Canada

The Case of the Treacherous Tourist

August 7 1978
Canada

The Case of the Treacherous Tourist

August 7 1978

The Case of the Treacherous Tourist

Canada

No one at the Canadian immigration office in Paris thought it was strange that, although she was carrying an Iranian passport in the name of Shahrzad Sadegh Nobari, the woman did not look the least bit Iranian. “You get perfectly blonde, blue-eyed types flashing Algerian passports,” explains Janusz Zawisza, immigration counsellor at the Canadian embassy in the French capital. “In this business we have no reaction to face values.” Nor, as Kristina Katharina Berster was visiting the office last month for permission to visit Canada, did she look anything like a terrorist. The chunky, blue-eyed, 27-year-old applicant was “a very quiet, normal-looking kid,” says Zawisza. “There was nothing to make her look different, to make her stand out. She was as nondescript and average as possible. Why, even now I’d have difficulty remembering that face.”

So, armed with her Iranian passport, a student card in the same name from Brussels University, $1,000 in cash, return air fare, and a letter from a friend in Canada inviting her for a stay, Berster easily obtained a visa from the Paris office. Four days later, she hopped on an Air France flight to Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, where she breezed through customs and immigration. After a week’s stay in Canada, she then crossed into the United States on the night of July 16. U.S. authorities say she entered the country illegally, crossing a farmer’s field on the VermontQuebec border about three miles from the official point of entry on the main highway. Her footsteps were detected on the American side of the border by seismic sensors, devices in the shape of oversized railway spikes that are buried in the ground to pick up the vibrations of illegal immigrants just as they were once used by U.S. forces in Vietnam to monitor guerrilla movements. Alerted by the sensors, the U.S. border patrol found a woman walking along a road carrying only her handbag.

According to the border patrol. the woman identified herself with her passport as Shahr-

zad Nobari, an Iranian citizen, and said she was staying at an inn on the Quebec side of the border and had just gone out for a walk but lost her way. A suspicious border patrol contacted the RCMP for assistance. The Mounties questioned the woman and then took her fingerprints back to Ottawa; checking through Interpol in Paris, the RCMP was told the woman was Kristina Berster, an alleged German terrorist.

Berster was then held in lieu of $500,000 bail in a jail in the U.S., where she faced

seven separate charges of possessing forged documents, attempting to elude the border patrol, and making false statements. She could be sentenced to up to 26 years in prison if convicted on all seven counts. She also faced possible extradition to West Germany, where she is charged with forgery, receiving stolen goods, and membership in a criminal gang.

Indeed, initial press reports identified Berster as a member of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. But her lawyer. Nick Altomerianos. a New Yorkbased immigration specialist who was put in touch with Berster through “a friend of a friend.” flatly denies this. His denial is supported by other sources. West German officials. however, have linked Berster with another terrorist group oddly named the Socialist Patients’ Collective. Made up of mental patients, the group was founded in 1969 by Heidelberg psychiatrist Wolfgang Huber to protest against West German society, which he blamed for producing sick people. Also known as the Bomb for Mental Health Movement or simply the Crazy Brigade, the group organized itself into a number of “working circles,” including one that produced explosives. A bomb slated to blow up the train of the president of West Germany failed to go off. however, and the group disbanded a year after its formation.

But some of the members of the Socialist Patients’ Collective went on to achieve noto-

riety, including Gerhard Muller, who was arrested in company with Ulrike Meinhof in 1972 and turned informer to betray the entire Baader-Meinhof gang. Other former members took part in the famous raid on the West Germany embassy in Stockholm in 1975, in which two diplomats were shot and a bomb exploded.

The question remains, if Berster is a terrorist, why she was trying to get into the U.S. A Hamburg newspaper, quoting West German and U.S. intelligence sources, reported she was involved in a plot to assassinate U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, who, as a Jew and a prominent businessman before he entered government, would make a natural target for proPalestinian terrorists. U.S. officials speculated that Berster may have been hatching a plot for the 1980 Winter Olympics, to be held in Lake Placid, N.Y. All that Altomerianos would say is that she has “a story to tell” which will be told at the appropriate time.

The RCMP and the FBI are investigating the matter and following up leads on Berster’s contacts in North America before her arrest. These people—a man and a woman resident in the U.S. and a man living in Montreal—were picked up for questioning after they had been seen near the spot where Berster was arrested, apparently waiting for her. But they were all released because there was insufficient evidence to charge them with anything.

Canadian immigration authorities are also conducting an investigation into the incident. A report that the U.S. had complained to Canada for failing to spot Berster was denied by both sides. But Canadian officials were nonetheless embarrassed over the ease with which she entered Canada. The embarrassment was heightened because news of Berster’s capture broke just days after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau grabbed headlines with his own proposal for curbing international terrorism, which was adopted by the summit of seven major industrial nations in Bonn last month.

The key step in Berster’s entry was obtaining the visa in Paris. Once she had that, there were no major obstacles left in her way.

In Paris, no special checks were made of the “most wanted” lists or with the Iranian embassy to determine whether she was a bona fide citizen ofthat country. But immigration officials were reluctant to tighten up the screening procedure for fear of turning off genuine visitors. “Does the Canadian public want us to keep everybody out of Canada to prevent a few undesirables?” asks immigration counsellor Zawisza. “You get some officer who is seeing his umpteenth case a day and he sits there like a sphinx listening to a person who wants to go to Canada. His interest is to make that person happy so he can get on to the next. . . The mechanism we have is to answer to normal situations, and as fast as possible. If people want to use our system

to break the rules, then the ball game changes to a philosophical question. The question is: do we want a very hard-nosed SYSTEM?”IAN URQUHART/MARCI MCDONALD