MEXICO CITY – The parents of a Canadian woman accused in an alleged plot involving Moammar Gadhafi’s son say it was shocking to see their emaciated daughter in a Mexican jail and are urging the Canadian government to intervene in her case.
“It’s shocking. You just can’t imagine why they’d want to do it to her and why we can’t protect her from this,” Cynthia Vanier’s mother, Betty MacDonald, said in an interview Friday from Mexico City.
Vanier is accused by Mexican authorities of planning to illegally smuggle the late Libyan dictator’s son Al-Saadi Gadhafi into Mexico, but she has yet to be charged with any offence.
The MacDonalds were able to visit their daughter this week for the first time since she was detained more than two months ago, and described the detention centre as an intimidating place, complete with barbed wire, sniffer dogs, armed guards and strip searches.
Prisoners are made to enter into the visitors area with their hands behind their backs and their heads bowed, said MacDonald, adding she’s struggling to understand how people who have yet to be committed of a crime must be treated like criminals.
“It’s a shameful, demeaning way for them to have to present themselves to their family,” she said.
“It’s hard for us to comprehend, as Canadians, that we have to be treated this way. It’s hard as parents to think that our daughter has to be treated this way, because somebody, somewhere, has spread this rumour that’s been gobbled up by the Mexican authorities.”
MacDonald’s first glimpse of her daughter was through a prison window as Vanier waved her hand, signalling to her own husband Pierre.
Vanier’s husband visits her every day, arriving at the prison by 7:30 a.m. so he can go to the back of the building and see, though hand codes, that his wife is still there. He then lines up in the visitors to queue to be in the first group allowed into the prison at 10 a.m.
It took her parents weeks to sort out all the paperwork to see Vanier, and even then, the MacDonalds had go through a thorough inspection to be allowed into the jail, with Betty made to strip down to her underwear to be searched.
When she finally got into the visiting room, MacDonald said, she could see Vanier’s father already hugging her, and she was able to hug her daughter as well.
“It was pretty special,” she said, of holding her daughter for the first time since the ordeal started.
John MacDonald, Vanier’s father, said she’s holding up well, although she is at times very emotional.
He and his wife worry about her health — she has kidney problems and high blood pressure — for which she doesn’t have access to her regular medication.
They say her hair has now greyed, she has lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, and doesn’t look as healthy because she gets almost no fresh air or exercise.
“The only fresh air she gets is through that little window (in her cell,)” and spends much of her time reading — having gone through 45 books since her arrest.
The family is expecting some news in the coming days since Vanier’s detention, which was extended for an additional 40 days in December, runs out on Tuesday.
But they fear she’ll be moved to another prison and are angry the Canadian government isn’t doing more to help.
“We don’t understand why the mandate of the embassy is so limited. Whenever they’re questioned, the story comes back the same — they’re providing consular service. But that translates into nothing, it’s nothing that is helpful in a situation like this,” said Betty MacDonald.
“There should be some level of guidance, and when her health is at issue they should definitely be going to bat for her somehow to make sure there’s some continuity of treatment.”
The MacDonalds deny all the allegations against Vanier, adding that since officials haven’t been able to find evidence to charge her to date, Ottawa should demand that she be released.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs would only say Canada was in touch with Mexico and had been assisting the family.
“Ms. Vanier faces very serious allegations — Canadian officials are providing her with consular assistance and consular information has been provided to Ms. Vanier’s husband, whom she has authorized to receive personal information,” said spokesman John Babcock.
“However, Canadians travelling abroad are subject to the laws in the countries they visit.”
Officials in Mexico said Friday there had been no developments in the case so far, adding they don’t expect any news until the current detention term expires next week.
They accuse Vanier, a mediator based in Mount Forest, Ont., of masterminding a plot to bring Gadhafi to Mexico, which allegedly also involved two Mexicans and a Danish suspect, all of whom have been detained.
Gadhafi has denied he was trying to enter Mexico. He fled Libya earlier this year after the fall of his father’s regime and was given refugee status in Niger.
Vanier has been detained since Nov. 10.
— By Romina Maurino in Toronto.