MONTREAL — Exactly one day shy of 10 months since being relegated to a squalid and violent Indian jail, businessman Saul Itzhayek returned to the loving embrace of his family in Montreal last Friday seeking only a shower, a good meal and some much-needed rest.
Saul Itzhayek, right, makes a short statement to media upon arrival at Trudeau International Airport. With him are his wife, Marina Novikov, and stepson Dmitri. [Howard Kay photo]
“Now, I’m just exhausted,” he said before a phalanx of television cameras and media after emerging from a special exit at Trudeau International Airport at around 3 p.m. last Friday.
Dressed in a black leather jacket and blue jeans, the 42-year-old Itzhayek was accompanied by his chief champion, his sister Sylvia, his wife, Marina Novikov, and 20-year-old stepson Dmitri.
He looked weary and drawn following an 80-hour trip back home (his last leg was an Air Canada flight from Frankfurt, Germany).
But the lengthy return to Canada obviously paled next to the ordeal that had finally come to an end a few days earlier. An Indian appellate court ruled March 25 that Itzhayek would be set free “for time served” in a three-year jail sentence that began in October for crossing into India from neighbouring Nepal without a valid visa.
Itzhayek has maintained since his arrest last May 29 that he was detained despite assurances by Indian authorities that he could cross the border, and because he did not come up with enough money to pay off authorities.
He had been in Nepal seeking to purchase iridium, a metal used to make contacts for electronic components.
His riding MP, Irwin Cotler, as well as his family and other supporters, repeatedly referred to Itzhayek’s ordeal as a case of “entrapment.”
At the airport, Itzhayek vowed that he would seek to have his conviction quashed.
“I’m doing that now,” he said. “It has to go to the high court [in India]. I’m waiting for that. I don’t know the procedures yet.”
Cotler told The CJN last week that “his name should be cleared. It’s necessary to pursue vindication.”
Itzhayek said he cried “for 10, 15 minutes,” after CTV journalist Paul Workman, who had travelled to India to cover the story, informed him that his freedom was finally imminent.
Now, “it feels incredible to be home,” he said.
Itzhayek reportedly shed close to 30 kilograms in Motihari Prison in the remote northeastern Indian state of Bihar. Over the months he was there, he became ill from the water, was at one point holed up with 130 prisoners, and most recently escaped injury after gang warfare erupted and two bombs went off. After the last incident, he refused to leave his jail cell.
Reading from a statement, Itzhayek expressed deep gratitude to those who championed his cause, most notably his sister.
They included Cotler, Cotler’s executive assistant Howard Liebman, an interfaith coalition that included several rabbis, Canadian Jewish Congress and supportive media.
Sylvia Itzhayek told The CJN that her brother’s release ended a frustrating, nightmarish ordeal for him and the family. Sylvia, through a Montreal connection and after going through three other lawyers in India, finally found the right advocates to handle the case: former Indian solicitor general Harish Salve and his associate, Aparajita Singh.
Liebman said Salve and Singh were the ones who were able to persuade the appellate court to reduce Itzhayek’s sentence to time served.
After a flurry of paperwork requiring the approval of a lower court and police, Itzhayek, as another condition for his discharge, was escorted out of jail by Canadian High Commission officials Jordan Marsh and Jaswinder Singh. On his hand, stamped in blue, was his exit visa. The High Commission officials accompanied Itzhayek back over the border to Birganj, the Nepalese town from which he had walked to the Indian border 10 months earlier, and he began his long journey home.
Sylvia Itzhayek thanked the Canadian government for pushing for her brother’s release, although she had been quite critical that it had not been doing enough during his long months of imprisonment.
A tricky issue for Canada, according to Liebman and others, was to strike the right balance between allowing the judicial process of a fellow Commonwealth nation to run its course, while at the same time responding to the lobbying to have the Canadian government seek Itzhayek’s release.
Eventually, government officials, among them Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier and Secretary of State Helena Guergis in particular, made representations on Itzhayek’s behalf. Bernier’s office issued a statement last week saying, “We are pleased that justice has prevailed in India, and that Mr. Itzhayek is free to return to Canada.”
Cotler said the legal strategy to free Itzhayek took a two-track approach: allow the Indian legal process to unfold, while pressing the Indian executive branch to use its discretionary power to free him.
“If there had been no pressure put on the Canadian government, no one would have known or cared about the case,” Sylvia Itzhayek said. “The lobbying put the pressure on Foreign Affairs, and the effect on the Indian government was that Canada was showing a genuine interest.”
She said it is not yet known what psychological toll, if any, his ordeal might have on her brother.
But last Friday, at least, everybody was jubilant. Itzhayek and his family, including mother Angel, father Reuven, and his other stepson Ilya, were whisked away from the airport in a black Acura, and last Sunday the family held a celebratory meal to mark Saul’s return to freedom.
Last weekend, Itzhayek said in radio interviews that he was able to cope with his confinement through an abiding faith in God. He also revealed that he was able to maintain contacts with his family using a cellular phone that he would hide in a different location every day.