Walking to Stop Secret Trials in Canada
(Below are two accounts of the 3-day, 30 km walk that finished today in downtown Toronto. The first account covers the demo which ended at CSIS, and the second is a reflection on the longest day of the walk, Saturday)
Fifty years and two days after the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sacrificed on the altar of cold war paranoia in the name of "national security," a Walk to Stop Secret Trials began in Toronto.
Like the Rosenbergs before them, the focus of the walk was on those Muslims in Canada who have been wrongly incarcerated on secret evidence in the name of national security: they are the scapegoat du jour, and the horrific effect that their incarceration has on immediate family, related loved ones, and community members who wonder if they will be next, is incalculable.
While Canada crows about not having a death penalty, the security certificate is Canadian capital punishment one step removed: the deportation of these "security certificate" secret trial targets inevitably results in torture and murder.
Mansour Ahani and Mourad Ikhlef, deported on secret evidence to Iran and Algeria, respectively, have both disappeared.
One step in the struggle to stop the deportation of five Muslim men currently detained on the certificates is described in the two accounts below. Another step will be the national day of action against secret trials October 31, with a large civil disobedience action at CSIS HQ in Ottawa.
(account by Matthew Behrens of Homes not Bombs)
"I'm not a Muslim, and I'll never be one, so why should I care?" A smug Canadian, shortly before presenting a solid one-finger salute to a group of women wearing hijab outside Toronto CSIS HQ.
Toronto, June 23, 2003 -- CSIS, Canada's biased and much discredited spy agency, refused to accept personalized copies of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at their Toronto headquarters today. An attempt was made to deliver them to CSIS -- which behaves as if their office copies have either disappeared or were never delivered to begin with -- at the conclusion of a three-day, 30 km walk to stop secret trials that began Saturday at Metro West Detention Centre.
A line of Metro police, Canadian National Railway police, and undercover agents talking into their little microphones blocked the entrance to the CN building, where CSIS occupies three floors at 277 Front Street West.
Before them stood a group of about 35 people, mostly family, friends, and supporters of Mahmoud Jaballah (jailed since August 2001), Muhammad Mahjoub (this week marking three years in prison), Hassan Almrei (jailed since October 2001), Mohamed Harkat (jailed since December, 2002) and Adil Charkaoui (arrested in May and held since), who have been held a collective 84 months under the secret trial CSIS security certificate: no charge, no bail, no disclosure of the "evidence" against them.
It was an historic moment. To our knowledge, it was the first protest at CSIS in Toronto and, even more historic, many of those in attendance were there because their loved ones have been targetted by what is perhaps the most draconian of legal measures that can currently be taken in this country against a human being: the CSIS secret trial security certificate.
This repression has not silenced the families, however. They have not allowed the fear and uncertainty that comes with a possible death sentence hanging over the heads of fathers and husbands -- a death sentence based on secret evidence -- to keep them from speaking up.
Today, Mrs. Jaballah and a friend of Mona El-Fouli -- who is married to Mahjoub but who was unable to attend because she was ill with heat stroke from walking in the heat of the previous two days -- presented the placard-sized declarations of rights, but no one would take them, or allow them inside the building. CSIS was not interested.
After a twenty minute standoff, the declarations were laid at the feet of the police. We wondered how soon it would be until CSIS came out and trampled on them the same way they have trampled over the Charter rights of people in the Canadian Muslim, Middle Eastern and Arabic communities.
It had been a similar scene at the RCMP earlier in the walk. No one was "authorized" to accept these constitutional and United Nations safeguards, and they were also left on the doorstep of the RCMP detachment on Attwell Road, again likely to be trampled on by the Mounties.
In this security climate, even a little child is suspect. A couple of children requesting use of the bathroom at the RCMP (located in the middle of an industrial park wasteland in northwest Etobicoke) were told by an officer they could not use the facilities. Feeling perhaps a pang of conscience, the officer relented and said one child could go in. His mother wanted to escort him, but was told no, that would not be possible.
