Hungering For Justice: From Solitary Confinement to the Streets of Toronto

The Case of a Syrian Refugee Held Two Years in Solitary Confinement in Toronto is very much Linked to the Campaign to Transform Moss Park Armoury into Non-Profit, Affoirdable Housing

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, TORONTO -- We were on our way to the weekly Homes not Bombs/Food not Bombs/Clothes not Bombs weekly vigil at Moss Park Armoury when the familiar collect call came from solitary confinement at 5:45 last night. The voice belonged to our friend Hassan Almrei, a 29-year-old Syrian refugee held in solitary confinement for the past two years at Metro West Detention Centre. He was just completing his 9th day of an open-ended hunger strike, demanding heat in his freezing cell, where he has shivered through two long, miserable, lonely winters.

His spirits are high for someone who has been through this torture and who has not had a morsel of solid food in well over a week. The public pressure to get heat for Almrei has been drawing attention, as an immigration official finally pays him a visit to see why people have been calling his department in Ottawa to rally on Hassan's behalf. It is the same department which is trying to send Hassan back to Syria despite the fact his life would be in jeopardy there.

We discuss the good news that Canadian Maher Arar has been released by Syria. Arar was held over one year in a Syrian prison on secret "evidence" neither he nor his lawyer was allowed to see. We wonder when the Canadian government will free Almrei, who is also held on secret "evidence" neither he nor his attorney, Barbara Jackman, is allowed to see.

As we campaign for Hassan's freedom, as well as for the freedom of four other Muslim men who, all told, have been held a collective 104 months without charge or bail, we are often asked why these gentlemen are being held. Surely, we are told by shocked individuals, there must be SOME reason.

One can hear the echoes through history of similar rationalizations. As thousands of Japanese Canadians and Italo-Canadians are rounded up and interned during World War II, we are told that SURELY there must be SOME reason they are being held. Ditto for Germans and Ukrainians interned in World War I. And double ditto, as so many tend to forget, the largest mass internment in Canadian history, one which continues to this day through the reserve system, massive poverty and disproportionately high incarceration rates, the First Nations of this land.

In those three examples, and in the most contemporary one, the Project Thread of the RCMP which continues to hold South Asian students in detention despite admitting there are no security concerns, the reasons can be boiled down to fear and racism playing out their dual purposes.

In the case of Canada's Secret Trial Five -- Almrei, Mahmoud Jaballah, held since August 2001, Mohammad Mahjoub, since June, 2000, Mohamed Harkat, since International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2001, and Adil Charkoui, since May) -- there is no difference. None has actually been accused of committing any illegal act. All have been clear: if there is evidence against them, bring it forward, charge them as you would in any criminal case, and let them answer to it. Otherwise, end this torturous charade for the men and their families (11 children altogether).

But Canada continues to be a country where racism and fear stitch every sharp edge of the maple leaf flag. That racism and fear allows for secret trials of Muslim men, as it allows a federal government to justify its ever-growing military budget (which, while social programs have been slashed, continues to remain the largest use of "discretionary" funding).

Shortly after we end our conversation with Hassan, members of Homes not Bombs gather at the entrance to the Moss Park Armoury, where we distribute warm, nutritious food and clothing. For the past 18 months, we have gathered very Tuesday in the little-used armoury, handed out flyers, fed people, and provided some of the basic protections against the bitter cold that's a life and death issue for folks who, like Almrei, have little control over their current destinies.

Last night, three massive pots of soup and chili, a casserole, dozens of juice boxes, two huge bowls of fresh organic fruit, and a large selection of coats, sweaters, socks and hats disappear within a 90 minute span as scores of hungry people stop by, share their stories, and move on. Some will sleep against the walls of the empty armoury tonight, only to be harassed by Metro Police, who rudely awaken them in the night and force them to move on.

