Court seeks diplomat's assets

An Ontario court has filed a notice to seize the personal assets of a Chinese diplomat found liable for defaming a Canadian Falun Gong practitioner.

The Ontario Superior Court ruled in February that Pan Xinchun, the Chinese deputy consul-general in Toronto, defamed Falun Gong supporter Joel Chipkar in a letter that appeared April 25, 2003, in the Toronto Star.

Mr. Pan's letter was a response to an earlier letter by Mr. Chipkar that berated the Canadian government for not condemning China's alleged political corruption and human-rights abuses.

Acting on the request of Mr. Chipkar and his lawyer, the Ontario Superior Court issued a Notice of Garnishment against Mr. Pan on July 14. Garnishment allows creditors to secure outstanding debts without a debtor's direct co-operation, through a debtor's financial institution or employer, for example.

"This is not about the money, it's about the principle. . . . It's about accountability and visiting officials here not being able to attack Canadians with impunity," Mr. Chipkar said.

At the February ruling, the presiding judge concluded that Mr. Pan was not acting in his official capacity when he made statements about Mr. Chipkar and was therefore not protected by diplomatic immunity. Mr. Pan did not attend in his defence. The judge awarded Mr. Chipkar $1,000 for the defamation and compensation for his legal fees that amounted to $10,000.

"The immunity of consulate officials -- who are not full diplomats -- is subject to limits within the law," said Peter Downard, Mr. Chipkar's lawyer.

Attempts to access funds in Mr. Pan's personal account at the Bank of China, which is owned by the Chinese government, have been unsuccessful, Mr. Downard said. He added that the bank's Toronto branch informed him there was no money in Mr. Pan's account.

The Bank of China's Toronto branch would not confirm receiving a garnishment notice or whether Mr. Pan even holds an account with the institution. "As a banker, we can't disclose any kind of correspondence in relation to our customers," said David Chan, the bank's chief accountant and compliance officer.

The defamation case against Mr. Pan prompted the Chinese government to release a statement on Mar. 12 through Toronto-based law firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg: "Mr. Pan was protecting the interests of PRC [the People's Republic of China] in Canada, and acting on the instructions of PRC to respond to an attack. . . . Mr. Pan was acting in the exercise of consular functions and is thus immune from Canadian courts' jurisdiction."

Inquiries made yesterday to both the Chinese Consulate-General in Toronto and Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg were met with no response.

Mr. Downard said his client could serve Mr. Pan notice to attend a judgment-debtor examination to explain his lack of payment and disclose any assets he may hold.

According to its post-ruling statement, China made numerous unsuccessful requests to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to intervene in the case and clarify Canada's position on consular immunity. "This is an extremely serious issue . . . with potential substantial consequences for the state of relations between Canada and China."