"This is a secure facility!" he explained.
"So it's come to this, some kid peeing is a threat to national security," someone commented.
The officer "allowed" the boy and his mother through the door, at which point about five children, bladders bursting, ran in before the door could be closed. The gallant Mountie could not handle this, and ordered the children back outside. They would have to wait until Dixon Road and the fast food restaurants to relieve themselves.
As with similar walks, bonds form quickly when one is walking long distances in intense heat, and children as young as 3 joined with new friends for the long journey.
These are a generation of children who are growing up with their fathers in prison, tarred with the label of alleged "terrorist," despite the fact that none of them have ever been charged with anything. But if these kids' friends were to ask why this is happening, they would be no more able to provide the "real reasons" than the fathers themselves; apart from the apparent crime of being Muslim in Canada, no one but certain CSIS-approved Federal Court judges has been allowed to see the "evidence," if any really exists, in these cases.
All along, the families have challenged the government to charge their loved ones under existing laws and, if there is a case, to disclose it to full cross examination. If the government cannot meet this most basic of rights, enshrined in the Charter and the Universal Declaration, then immediate release from the punishment of indefinite incarceration should follow..
And so the families are exercising their democratic right of protest, with all that comes from that choice: the support of passersby who honk and yell out support, the wonderful welcome at places like the Unitarian Fellowship of Northwest Toronto, which prepared a marvelous lunch and refreshment break on the first day of the walk, and the friendship of folks who are angered at the injustice these families are experiencing.
With it as well comes the verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse from those who, on the one hand, believe the media lies that democracy and Islam are somehow mutually exclusive, but on the other, cringe when they see a group of women wearing hijab walking down Yonge Street, exercising their democratic rights and responsibilities.
The media failed to show up for any of the walk. But this has been typical of their approach to the whole "terrorism" story. When Bush makes a pronouncement or CSIS makes an outrageous allegation, they are well quoted in banner headlines. When we find out that this or that alleged 9/11 "terrorist" was in fact not connected to terrorism at all, they are lucky if they get a minor clarification in the back pages. When the families and their supporters provide an opportunity to tell their side of the story, they get brushed aside by Harry Potter mania and endless stories about SARS.
At the end of 30 km in the June heat, the group was slow to leave the overhang at the CSIS building. When we began to drift away, we noticed the copies of the Charter and the Declaration were still on the ground, and office workers coming out walked gingerly around them, as if they were the plague or SARS. It was a symbolic moment, for CSIS is similarly allergic to the both the charter of rights and the universal declaration.
Before the group left, Mrs. Jaballah explained how unfair it has been that her husband, cleared by a Federal Court of CSIS allegations in 1999, was re-arrested on a second certificate in August 2001, despite the CSIS admission that there was no new evidence. Perhaps most moving was hearing the words of some of the Jaballah children, including toddler Ali, aged 7, and his sister Afnan, aged 10, who had spent the previous two days energetically teaching experienced activists new tricks of the leafletting trade.
They miss their father. They need him, they want him home.
"Surely you understand, we need to provide some hope for these kids," we explained to the line of "security." "Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to do something to stop these secret trials?"
Along came the usual responses. "We're not authorized to talk about that today," "that's not our responsibility." etc.
But none of the officers looked the kids in the eyes, perhaps out of practice, perhaps out of shame. The relief the officers showed as we left was not out of prior concerns about the security of the building suddenly being lifted. Rather, it was because it seems they had seen, face to face, the very human suffering that results from their own unquestioning acceptance of orders from illegitimate authority.
What they will now do with that discomfort may very well one day have life and death consequences for an as-yet un-arrested security certificate target.
