Serbian woman to leave Canada

Sanja Pecelj at St. Marks Anglican Church in Halifax on Thursday. (CP /Andrew Vaughan)

HALIFAX (CP) - A Serbian woman who sought sanctuary for over a year in a Nova Scotia church basement said she will leave Canada - and expects to return to the province within months as an immigrant.

Sanja Pecelj, 34, told a news conference in Halifax on Thursday that she is negotiating for a visa with several countries where she could stay. After she leaves, she said she will then apply to return to Canada as a permanent resident.

"I hope everything is going to work out, it wasn't really my preference that I have to leave the country and come back, but I'm willing to do so because I really want to stay in Canada," she said, sitting at the front of the church where she spent 441 days in hiding.

Pecelj said she is placing her hopes for return in a provincial program that sponsors employable immigrants.

Lee Cohen, Pecelj's lawyer, said she has already been nominated by the province, all but assuring her of being allowed back into the country.

"The federal government will not overturn a provincial nominee so long as there are no medical or security reasons to do so," he said.

Getting a provincial nominee is a virtual guarantee she will be admitted back into Canada some time in the future."

However, he said she could have to stay outside the country for four to nine months while Ottawa checks her background.

Cohen also said there was the "ticklish question" of what country would accept her while she was awaiting federal approval. He said he is in talks with both the Austrian and the Mexican embassies, but neither has granted her a visa.

He said Immigration Canada has agreed not to force Pecelj to return to either Serbia-Montenegro, or Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia.

Pecelj has said that because she is an ethnic Serb, who once worked for the United Nations in Kosovo, she would be in danger if she had to return.

Pecelj sought sanctuary in a tiny church basement in Halifax last year when her application to stay in the country as a refugee was rejected.

In June, shortly after her application to stay on humanitarian grounds was denied, she was given a 60-day stay of deportation by Immigration Canada.

Paul Martin, during a federal election campaign swing through Nova Scotia, promised to review her case.

Both Cohen and Pecelj said they were disappointed the review process had failed, and accused Ottawa of not sincerely studying her refugee claim.

"I am a little bit disappointed because I trusted the words from the minister and the prime minister," Pecelj said.

Her grace period expires Sunday, but Cohen said immigration officials and the RCMP have promised there are no plans to deport her so long as she is making efforts to obtain a visa.