Chasing Down Justice and Seeking a Presumption of Innocence: A Report from the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials
(the lengthy update below covers a variety of events which have taken place over the past month).
April has been an incredibly busy month for folks working to end secret trials in Canada and Canadian deportations to torture. Benefits mixing Kafka and CSIS, rallies, major educational events, a difficult hunger strike, new revelations about Canadian complicity in torture abroad, a campaign to initiate contact family visits with men detained almost five years without charge or bail, and the first call for the complete abolition of secret trials in Canada from a major international human rights group were just part of the mix during what is often called the cruelest month.
In an incident which seemed to typify the nature of our ongoing efforts to chase down some justice, campaign members Rabea Murtaza and Matthew Behrens were standing around in Terminal One at Toronto's international airport on April 22 waiting for their guest, Monia Mazigh, to arrive from Ottawa for an evening talk.
While discussing the ups and downs of organizing around such a difficult issue -- one difficulty being that those who sign these certificates and pursue these deportations to torture have always refused to meet with us -- Behrens thought he recognized from behind one Joe Volpe, the current Minister of Detention and Deportation and one half of the duet who signs the secret trial security certificate.
Murtaza, perhaps taken aback at her colleague's peculiar manner of recognizing certain public figures, nonetheless took her friend's strange habit in stride and suggested that they chase after him to see if he was the real number.
The two sprinted down the long terminal, calling out, "Mr. Volpe, Mr. Volpe." Perhaps recognizing a potential media opportunity, the minister turned around as we approached him with a flyer advertising the upcoming 24 Hours Against Torture vigil at his office, scheduled for June 8-9.
"We wanted to let you know that we will be at your office to get your guarantee that you will stop trying to send these five men to torture, the men held on security certificates," we explained.
"Oh, do you know their names?" came his querulous response.
"Not only are their names on our shirts, we know them personally and their families, and we need you to stop trying to send them to torture."
Murtaza offered him a flyer for the event with Monia Mazigh and asked him to attend.
"But isn't that a partisan event?" Volpe asked, maintaining his good walking pace.
"It's not a partisan event, it's an event against torture," we replied.
He smiled and took our flyer, and disappeared into the cavernous terminal.
It was a strange moment, one that speaks to the banality of evil. Volpe seemed like such a, well, nice guy. He seemed, despite his politician's manner, to be pleasant in tone, smooth in manner, the kind of guy who might go out of his way to tell you that you forgot your racquet on the squash court.
How then, to square this seemingly nice guy with the work that he does: overseeing an immigration bureaucracy which acts like a mini Gestapo, terrorizing refugees and immigrants, detaining thousands, and deporting, for the last year such figures were available, over 10,000 people. The same department whose approval rate on pre-removal risk assessments (undertaken to determine if someone would face ill-treatment if returned) is now a whopping 1.5%!
And the next time a security certificate is signed, condemning someone to years in solitary confinement and finally deportation to torture, it will be Volpe's and Anne McLellan's signatures (if they survive the coming election).
And it is Volpe's lawyers who are paid to go into court and repeat the mantra: we don't care about Canada's commitment, written in stone, never to deport people to torture, because we are going to do it anyway.
Forget about George W. Bush, international scofflaw, welcome to Canada, international outlaw.
Canada: Complicit in Torture
At first glance, calling this self-satisfied nation an outlaw might throw people into a bit of shock, yet the events of April, and our efforts to end secret trials, point a reasonable person to make that very conclusion.
Indeed, this is a month in which Human Rights Watch, the respected international organization, released a report called Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture. This well-documented survey of cases in which individuals have been deported to torture despite "assurances" from the torturing states (such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Syria) that no torture will occur deals with a number of countries, including Canada, which engage in this practice. The report notes that many human rights experts are expressing "alarm that governments are using assurances to circumvent their most fundamental human rights obligations."
What are those obligations?
"International law is clear," the report points out. "Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited absolutely, in all situations and at all times, as is the transfer of any person under any circumstances to a place where he or she would be at risk of such abuse."