ACCOUNT #2, by Andrew Loucks of Hamilton
Divinely Surreal: Day One of the Walk to Stop Secret Trials
Faces familiar and new gather at St. Clair West subway station for rides up to the Metro West Detention Centre, where Muhammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Almrei are held, and where the Walk to Stop Secret Trials will begin. I meet Erica, Allison from Orangeville, and greet Barney and Maggie, fellow "evil doers" as some of us joke. Matt, a Homes Not Bombs newcomer, is back from a recent peace action at Downsview Canadian Forces base. Despite the tiresome court proceedings from that action it's good to see him back for more. I also meet "J," who has a lot of questions that seem out of place.
We pile into a minivan Steve Watson has donated for the day and make our way to Metro West. "J" sits beside me in the rear seat of the van. He begins questioning others in the van as if to attain instigation rather than information. He responds to our concerns about the secretive security certificate process by saying, "well they must have done something," a bizarre position for someone joining this walk. Loud and arrogant at times, he proclaims his desire to learn to fire guns and shoot animals, then begins cackling and mumbling about things like obsessive compulsive disorder, which he supposedly means to be humorous. I am thankful that others in the van take over the conversation, and that we eventually arrive at Metro West Detention Centre where I can escape the close quarters and creepiness I feel.
Soon the families of the disappeared arrive at the jail. Mrs. Jaballah and her children Ali, Afnan, Usama, Ahmed, Shama and Munzir, and Mona El-Fouli with her kids Ibrahim and Youssef, and other supporters join the group. This is their first social justice walk of this sort in Toronto.
Most of the group are not shy with one another. Here, outside the jail, their fathers locked up inside, Mahmoud Jaballah and Muhammad Mahjoub's children begin playing, making faces at photographer Erica before running away. She happily joins the chase.
"J" isn't shy either. After having disappeared inside the jail for a while, he emerges and re-starts the problematic mingling. He talks to members of the Jaballah family one by one and then some supporters, before heading over to the small school bus they arrived in. He circles the bus inquisitively. I angrily speculate about what he might be saying to people and begin stewing at the thought that some state "security" organization has sent someone specifically to harass people whose loved ones are suffering behind bars. I remind myself that my nose may be too sensitive, that the seemingly organized disruption "J" is inflicting may be coincidental.
We wait in vain for the French-language CBC to show up, as they said they would, delaying the start of the walk for some time. The market of messages has decided we are not news today. Secret trials (in which evidence is not disclosed to the accused or the accused's lawyer), state harassment and unjustly imprisoned refugees are issues not worthy of being revisited very often, even if they persist or worsen. We will have to be our own media today, projecting our message as effectively as possible to people in our immediate vicinity; writing and photographing the day for wider distribution.
Late as usual, we start our trek into the mid-day sun through the desolate, creepy maze of an industrial park Metro West Detention Centre resides in. Factories and warehouses are intermingled with the odd dance or strip club. The sidewalk seems something the municipality has constructed for liability reasons. No one, except us, actually uses it.
So what are we doing here? One might wonder. It is possible to think the journey is pointless, but that thinking is missing something. The social justice walk tactic inevitably takes political action to the most culturally desolate places. Motorists' eyes stray from corporate billboards and onto hand-painted banners that read "Stop Secret Trials in Canada" and "Release Canada's Disappeared."
Many drivers actually slow down to read the signs and banners. Some even stop long enough for us to run to the curb with a leaflet explaining in longer form what we're doing. Some cars and trucks honk in support, a large percentage of them taxi drivers. We are a visual, social, and political anomaly. For a day we are truly voices in a wilderness, a counterweight to a culture that insists "you can't do anything about it."
The terrain gets a little more significant as we approach an RCMP detachment. We stop here to present enlarged reproductions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since RCMP and CSIS behaviour seems to indicate they've lost their copies. Arab and Muslim communities are being regularly visited, their members singled out for interrogation, complete with threats and denial of access to legal counsel.
We wait for quite some time outside the door. It doesn't look like they're expecting us. However, "J" strolls over to have a chat, alone, with a man who's video recording the group from behind a nearby car. I return my attention to the group for a few moments. I look back to where the sinister videogapher stood, but he's vanished without a trace. "J" is strolling up the front of the RCMP building, once again alone.
