40 Days Gone

Hassan Almrei Still on Hunger Strike from Toronto Solitary Confinement Cell; Mohammad Mahjoub Also Hunger Striking for Over Three Weeks

AUGUST 1, 2005 -- Do you remember the last ten days of June, or perhaps the long hot days of July? Do you remember anything specific about what you have done during that time? Taken a nice long walk, perhaps? Bought a new CD and sat back listening to great music? Maybe enjoyed the goodness of summer fruits and vegetables, had a good post-dinner read sitting under a tree? Embraced someone you care about?

These things seem, to many of us, so easy, so much so that they fade into memory because they are so common to our daily lives that they are almost unremarkable. Imagine, though, that everything you have just remembered of the past 40 days did not happen. That there was no food, no music, no books, no leisurely strolls, no real access to fresh air, no hugs or handshakes. And you have spent that time in a space no larger than the average bathroom, with an open toilet.

Welcome to the world of Hassan Almrei, Syrian refugee, secret trial detainee, who has spent almost four full years in a 9 X 12 concrete solitary confinement cell in Toronto. Faced daily with the possibility that the Canadian government will deport him to torture in Syria -- even after its own internal documents acknowledge the government does not even have enough scraps of so-called evidence to lay a criminal charge against Hassan -- he is also trying to deal with problems much closer to home.

Namely, Hassan is a federal detainee in a provincial jail. He has no access to educational programs, and has had to go on hunger strike for things we take for granted, whether that is heat in the wintertime or a pair of runners for his sore feet. The Ontario government of Dalton McGuinty forced Hassan to go to court for these basics in the fall of 2003, and fought tooth and nail for six full days to try and prevent him from getting what a court eventually granted.

Hassan is marking day 40 of a hunger strike today because he wants some basic dignities in his life. He hopes he may be released on bail, but the snail's pace of the secret trial process keeps him locked away in conditions that, were they forced upon a cat, would be the subject of national outrage.

So in the meantime, he is trying to make his stay in the hole as "comfortable" as possible, knowing it could take years for the legal process to run its course in determining such things as whether it's okay to deport him to torture or whether it's all right to continually deny him bail based on secret evidence neither he nor his lawyer is allowed to see.

Living in such a confined space over such a long time period has disastrous physical, emotional, and psychological consequences. Hassan is aware of the latter two and commits himself daily to making sure he does not go crazy. But still he is haunted, haunted by the fact that when he dreams, it is only of life inside the jail, or of Syrian authorities coming to kill him. When he is awake, there is no soothing sound of music on a radio, only the deadening silence of his concrete chamber, occasionally interrupted by the sound of someone screaming down the cell block or some conversations with a guard or two, and some phone calls.

Humans are social creatures who need things like touch, sound, and beauty to maintain a healthy life. All are denied to someone in solitary. The only physical contact Hassan has is when they put the handcuffs on him when going to and from court.

Physically, Hassan is a broken man. Having lost over 120 pounds since he was arrested in October, 2001, he is currently dealing with a great deal of pain in his knees, pain which can only be dealt with, the jail doctor says, by exercise. But you can't exactly do laps in a 9 X 12 cell. His body has also been subject to six hunger strikes during his time in custody. It's not clear how much more his withering frame can take.

Hassan began his current hunger strike to demand an hour of fresh air and exercise in the concrete outdoor box which serves as the "yard" at Metro West Detention Centre. He is described by guards as a nonviolent person, a friendly individual who can be trusted. Hence, it should be no problem to let him out for an hour. But until his hunger strike, he usually got about five minutes of fresh air, if that. The time outside has increased to the standard 20 minutes since he has been on hunger strike (what can properly be called the provincial ministry of corrections and community safety attempting to cover its buttocks as Hassan prepares to go to court once again).

Provincial authorities say if Hassan went out of solitary he could get access to an hour of fresh air, which is required for the inmates on the range (and which would also come as a great joke to inmates on the range who don't see that kind of fresh air either). But Hassan has nowhere else in the jail he can go. Confined at the order of the federal government in solitary for the first 15 months of his stay, he was returned to solitary after three days on the range for his own protection. He really is between a rock and a hard, concrete place.

