Imprisoned in India, But Not Forgotten in Canada

By Sheldon Gordon

Published February 20, 2008, issue of February 22, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Toronto - The imprisonment of a Canadian Jewish businessman in India has become a surprising cause celebre for the leaders of Montreal’s Jewish community.

Better Times: Saul Itzhayek in Canada with his wife before he was arrested in India last fall.
Better Times: Saul Itzhayek in Canada with his wife before he was arrested in India last fall.

The imprisoned man is Saul Itzhayek, who has both Canadian and Israeli citizenship. Itzhayek was convicted and sentenced to three years last May for entering India from Nepal with an expired visa. Itzhayek, who has a wife and two children in Montreal, has reportedly lost 60 pounds while being held in a frigid, rat-infested prison cell.

The 42-year-old Sephardic businessman was not well known in his suburban Jewish community, and no one claims he is a victim of antisemitism. Yet his plight has demonstrated the willingness of the Jewish community to come together in the face of a perceived injustice inflicted upon one of its own. The campaign has included lobbying of Indian diplomats by rabbis and an appeal by Canada’s prime minister.

“This is understood as an issue of simple justice for a Canadian citizen who has gotten caught unjustly in the web of a foreign conspiracy,” said Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, a leading campaigner on Itzhayek’s behalf.

“The mitzvah of ransoming captives is one with a length history in Judaism going back to the Bible,” Steinmetz added.

An independent trader, Itzhayek traveled to Nepal in early May of 2007 for the first time. He went there to sell heating-oil contracts and electrical components. He sent his driver across the border into India to collect $1,200 that was being wired to him at an Indian bank by his wife so that he could purchase the return portion of his airfare. But when Indian police stopped his driver, they seized Itzhayek’s passport and visa.

According to sworn statements that Itzhayek filed in his defense, the Indian police offered him safe passage into India to collect his travel documents. When he took them up on this, the authorities arrested him for entering the country illegally and allegedly asked for a bribe as the price of his freedom.

His imprisonment set off the extraordinary lobbying campaign by Jewish leaders. In a letter to Canadian political leaders last October, Rabbi Michael Whitman, president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, warned that the conditions Itzhayek was living under “would almost certainly lead to death.”

Former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who represents Itzhayek’s district in parliament and is a past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has repeatedly called upon the Indian government to use its executive authority to release and repatriate him.

“We can’t independently verify what actually transpired,” said Cotler’s executive assistant, Howard Liebman. “We’re taking the conviction as it stands. But even accepting that conviction, on a humanitarian and compassionate basis he should be brought home as quickly as possible.”

In January, Cotler joined an interfaith delegation led by four rabbis, including Rabbi Reuven Bulka, co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, that pleaded Itzhayek’s cause with the Indian high commissioner in Ottawa, R.L. Narayan.

“For the most part, Jewish Canadians regard themselves as a family, and they see here a perceived injustice being done. Jews naturally react to injustice,” said the CJC’s CEO, Bernie Farber.

Farber credits Cotler, a former law professor who has handled high-profile human rights cases, with having done more than anyone else to bring Itzhayek’s plight to public attention.

Cotler told a news conference that he felt positive about the meeting with Narayan, who agreed to relay the group’s message to the Indian government. Cotler said the Indian envoy advised the group that Itzhayek must follow through with the Indian legal process and await the results of his appeal.

“If you have to go before the courts, it will be protracted,” Cotler said at the news conference. “Executive remedy in the only route. It is authorized under Indian law.”

Cotler said he stressed to Narayan that the Indian government has the “unfettered discretion” to free Itzhayek unilaterally by pardoning him, suspending his sentence, deporting him or repatriating him in a prisoner exchange.

Itzhayek’s fate has reached the highest levels of government. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper discussed the case privately with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Commonwealth Conference last November. Following an appeal from B’nai Brith Canada, Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier pressed his Indian counterpart during an official visit to New Delhi earlier this month.

In the short weekly phone calls with his family, Itzhayek has indicated that his situation has not changed in remote Motihari Prison, where he is the only Westerner incarcerated. He has told his family that he is languishing on a dirt floor and has survived a prison riot. He cooks his own food over a fire in his cell.

“I’m very heartened and touched,” said Itzhayek’s sister, Sylvia, about the outpouring of support from the Jewish community.

“The Canadian Jewish Congress has been absolutely supportive from the beginning,” she said. “It means a lot to our family. There’s been terrible suffering. His parents are elderly…. It’s been very hard on us, and we don’t know when it’s going to end.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.