This is what Canada plans right now for the five Muslim men known as the Secret Trial Five, collectively held 203 months (as of May 1) in prison without charge or bail on secret evidence neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see. (For those keeping count, we have added in Mr. Jaballah's 7 months in detention in 1999 before he was cleared, only to be re-arrested in 2001).
Canada has sought "assurances" from countries with systemic torture and related human rights abuses that those countries will not torture the men if they are deported. Human Rights Watch names as among the worst abusers Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Syria, the very countries to which Canada plans to send the Secret Trial Five.
As Human Rights Watch concludes, "countries that rely on such assurances are either engaging in wishful thinking or using the assurances as a figleaf to cover their complicity in torture and their role in the erosion of the international norm against torture."
Those are tough words, but they accurately and, of necessity, reflect the Canadian reality. The news of the report was met with a range of reaction from indifference to outrage, but not the kind of outrage one would hope. The Globe and Mail's editorial response was a dreadful piece that asked the question, if you give these men their rights not to be deported to torture, what next? Wow, they might even ask for an end to their indefinite detention, or maybe a break from years in solitary confinement, or perhaps release on bail!
The conclusions of Human Rights Watch (which include calling for the abolition of the secret trial process in Canada "as a matter of urgency" and for an end to this country's practice of deportation to torture) are an instructive backdrop for the way in which events in April unfolded.
April has been a cruelly ironic month, for sure. With the eager cooperation of the media, federal politicians have worked themselves into a major paroxysm of outrage over something which would barely surprise the most naive baby who, against her will, is kissed by a campaigning politician.
Politicians are generally a corrupt bunch, and the idea that any party in power would dole out huge amounts of cash to its friends should be about as surprising as the fact that those cute cows down at the factory farm wind up as pre-packaged quarter-pounders on your plate at McGrease. It's simply the nature of a very sick and perverted system.
The REAL Scandal: Canada Nods and Winks at Torturers
Far more scandalous, but perhaps not as well covered because of the difficult questions it brings to the fore, are those stories that involve this country's participation and complicity in the kinds of practices which are so abhorrent that they seems unreal to most. But the truth, novelist Carson McCullers wrote, does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
And the truth is that Canada is emerging as a global leader in the export of human beings to torture, and this country's nod-and-wink towards regimes which torture thousands, including Canadian citizens, is another revelation which is so disgusting that even the spinmasters in Ottawa would rather ignore the issue than massage it into some pleasant middle ground position.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the April 1 revelation that Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was not only brutally tortured and raped in Iran, but that Canadian officials knew of this torture yet did nothing as they sent a new ambassador to Tehran last November, pretending like nothing extraordinary had happened. This was followed by news that Canada had sent 66 of what it has the gall to call "failed refugee claimants" back to an uncertain future in Iran in 2004.
While the federal government expressed appropriate outrage over treatment of which it was aware for a good half year, Canada maintains solid diplomatic relations with Iran and there is no apparent ban on returning people to one of the more abusive regimes in the world.
KAFKA: On Trial
Such were the headlines as a group of Canadian writers and performers gathered at Toronto's Lula Lounge for a remarkable evening of Kafka and CSIS on April 4. This odd combination became clearer as an evening bookended by the singing talents of Ken Whiteley and Evalyn Parry (whose Orange Alert number is a must-hear for all, check out her website at www.evalynparry.com for info. on her latest album) got underway. Over 200 people came out to watch a benefit evening for the families of Canada's secret trial detainees.
The evening began with a 10 minute video by Anice Wong, a dedicated young filmmaker who has followed the secret trial issue for a number of years. The video showed family members at constant protests, lobbying on Parliament Hill, and an historic press conference in Ottawa where members of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois called for the abolition of the security certificate.
The stage was then filled with five people dressed in prison jumpsuit orange, holding jail bars in front of their faces with the names of Canada's Secret Trial Five affixed to them. Each one stood as their stories were told, intertwined with the nightmarish predicament of Kafka's Joseph K, who, like the men in Canada, one fine day was arrested without knowing why.
The readings were powerfully delivered by the likes of Ann-Marie MacDonald, Nino Ricci, Avi Lewis, Naomi Klein, Linda McQuaig, Heather Mallick, Bernard Behrens, Charmion King and Stuart McLean. Father Bob Holmes put together a collection of power point images from the dozens of long-distance walks, jail vigils, and CSIS protests which have occurred to close the evening to the words of Esperanza, a Maxim Gorky plea for humanity.
