Border officer can't recall where idea to collect Meng's phone passcodes came from

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VANCOUVER — The border officer who led the examination of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver's airport before her arrest two years ago says he can't recall whose idea it was to collect the passcodes to her phones.

Sowmith Katragadda told a B.C. Supreme Court hearing Thursday that he asked another officer to collect the codes from Meng but can't remember if the order came from one of his supervisors or if it was his own idea.

"I believed it was reasonable," he said.

Katragadda testified as part of an evidence-gathering hearing in Meng's extradition case.

Her lawyers are collecting information to support an abuse of process argument in court next year alleging Canadian officers gathered evidence to aid American officials under the guise of a routine border exam.

Meng is wanted in the United States on charges of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud related to American sanctions against Iran based on allegations that both she and Huawei deny.

Katragadda testified on Wednesday that he wanted to end the customs and immigration exam as quickly as possible so as not to unduly delay Meng's arrest by the RCMP.

He was aware of the seriousness of the case and the importance of making clear the distinction between the roles of the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

When he told his superiors that he was ready to adjourn the exam, he said they asked him to wait while they consulted the border agency's national security unit.

It's not uncommon for the specialized unit to be consulted in cases where a traveller might pose a risk to national security, court has heard. Some border officers testified they developed such suspicions after reading online about controversies surrounding Huawei products.

Katragadda told the court he asked Meng the questions from the unit that one of his superiors shared with him verbally.

He then asked another officer to collect the passcodes from Meng, he said.

"The examination was ongoing and her electronics devices are subject to examination. Whether or not I examined the devices on that day or a later day, the passwords were important to conduct the examination," he said.

"In the course of a national security examination and an examination for criminality, there may be evidence on that device or any of the devices that could help in establishing a person's admissibility to Canada."

By then, Katragadda had developed concerns about Meng's travel history, which included some countries of concern, as well as her connection to Huawei, he said.

"We've noted that a lot of concerns come out of travellers who arrive from certain countries," he said.

The active warrant also suggested possible criminality, he said.

Adjourning the exam would mean that it could be resumed later if Meng was not extradited to the United States, he said.

Katragadda testified that he did not learn the passcodes had been shared with the RCMP until a debriefing meeting.

The officer who wrote down the passcodes has testified that it was "heart-wrenching" when he realized the codes had accidentally been passed to the RCMP along with Meng's electronics.

As part of its abuse of process claim, Meng's legal team is also alleging that RCMP and CBSA officers kept intentionally poor notes of what happened that day.

Katragadda acknowledged under cross-examination several absences from his notes including any mention of a morning meeting with RCMP, why Meng's phones were taken or any issue regarding national security.

Meng's lawyer Mona Duckett suggested the absences were intentional.

"Your notes and statutory declaration are silent as to any involvement by the RCMP at any time prior to her surrender," Duckett said.

"Correct," Katragadda responded.

"Carefully crafted, I suggest, to avoid that fact, to hide it," Duckett said.

"No," Katragadda said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2020.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press