Matthew Fisher: Gruesome deadline nears for Canadian held captive by militants in the Philippines

Manila — My friend, John Ridsdel, fellow Canadian Robert Hall, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and Hall’s Filipina girlfriend, Marites Flor, may be beheaded by Islamic extremists on Monday at 3 a.m. EDT unless a ransom of 300 million pesos or nearly $9 million is paid for each of them.

With a machete pressed against his neck, men with assault weapons standing behind him and looking far more haggard than when I last saw him two years ago, Ridsdel, who is 68, said this was his captors “final absolute warning,” in a shocking videotape that circulated briefly on social media sites last week before being pulled. It is the third time the foursome have faced such a dire ultimatum since being abducted by Abu Sayyaf one night last September from their sail boats, which had been moored at an island resort near the southern city of Davao. 

Whether the kidnappers will make good on their murderous threat is impossible to say. Abu Sayyaf, which said it was affiliated with Al Qaeda before claiming it had switched its allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, recently reduced its ransom demands for Ridsdel and the others by 70 per cent. But the group, which has been at war against the Philippine government for years in the mountain jungles of Mindanao, has beheaded prisoners before and has already received large sums of money in exchange for other foreigners that it had taken as hostages.

John Ridsdel is not your typical Canadian. Calling him swashbuckling or a gambler would be a bit of an exaggeration, but John has been attracted to dangerous places for decades and has thrived in them. Soft spoken, thoughtful, optimistic and always keen to talk about Canada and the media, he has also never been shy about recounting what was been a vibrant life since leaving the sleepy precincts of journalism in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where he worked in the early 1980s as an energy reporter for the Calgary Herald and the CBC. 

After joining Petro-Canada as a spokesman, wanderlust took him to Algeria, Pakistan and China among other places. He arrived in the Philippines more than 10 years ago. He worked as a top executive and then as a consultant for TVI, a Calgary-based mining company that extracts gold, silver, copper and zinc from properties in the southern islands of the Philippine archipelago, which is at the heart of an often bloody insurgency.

I first met John in the lobby of a posh Manila hotel. He was keen to defend TVI from charges that its mines were causing pollution and threatening the lives of indigenous peoples. We discussed for hours the difficulties associated with operating businesses in the Philippines, where corruption, extortion and shakedowns are commonplace. But he also spoke of his deep affection for the country and its people and how the government was slowly bringing law and order to the mining industry, which he saw as a way for the country to prosper.

John wanted me to visit one of TVI’s mines out in the boondocks in Mindanao. But for once I heeded the advice of a senior Canadian diplomat, who advised me in the strongest terms possible that even with a squad of heavily armed bodyguards, my trek deep into the mountains would be extremely hazardous, with the threat of ambush lurking at every bend in the road. Although disappointed when I turned down this opportunity, John remained friendly and we subsequently saw each other several times socially. 

In the macabre videos produced by Abu Sayyaf, Ridsdel, Hall and Sekkingstad have pleaded with the Canadian and Norwegian governments to buy their freedom, as some European governments have clearly done in the past, although they have not admitted doing so. The Philippines has publicly stated its strong opposition to such deals, which it regards as an encouragement for those involved in the county’s thriving kidnapping industry, which operates as much like criminal gangs as terrorists organizations.

Video comments by Ridsdel and Hall about being in the vicinity of artillery attacks and seeing aerial surveillance by government forces have provided an indication that these forces likely have a good idea of where Abu Sayyef is holding them hostage, but there have apparently been no attempts to rescue any of them from what has been a terrifying seven-month ordeal.

Paying terrorists for their crimes is a complicated and ugly business. Canada officially denies paying such ransoms to free its citizens. From my own experiences in the Middle East and Africa, I have strong doubts about such claims.

John Ridsdel has been well known to Canadian diplomats and the Canadian community in Manila for many years. In a way, he was a bit of poster boy for the embassy which advertised him and his company as examples of responsible mining.

However it happens, I dearly hope a way is found to liberate John and those held captive with him.

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