It was a good evening in many respects, but perhaps most importantly of all, because it transformed an audience, many of whom were unfamiliar with, but who now knew on a quite visceral level, the horror of secret trials in Canada.
Heather Mallick went on to compose one of the strongest columns on secret trials to appear in a major newspaper (the otherwise shameful Globe and Mail), taking the laudable position that these hearings and their ultimate results, deportation to torture, are evil.
"This is what one federal judge called Canada's Guantanamo Bay," Mallick writes. "We are about to deport these prisoners to their countries of origin for inevitable torture. The Americans call it 'rendition.' Satirists call it 'outsourcing torture.'
"And I call it evil. It's a strange adjective for bumbling Liberals or even devious Conservatives who would break the neck of Canadian law to please the Americans, although not a bad one for CSIS, our own CIA. But it suits Canada now. What we do to baby seals we now do to humans.
"The Canadian government has stretched its bony claws far and wide to turn Kafka's theoretical wisps about injustice into actual bloodstains."
Mallick describes the Esperanza fund, and then notes in conclusion, " If I may leave you with something so shameful it makes you dry up and fly away like Kafka's bug, the 18-year-old son of one of the prisoners is ready for university. The family of six is destitute without its breadwinner. Since the young man's religion forbids him to borrow money, student loans are out of the question.
"So Mr. Behrens's Esperanza Fund is approaching the Rosenberg Fund for Children for a scholarship. It helps children of political prisoners, in the name of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were electrocuted at Sing Sing in 1953 by the U.S. government on charges of spying for the Soviets, charges that are disputed to this day.
"It is a national humiliation that Canadians should have to turn to the Rosenberg children, now grown men, to help the kids of our own political prisoners targeted for torture.
"Yes, we're building a McCarthy era of our very own."
On Trial II: Chasing Down Justice A Canadian Court
Such strong and clear words as those of Human Rights Watch and Heather Mallick's were not so welcome in a Scarborough courtroom, however, where the rubberstamping of injustice was temporarily interrupted when three members of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada faced an April 14 trial of their own stemming from a sit-in at CSIS last October.
That sit-in, marking the third anniversary in solitary confinement of Hassan Almrei, resulted in six people being arrested and charged with trespassing after they entered the lobby of the Toronto CSIS building and refused to leave until they had a meeting to discuss transfer of the secret evidence to the detainees' lawyers. Charges against Chris Shannon, Rae Mitchell and Barney Barningham never made it to court, leaving Diana Ralph, Kirsten Romaine and Matthew Behrens to face up to the consequences of their actions.
It was clear from the start of this trial that things would not be going smoothly. When asked how the three would plead to the charge of refusing to leave premises when directed to do so under the Trespass to Property Act, each said, "I plead for an end to secret trials."
Justice of the Peace (JP) Longe looked up from his papers, disturbed that the kind of court that HE was used to had been upset.
"And not guilty," each of us chimed in.
Longe buried his head again, hoping that things would perhaps pass quickly so he could enjoy a rare early April day on the links. But it was going to be a rough ride, one during which the judge would storm out in the middle of the testimony of one of the defence witnesses.
The first witness against the group was the operations manager for the Canada Lands Company at 277 Front Street West, home to CSIS in Toronto.
He accurately described what happened, that a small group went into the lobby and started handing out flyers to passersby. It's a building which, he says, houses the Royal Bank, CN Rail, and Public Works Canada.
He seemed to be missing something here. Public Works? Who would that be?
He explains that people can walk into the building as a matter of course and, though there was a security desk after Sept. 11, 2001, it had since been removed. He testifies that there are numerous demonstrations at the building, and in fact demonstrations which are becoming increasingly frequent. We ask him if he is allowed to say that CSIS works in the building.
"That's Public Works," he explains.
It's an ironic response, because on the building directory CSIS is clearly identified. Perhaps it is okay to have the CSIS name on a plaque but, like some holy figure, its name is not mentionable.
He is asked why a government agency is made inaccessible to people of the country because it is in a private building. To this he has no real answer.