He reads the papers daily, and studies the Koran. Some books that have been ordered by friends never make it to him. His copy of Orwell's 1984 still sits with security, deemed too risky to share with him, in much the same way Kafka's The Trial was held up earlier this year. Poor Hassan simply wants to know what his friends mean when they describe his situation as Orwellian and Kafkaesque.

A few cells down, Mohammad Mahjoub, detained without charge since June, 2000, is into the third week of a hunger strike as well, protesting his conditions of confinement, which include denial of monthly contact visits with his two young children, who can only get as close as the weekly "visit" from behind thick glass and a telephone receiver in the visiting room.

Both men have a community of support who are willing to provide bail and, if deemed necessary by the courts, supervision. Both are awaiting decisions from the Federal Court about this possibility. But those decisions are not likely until September or even October. If denied, an appeal would take more months still.

While the hunger strikes are about very specific demands, they also seem to speak to a larger malaise. These men are sick and tired of being held without charge, on secret "evidence," faced with deportation to torture. They're fed up with the fact that Canada continues to behave like an international outlaw, denying them the rights which Canada has sworn to uphold as dear and precious. They are tired of the ease with which their humanity is forgotten, and part of the thrust behind their protest is a simple cry: "We are human beings!"

They are sicker still, perhaps, of the apathy which greets their treatment, not only from the disinterested Canadian public (who, to be fair, might be outraged if properly informed of what were going on), but also from their own communities, who have allowed a CSIS-induced blanket of fear to prevent showing support for them.

Imagine going through this type of hell and, when a select group of "community leaders" goes to ingratiate itself with Paul Martin, they release a statement which talks not of ending Canada's Guantanamo Bay, but of the need for Muslims to integrate into Canadian society (whatever that means) and to be friends with the very spy service, CSIS, which terrorizes the community and lands men like the Secret Trial Five behind bars.

Almrei and Mahjoub, along with secret trial detainees Mohamed Harkat and Mahmoud Jaballah, want nothing more to get back to their families and get on with their lives (and Montreal's Adil Charkaoui, under draconian release conditions, would no doubt like to get back to a normal life too!). But the amount of time it takes to get there, while dependent to a certain degree on the courts and the whims of CSIS, is also very much dependent on you and me.

And so a challenge. Hassan Almrei and Mohammad Mahjoub are committed to continuing their hunger strikes, regardless of the personal harm which may befall them.

For each day that these men remain on hunger strike, would you be willing to take a few minutes a day and do something to end their suffering, and the suffering of their families?

Here's how you can help.

1. Write letters of support to the detainees. They needn't be long, but they need to hear from you, that you care about their situation. They need to be reminded that you, too, recognize their humanity. For prison addresses write to tasc@web.ca

2. Write or call Monte Kwinter, the provincial minister in charge of their conditions of detention.

Monte Kwinter
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services
18th floor, 25 Grosvenor Street
Toronto, ON, M7A 1Y6
Phone: (416) 325-0408
Fax: (416) 325-6067

PLEASE CC correspondence to tasc@web.ca or fax (416) 651-9770 or by mail to PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0

Also let us know by email what your response has been like. We want to keep a tally of who is in contact to get a sense of how much pressure they are under!

3. Write to Anne McLellan and Joe Volpe, who are responsible for the secret trials, and demand that this process be stopped.

Anne McLellan,
306 Justice Building
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6, Canada
Telephone: (613) 992-4524
Facsimile: (613) 943-0044

Joe Volpe
Room 658, Confederation Building
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Phone: (613) 992-6361
Fax: (613) 992-9791

4. Contact your MP and ask why they haven't signed on to the statement calling for the abolition of secret trials (see http://www.zerra.net/endorsements/EndorseListJuly18.pdf for a list of those who have signed on.). Better yet, organize a vigil at a local CSIS office or federal government office. Both hate exposure of these crimes.

5. Consider signing on to the statement itself.

6. Organize a public event on secret trials. We can provide speakers and videos.

7. Contribute to the expenses of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada. Cheques can be made out to Homes not Bombs at PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0.