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Convicted ex-RCMP official, facing decades in prison, gets support from Kovrig

OTTAWA — Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was detained for years in China, is among those urging a judge to avoid a harsh prison sentence for Cameron Jay Ortis, convicted of breaching Canada's secrets law.

In a letter filed in Ontario Superior Court, Kovrig, a past professional acquaintance of the former RCMP intelligence official, says leaving Ortis "to rot in a prison cell for the sake of deterrence and retribution" strikes him as "an exercise in gratuitous cruelty."

Kovrig, who spent more than 1,000 days in Chinese custody, says in the letter that only those who have experienced long-term confinement can truly appreciate the excruciating toll it takes on a person.

"The mental awfulness is even more acute for an individual such as Cameron, blessed as he is with high intelligence and a curious mind — someone used to doing relevant, impactful, intellectually demanding work," Kovrig writes.

He suggests "more restorative means of justice," such as supervised and monitored activities like research, teaching or problem-solving through which Ortis could pay his debt to society, rather than "sitting in a prison cell marking time or doing menial labour."

Ortis, 51, led the RCMP's Operations Research group, which assembled and developed classified information on cybercriminals, terror cells and transnational criminal networks.

The Crown argued at a hearing Thursday that Ortis, convicted in November of violating the Security of Information Act, should be sentenced to decades behind bars.

Prosecutor Judy Kliewer told Justice Robert Maranger the sentence must send a message to the public and Canada's partners that revealing classified material has consequences.

"His conduct betrayed the RCMP," she said. "It jeopardized the safety of Canadians."

Jon Doody, a lawyer for Ortis, argued his client — who has no previous criminal record — should simply be sentenced to the time he has already served since his September 2019 arrest.

Ortis has exhausted his savings, has no assets and will forever be marked by the criminal case, Doody told the judge. "He's lost everything."

Maranger said he would consider the arguments and sentence Ortis on Feb. 7.

In November, jurors declared Ortis guilty of three counts of breaching the secrets law and one count of attempting to do so.

Each of these counts is punishable by a maximum of 14 years in prison.

Kliewer said Thursday the Crown is seeking maximum, consecutive sentences on the first two counts of breaching the secrets law, amounting 28 years in prison. The Crown wants sentences that would be served concurrently for the remaining two secrets law offences.

The jury also found Ortis guilty of breach of trust and fraudulent use of a computer system. The Crown is requesting concurrent sentences for these offences as well.

Because the Crown seeks an overall sentence for multiple offences, the "principle of totality" would require the judge to ensure the overall punishment is not excessive.

The Crown says a sentence for Ortis in the range of 22 to 25 years would be appropriate, when this principle is considered.

Ortis pleaded not guilty in court to all charges, including breaking the secrets law by revealing classified information to three individuals of interest to police in 2015 and trying to do so in a fourth instance.

Ortis testified he did not betray the RCMP. Rather, he offered secret material to targets in a bid to get them to use an online encryption service set up by an allied intelligence agency to spy on adversaries.

The Crown argued Ortis had no authority to disclose classified material and that he was not doing so as part of a legitimate undercover operation.

Ortis's position entrusted him with the keys to the most sensitive information that the RCMP had access to at the time, Kliewer told the court Thursday.

He deserves a sentence that will show the public and Canada's international partners that the system intended to protect information "has teeth," she said.

Ortis was released briefly on bail following his arrest in late 2019, only to be returned to an Ottawa jail for more than three years. He was again granted bail under strict conditions in December 2022 as he awaited a trial that took place last fall.

Applying pre-sentence rules, the Crown says Ortis should be credited with five years and four months.

Doody recounted the unusual hardships Ortis experienced while in custody due to the nature of the case, and came up with a different accounting.

He said Ortis spent years alone in protective custody, contracted COVID-19, and was repeatedly strip-searched and X-rayed in the course of viewing documentation related to his case at a secure, off-site facility.

Ultimately, Doody argued Ortis should be sentenced to seven years and two months — the amount of time he should be credited with having served.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2024.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press