He confirms that we wanted to meet with CSIS. One of the prosecution's claims is that we blocked the entryway through our presence, so we present a video courtesy of Randy Kay and the good folks at the Dundas Independent Video Association (DIVA). We ask the manager to confirm if the small group sitting on benches far away from the door, observing people coming and going as if nothing special is going on, is an accurate depiction of events. He reluctantly confirms this, though the judge might know this because he doesn't seem to watch any of it. (Later during a trip to the bathroom, the manager is overheard calling his boss and saying they can NEVER allow video cameras into the lobby again!)
The manager is then asked if he is aware of what CSIS has been up to.
Longe objects to the line of questioning. We argue that under the trespass act, one has a right to what is known as a colour of right defence, a sincere belief that one has a right to be in that place at that time. In our case, we had a special urgency given the long-term detention of the men, the effects on their families, and the rapidly fraying quilt that's supposed to be Canadian democracy.
"What is the relevance of any of this to the charge of trespassing?" the JP repeatedly asks.
We take great pains to explain the law to him, but he is adamant.
"Well, that's not what we are hearing in this courtroom today," he says, as if our explanation has been vaporized.
"But it's right there in the law as a valid defence, are you trying to prevent us from preventing a legally sanctioned defence?" we ask. Hmm, how appropriate that we would be on trial for protesting the fact that the Secret Trial 5 are not allowed a valid defence either.
He ignores the question and tells us to proceed.
Metro Police Sgt. Serroul is as agreeable a Crown witness as one is likely to find. He is honest and forthright. He explains that he learned that day about the Secret Trial 5, that we wanted a meeting with CSIS, and that we were a peaceful group. In fact, he says, it's the kind of demonstration his squad doesn't mind attending at all. Kirsten Romaine offers him a picture of the Sergeant who had her arrested, in which he has his arm around her while Behrens grins next to her, holding a huge placard which reads, "Welcome to Canada's Guantanamo Bay."
"Does this accurately reflect the friendly mood of the day?" she asks.
"Yes, it does," he replies.
Torture in Canada? Irrelevant!
Mona Elfouli then takes the stand. A dignified woman who has worked almost five years to free her husband, Mohammad Mahjoub, she is asked if she is familiar with the 277 Front Street address.
"Yes, we have demonstrated there many times. It is the CSIS offices," she explains.
We ask her why she is standing around at CSIS so much, and she tries to explain what has happened to her and her family.
"This is irrelevant," the JP concludes.
It's a real insult. Here is a woman whose cause will ultimately decide whether or not millions of people across this country will enjoy basic civil rights (freedom from arbitrary detention, freedom from torture, etc.) yet she and her testimony are called irrelevant.
We argue it out with the judge. If we refused to leave, we need to provide you with a context for that refusal so you can decide whether we had justification for our refusal to leave.
"Stick to the charge," he says.
It's not an untypical scene, as most courts in Canada refuse to entertain the notion that people who engage in social justice-related acts of conscience are doing it for any reason other than having nothing better to do than act out an anti-authoritarian impulse without deep-seated and sincere reasons for those acts.
We ask Mona how urgent the situation is. She starts to speak on the difficulties of her children, at which point the JP again calls out that this is irrelevant. He walks out of the room while Mona is in mid-sentence. Her husband cannot get a fair hearing at Federal Court, and she cannot get a fair hearing in provincial court.
Mona is left in the witness box, looking to us, wondering what to do next and if she did anything wrong. We assure her she did nothing wrong, and that perhaps the JP is trying to earn some stripes while campaigning for a Federal Court position. The court clerk scurries out after the JP, and we figure it's probably time for a break.
The JP's response is like that of many in this country,. They do not want to hear that their government is engaged in such awful practices. The truth will not change according to your ability to stomach it.
Mona returns to the stand after the judge cools down, and we go through it again.
"I will ask the defence to stick to the issue of this court," he admonishes us.
"And we are," we reply
"I don't want this court to become a political platform," he declares.
"Neither do we. It's a legal platform, and we are dealing with the law."