The reproduced Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Universal Declaration of Human Rights are being taped to the door when an RCMP officer emerges to say he "can't accept anything." Matthew Behrens explains our offering is simply the Charter of Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Well that means it can wait until tomorrow," the officer interrupts.
We are about to leave the RCMP detachment when Mrs. Jaballah confides that "J" has been asking "crazy questions." Then an RCMP car approaches, makes an aggressive u-turn and stops. Another plainclothes officer emerges to speak to an eager group. He's a "watch commander:" special constable Eric Godrow. "We just do federal enforcement...we just follow the law," he says, directing our concerns toward Ottawa. Mona El-Fouli won't let him off that easily. "When is he coming home?" she asks about her husband Muhammad Mahjoub, imprisoned for 3 years without charge, much of it in solitary confinement. "The children cry and cry," she continues. "Are you a father?"
The questions won't free Mahjoub, Jaballah, Almrei, Charkaoui or Harkat - at least not on the spot, not in this forum. Yet there is something undeniably powerful about this moment. It is confrontational and transformative. The faceless bureaucracy the officers defer us to is dismantled. Agents of the repressive institution are forced to answer to the Mahjoub and Jaballah families face to face - no reasons of "national security" to hide behind, no technical evidence or obscure court procedures, just women and their families in flesh and blood demanding answers.
We return to our walk, making our way to Dixon Road. Traffic is much busier here. In minutes, hundreds of drivers see our signs and banners. Some stopped at lights roll down their windows to receive leaflets. Word makes it to the front of the group that "J" has aggressively laid hands on one Muslim woman in hijab, walking further back. Strictly speaking, no man outside immediate family is to make physical contact with a woman in hijab. That is the last I see or hear of "J." We are more careful to stay together as a group after that.
Heads turn as we make our way to diverse Toronto neighbourhoods sporting placards with Arabic names on them. Young white activists with holes in their jeans walk with women in full hijab, children running freely amongst us one minute, then leafletting and circulating petitions for the just treatment of their fathers the next. For me it is divinely surreal, and perhaps a more appropriate time to wonder if this might be something closer to "what democracy looks like." (Maybe that's what the counter-globalization movement should have been doing all along - wondering what democracy looks like, not self-righteously screaming to have captured its ideal.)
It's nearly 2 o'clock when we arrive at our rest stop, a Unitarian Fellowship on St. Phillips Road near Weston. Members of this community have made us lemonade and set out a modest lunch. Social justice walks help bind us together, I begin to think. We're meeting new people, and we use the time to have long talks with friends old and new. We help each other along.
In an age of rapid transportation the walk ingrains political realities on us as well. We start at a jail. Who knows where the jails are in our communities? We pass by an RCMP detachment, maybe a weapons manufacturer, through community after community, meeting supporters and encountering opponents along the way.
After some food, a good rest and a group picture we return to the walk, down Weston Road, where we find a continued steady curiosity in what we're about. A very few people yell back threatening things like "terrorist!", a label they must have thought consistent with conservative Muslim dress. Some of us discuss the need to understand how these incidents of hatred and violence affect us differently. These are bombs aimed at some more than others, guided there by our Canadian-made racialized environment. We all hear and feel the hateful scream and cowardly screech of tires that follows, but only some are wounded.
By the time we hit Lawrence we're getting tired. We're most of the way through the 15km first day of the walk. We stop and wait frequently so that the group can stay together. Some fall behind leafletting and talking to passersby. One woman on the walk is seven months pregnant. The little school bus follows closely, and other support vehicles stop for us frequently. There's food and water and a restful ride a few kilometres ahead if needed.
We make it to our destination eventually: the Lawrence West subway station. It has no political significance for us today, but for some of us it's a ride home for a shower, a meal and the much needed rest we'll need so that we can return tomorrow for another ten kilometres' walk.
Back to Secret Trials Home Page