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Non-state torture law dropped

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I don't know about you, but I like to find out how an important story ends.

Last March, I wrote an op-ed in support of two community health nurses in Nova Scotia and their fight to create new laws in Parliament to combat non-state torture.

Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald became activists 23 years earlier, after assisting a woman who had been horrifically tortured and trafficked by her family and prostituted. She phoned the nurses' health helpline and was able to escape, thanks in part to their support.

Since then, the nurses have lobbied politicians across the country, spoken at the United Nations, and suffered ridicule from those who didn't like or understand their efforts or the severity of the problem.

Non-state torture is simply defined as an act that causes aggravated, severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, against a person by a private citizen or citizens, and is inflicted intentionally and often over an extended period.

In Canada, laws against such acts currently fall under sexual assault or aggravated assault categories and the like. Sarson and MacDonald want more powerful legal coverage that already exists in other jurisdictions, including California.

Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos supported Sarson's and MacDonald's efforts and tabled a private member's bill — Bill C-242 — in Parliament to amend the Criminal Code to have non-state torture recognized as a crime.

The aim was to protect women, children and men from the worst excesses of sadistic people, mainly male.

Bill C-242 passed its second reading in Parliament in April and was sent to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to be studied. Last summer, Sarson and MacDonald appeared before the same committee to explain their work.

The two nurses were hopeful, even cautiously optimistic, when I first spoke to them. As recently as September, passage seemed possible.

But their efforts did not succeed.

In November, the standing committee dropped Bill C-242, not proceeding to the third reading in Parliament after unanimously deciding that aggravated assault and aggravated sexual assault and sentencing could be address these actions under section 718.2 of the Criminal Code.

On Jan. 9, MacDonald and Sarson were sent an email from Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, which stated that if torture is seen as something inflicted by private individuals it would muddy the waters for courts going against torture inflicted by state entities, such as national governments.

In the email, Wilson-Raybould wrote:

"By maintaining a distinct torture offence, Canada is able to engage in international efforts to counter the scourge of torture in countries where it remains an overt or covert element of state policy.

 "As you may know, the Criminal Code prohibits acts of violence through the offences of assault, sexual assault, assault causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, attempted murder, and actual murder. Aggravated assault, which is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, is one of the most serious crimes in the Criminal Code as it focuses on assaults that involve wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering a person's life."

MacDonald and Sarson were shocked by the outcome, stating that for such actions to stay where they are in the Criminal Code is "misnaming" that minimizes torture by individuals on others.

They maintain there is plenty of room for both definitions of torture.

"It's bizarre," Sarson says of the committee's decision.

"The committee sat for months and never spoke to a single non-state torture victim, even though at least one tried to address the committee and was not offered a seat."

This seems like a flaw in the committee's proceedings.

The outcome hasn't had much of media coverage.

Make up your own minds; visit bit.ly/2iw3vQW to read the transcript of Sarson's and Macdonald's testimony to the committee on Sept. 22, 2016. Their videoed testimony can be seen at 12:24 into http://bit.ly/2jZjQhq.

Asked what they plan to do next, MacDonald and Sarson remain undaunted. Later this year, they hope to return to the UN for further presentations.

They have contributed a chapter to a new book called Women, Law and Culture, edited by Jocelynne Scutt. They've also been invited to contribute to two other books.

"When we started in 1993, we couldn't find anything on non-state torture. It is good that people are beginning to talk about it. Young people need to know that they are at risk in terms of violence in relationships," MacDonald says.

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