Again, Mona tries to discuss what is going on in her life. The JP again interrupts her and asks what relevance this has. Behrens continues arguing with the JP, and then turns to Mona and apologizes to her that the court continues to be impolite by interrupting her. This third-party apology really steams the JP, but he holds his tongue as we bring the testimony to an end.
Behrens is the first to take the stand. He tries to present a raft of documents that show the danger posed by secret trials and the risk of torture or death to these men if deported. Among these documents is a statement signed by over 70 lawyers, law professors and legal associations critiquing the secret trial process, letters from Amnesty International, court decisions confirming the risk of torture, the Human Rights Watch report mentioned above, and samples of media coverage and flyers that are handed out at demos.
"Again, relevance," the JP drones on.
"You want to know why we refused to leave," Behrens replies. "I can tell you what I know about Hassan or Mohammad, but you would call that hearsay. I have brought documented evidence to present to you to back up our case. You can have my hearsay or you can have evidence, it's up to you," he tells the JP.
The JP reluctantly asks the clerk to start marking the evidence as exhibits. It's becoming a weighty file.
At the end of his testimony, the prosecutor asks only two questions: was he there, did he refuse to leave. The answer to both questions is yes.
Diana Ralph takes the stand and talks about how she and her partner, Jean Hanson, have become Hassan's adopted Canadian moms, and how, as someone whose father was a lawyer at the Nuremberg Tribunal, she has a special responsibility to speak out when people are being targetted unfairly. "I have a right to speak to the officials who are spending my tax dollars to do this to my adopted son," she says to the court.
The JP seems a bit chastened, and does not interrupt. Ralph gets the same two prosecution questions, and she proudly answers yes to both.
Kirsten Romaine speaks eloquently about the need for Quakers such as herself to speak out and confront injustice using nonviolence. She speaks of her many efforts in the campaign, of the walks, the protests, of attending the public portions of the secret trials, the attempts to dialogue with CSIS.
"That's my evidence, and it's not secret," she concludes, adding in her standard affirmative replies to the prosecution's by-the-book questions.
As the group tries to present its case law submissions for a defence of necessity (based on the case in which Kirsten Romaine and Bob Holmes, among others, occupied consulates in downtown Toronto to resist war training over Innu lands, and won an acquittal on necessity grounds), the JP returns to his attack position, telling us how we may or may not proceed. We end up making a brief statement and handing him the relevant cases and he tells us to return May 27 for judgment.
SPEAKING OUT: MONIA MAZIGH COMES TO TORONTO
Time magazine chose Maher Arar, deported to torture in Syria in 2002, as its Canadian Newsmaker of the Year in 2004. The woman whose dedicated campaign to bring her husband home, Monia Mazigh, a passionate defender of human rights, came to Toronto on April 22 to join some of the families of the Secret Trial Five in a show of support.
The evening starts with an introduction to secret trials by Rabea Murtaza, who notes such abominations can only occur in a context of targeted racism and the dehumanization of a specific community.
Speaking before some 200 people at Bloor Street United Church (as well as to those whose anonymous cameras and transcription services will no doubt spread the message to the very individuals who are engaging in such horrific acts), Mazigh condemned the process which has sent five men into brutal conditions of indefinite detention and potential deportation to face what her husband faced.
Mazigh spoke out of a strong sense of hope that things can change. She related the story of how lonely it could be, how difficult Arar's disappearance was for her young children, who tried to figure out why their dad could not come home. Mazigh tells the story of how the kids came up with an idea to rent a helicopter and take it so Syria, where they would go to the prison and pick up their father to bring him home.
While Mazigh was able to free her husband from a prison thousands of miles away, Mona Elfouli is still trying to free her husband, Mohammad Mahjoub, who resides in solitary confinement only two miles from her home. Like Mazigh's kids, Mona's are also frustrated at the absence of their father, whom they have only been allowed to hug once in five years. Elfouli discusses how her kids, aged 5 and 7, have hatched a plan to dress up as police officers and drive to the jail, telling the officers there that they need to transfer Mahjoub to their home. They have also thought of fundraising to see if they can trade a lot of money for their dad.
The Bloor Street sanctuary is awash with emotion. Many cry throughout the evening as these painful stories are courageously told by those who are on the front line of the civil liberties and human rights front in Canada. One person is so upset she needs to be helped out of the sanctuary.