Inside this massive structure, which visitors can see stands empty this evening, is enough space, without altering the height of the current structure, to house 375 people. We can say this with a certain assurance because we commissioned architects to come up with plans for what will hopefully someday be the Non-Profit Moss Park Community Housing Cooperative. Toronto City Council has even called on the federal government to turn this old dinosaur--which was built in the early 1960s by levelling a massive city block of housing--back to the city for housing. A case of bombs, not homes.

The War Dept. has told us that the armoury is needed for that vague notion of "national security," a term whose definition continues to defy reality. Indeed. for 5 million Canadians struggling below the poverty line, there is no such thing as national security.

. More recently, we are told Moss Park Armoury is a key part of Canada's "homeland security."

But against what??? In the absence of any tangible threat, we must, as we have in the past, create one. And so it is that we see the demonizing of people like Hassan Almrei to justify what is, essentially, unjustifiable. Just as in the cold war, when the threat of reds under every bed justified massive expansion of military spending, so we use the current enemy-du-jour, Muslim men, as the bogeyman to ensure fattened coffers for the war industry and a more acceptable climate for restrictions on civil liberties.

Indeed, in 1944, at a time before spin doctors were able to micromanage every mis-statement of the wealthy and powerful, then General Electric President Charles Wilson, presiding over a massive war manufacturing capacity inherited during World War II, unashamedly called for a permanent war economy, calling disarmament a "thoroughly discredited doctrine" and stating the US "should henceforth mount a national policy upon the solid fact of an industrial capacity for war, and a research capacity for war...The revulsion against war not too long hence will be an almost insuperable obstacle for us to overcome in establishing a preparedness program, and for that reason I am convinced that we must begin now to set the machinery in motion."

Part of that machinery was, of course, the fabricated Communist scare of the 40s and 50s, commonly given the term McCarthyism (though it was exercised long before McCarthy gained the spotlight). Speaking 6 years later in 1950, Wilson made this painfully obvious in an address to newspaper publishers in which he urged them to continue convincing Americans that "the free world is in mortal danger...if the people were not convinced of that, it would be impossible for Congress to vote the vast sums now being spent to avert that danger...with the support of public opinion, as marshalled by the press, we are off to a good start. But the mobilization job cannot be completed unless such support is continuous...It is our job, yours and mine, to keep our people convinced that the only way to keep disaster away from our shores is to build America's might."

Canada is in the unique position of maintaining its peacekeeper myth as it spends some 800% more on war and the armed enforcement of injustice than it does on affordable housing. When people ask what threatens us, the government defers to the thoroughly discredited spies at CSIS and the RCMP who, desperate to find somebody (the RCMP motto that "they always get their man" has literally become "they always get, er, well SOME guy"), picks on people in the Arabic, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim communities for their easy prey. After all, when you don't have to publicly produce any evidence, it's a pretty cushy job.

And so last night, as Almrei cannot sleep in his solitary cell because it is too cold to get comfortable, thousands of people across Toronto who are victims of this country's war economy will also likely be up much of the night as they struggle to find a little bit of warmth on the streets in a city where shelters, some of which do not meet the UN standards for refugee camps, are filled to capacity.

As Hassan ends our conversation, he reminds me that his wardrobe is no longer of use to him, as he has lost well over 100 pounds during his time in solitary. In a request all too typical of Almrei's humble selflessness, he asks that his clothing all be donated to help keep folks on the street a little bit warmer this winter.

If you would like to help secure justice for Canada's Secret Trial Five and assist in the campaign to get heat for Hassan, contact us at (416) 651-5800,,

It is vital that people continue writing letters and making phone calls to ensure that this issue remains in the public spotlight. On Sunday, October 19, there will be a vigil at Metro West Detention Centre at 12 noon. On October 31, there will be actions in different parts of Canada protesting secret trials, including a direct action trick-or-treat for secret evidence at CSIS Ottawa headquarters.

(report from Matthew Behrens of Homes not Bombs and the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada)


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