan fights to come home

An Edmonton man has been fighting for 10 months to come home from Pakistan where he once worked as a scientist on the government’s missile defence program.

Rab Nawaz, who has citizenship in both Canada and Pakistan, is on the Pakistani Exit Control List, a no-fly list that prevents nationals from leaving the country.

Initially, his travel ban appeared to be related to a contract dispute from a decade ago that resulted in a ruling ordering Nawaz to reimburse his former employer.

But after reimbursing $23,000 last January, Nawaz still hasn’t been allowed to fly back to Edmonton to reunite with his wife and four children. He has lost his job as a senior design specialist at Telus and missed the June birth of his daughter.

“If I’m a bad guy, then they should charge me — keeping me in the dark is like torture,”  said Nawaz, wearing a blue dress shirt while speaking to CBC via Skype from the rooftop of a relative’s home, surrounded by mango gardens and farms in Punjab.

In a country where Amnesty International says reports continue of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture, Nawaz fears he is taking a risk by speaking out, but believes he has no other choice.

“My life has been taken away,” said Nawaz. “I don’t have control of my life. I’m in a prison.”

The ordeal began last October when Nawaz flew to Pakistan for a two-week visit with his mother. At the airport in Islamabad, authorities took Nawaz into custody, confiscated his passport and told him he couldn’t leave.

After a few hours he was released from custody, but it took three weeks, dozens of calls and a few trips to Islamabad to find out the travel ban appeared to stem from an unfulfilled employment agreement dating back to 2010.

In July 2010, Nawaz completed a PhD in computer science in Belfast; he continued to receive part of his salary while doing his studies with the expectation he would return to his job in Pakistan.

But Nawaz said he asked for an extension because back in Pakistan, his life was in danger.

Court documents and police reports confirm his youngest brother was fatally shot by a group of armed men in 2010. Nawaz said another brother was killed in 1998.

Nawaz believes the murders were the result of a long-standing grudge held by another family and was worried the killers were still at large.

Instead of an extension, however, Nawaz said the government relieved him of his duties. He and his wife worked in the United Kingdom before immigrating to Canada.

In October 2011, Nawaz and his family arrived in Edmonton after his wife was accepted under the federal skilled workers program. They became citizens in 2015.

Ordered to reimburse employer

Meanwhile, there were a number of developments in Pakistan that Nawaz says he was not aware of until recently.

A government document shows his former employer — a defence contractor, where he worked from October 1997 to September 2001 and July 2003 to March 2005 — had initiated disciplinary proceedings that resulted in the travel ban.

In November 2010, authorities found Nawaz had failed to live up to his employment contract and ruled that his time abroad would be considered absence without pay. He was also ordered to appear before a security officer for a debrief.

Nawaz said he was never informed of this order and disagrees with the ruling.

A civil court decision in May 2018, made in his absence, ordered Nawaz to reimburse the government after officials accused him of failing to pay back the money when he was ordered to do so.

The Pakistani government has not provided comment for this story.


Although he’s not in custody, Nawaz said that over a two-week period in March, he was interrogated daily by authorities. Investigators were polite, didn’t use violence and he was allowed to leave in the evenings, he said.

Nawaz said those session took place in a small air-conditioned room within a concrete compound in the city of Rawalpindi as four investigators combed through his emails and social media and administered a lie detector test.

“They asked me questions like, ‘Did you ever spy, did you ever [get] caught up hiding something from security, did you ever cheat anybody?'” said Nawaz.

“I have never obviously done it so my answer was always no … and they were satisfied in the end.”

But five months later, he said he no longer has any formal contact with Pakistani authorities, and doesn’t know who to turn to for help.

Nawaz has made repeated inquiries to Global Affairs, his local MP and the prime minister’s office, and is frustrated his situation still has not changed.

A spokesperson with Global Affairs told CBC that officials are providing consular services to Nawaz as they gather additional information about his case from local authorities.

“On July 19, 2019, we received a response from the MFA [Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs], which informed us that they are aware of your case and it is currently under review,” stated an Aug. 15 email to Nawaz from consular services.

“While we empathize with your ongoing concern to return to Canada, it is important to know that, just as a foreign government cannot interfere in Canada’s jurisdiction, the government of Canada cannot interfere in the jurisdiction of another country.”

Edmontonian Paul Bellows was shocked when he heard from Nawaz, his friend and former employee.

As he was chatting with Nawaz online, he “realized this is my friend — in real trouble,” said Bellows, president of digital agency, Yellow Pencil.

Bellows reached out to government contacts, but found no new avenues for Nawaz to pursue.

“Rab is just pure integrity — he’s a sweet guy, diligent worker and extremely talented developer.”

‘He took a risk’

Ferry de Kerckhove, former high commissioner in Pakistan, is not following the case, but said there is a lot stacking up against Nawez.

“I’m not blaming him, but he took a risk given his past, given his association with the minister of defence, his work on missile defence,” said de Kerckhove. “The Pakistanis, when it comes to the military side of anything, are extremely sensitive because … in their minds, there can be still in a state of war, and what is going on in Kashmir makes them even 10 times more nervous.”

He said consular officials would be doing their best to put pressure on the Pakistani government.

“But there is very little we can do other than showing a continued interest in his case which is always the way to do it,” said de Kerckhove. “You’re not going to win on the first crack.”

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