Their speaking of the truth comes with a potential price. Every word they say could be used against them at some other time by government lawyers and CSIS, which has no qualms about turning dedicated commitment to civil rights into a seemingly insidious act.
Ahmad Jaballah, aged 18, delivers a powerful address as well, recounting the tortures their family have gone through in Egypt and now in Canada. Like Mazigh and Elfouli, Ahmad remains steadfastly hopeful, despite the fact that what was supposed to be a country of freedom and liberation has become a nightmare for his parents and his five brothers and sisters.
He recounts how CSIS officers would make late-night visits to their home in 1998 and spend the time talking about themselves while an interpreter snored, and how the agents would go back to their office and make up notes about what they allege Mahmoud Jaballah said, when in reality he said little if anything.
Behrens explores the racist roots of the current secret trials process and the broader picture of the war against refugees and immigrants, dealing with issues from increasing detention and deportation to the many barriers that Canada continues to put in the way of those seeking asylum.
He also presents a challenge to see this as a war against a specific community and for us to act as anti-war resisters would, taking on increased risks so that we can, in the spirit of groups like Peace Brigades and Christian Peacemaker Teams, get in the way of injustice and position ourselves between the Canadian government and those it attempts to tar and mistreat.
Steve Watson of the CAW closes the evening with an eloquent plea for the right of Sergio Orestes Loreto Garcia not be deported after living in Canada for 16 years. Sergio is currently in sanctuary in the Toronto San Lorenzo parish (in Joe Volpe's riding). A demonstration in his support takes place May 13.
APRIL: THE CRUELEST MONTH
April was a particularly difficult month for Syrian refugee Hassasn Almrei, who ended a 31 day hunger strike this month with a commitment to go to court challenging his conditions of detention and demanding the same rights as other federal detainees. Meanwhile, a campaign has been launched to get contact family visits for Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohammad Mahjoub (both at Metro West Detention Centre in Toronto), and Mahjoub is also facing in inhumane immigration decision refusing him a needed liver biopsy to test the progress of the Hepatitis C he contracted at Metro West while detained for five years without charge.
APRIL SHOWERS BRING MAY....
There were numerous acts of hope throughout the month of April, perhaps too numerous to mention in detail here, but among those were an April Fool's demo put on by the tireless folks at Victoria's No One Is Illegal campaign, which featured a jail theme and a focus on the foolishness of CSIS; an April 20 demo in Ottawa to stop the deportation of Mohamed Harkat, held at the main Immigration Bunker; an excellent, well-attended rally in Montreal on the last weekend of March (close enough to April!) calling for an end to secret trials, where Adil Charkaoui was among the many speakers; a campaign benefit in Durham put on by the indefatigable Liz and Barney Barningham along with a wonderful community of musicians and poets; and some students confronted "Justice" Minister Irwin Cotler while he was gassing on about human rights in Halifax with queries about the human rights of the Secret Trial Five.
From coast to coast, wherever CSIS operates, wherever politicians go, the issue of secret trials is becoming an increasingly public one. And whether or not there's a June election, th eissue will continue to find itself in a variety of public fora.
As May and June are upon us, numerous events are on the calendar. There's the Montreal-Ottawa refugee rights walk, which is demanding, among other things the abolition of secret trials. The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada is calling for a national day of action to end deportation to torture and the torturous conditions under which secret trial detainees are currently held here in Canada. This will take place June 8-9 (in Toronto, we are planning an event called 24 Hours Against Torture at Joe Volpe's office, seeking his written guarantee that he will end his department's efforts to deport the men and to deny them bail).
At a time when politicians from Irwin Cotler to Paul Martin and beyond (with the exception of Anne McLellan, who doesn't care to bother with the pretence that she believes in human rights) trumpet their firm belief in the dignity of humanity, their government continues to play a nod and wink game when it comes to torture. So this event should be a good challenge to them to uphold their legal commitments.
Also slated for the summer is a Walk Against Fear in the Metro Toronto area to focus on the increased spate of CSIS bullying tactics, threats, and efforts to forcefully recruit community spies.
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