The Resilience of Children

March Break in the Land of Secret Trials


TORONTO, MARCH 15, 2004 -- Despite everything they face, the children came to play, to sing, to run around, to chalk the sidewalks, to blow soap bubbles and play with balloons, to put stickers on the concrete pillars. Like other March Break kids, these were children who had had enough of school for a while and were enjoying the freedom of a weekday spent somewhere other than behind a desk.

What separated this from other events, though, was the fact these kids' fathers and uncles are in Canadian jails, held for many years without charge or bail, on secret evidence neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see.

For the children of Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohammad Mahjoub, as well as for the adopted Canadian family of Hassan Almrei, March 15 was a day to take part in yet another protest march and to play some March Break Madness in front of the Toronto headquarters of the spy agency responsible for persecuting their loved ones, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. (CSIS)

Despite a brisk, frigid wind, a group of about 30 people gathered at Union Station in downtown Toronto as media showed up to interview the families. Some seemed sympathetic, some downright amazed at the horror of what these families have experienced. Others were there for a scoop.

"How do you know your husband is not a terrorist?" asked one reporter of Mona Elfouli, whose husband Mohammad Mahjoub has been behind bars since June, 2000, threatened with deportation to Egypt despite the fact he would clearly be tortured there.

"Are you SURE you never heard him say anything extremist?" the white reporter asks with urgency. After all, the implication seems, Mahjoub must have done SOMETHING wrong, else he would not be held. One can imagine this same white reporter pressing similar questions against friends and supporters of Japanese-Canadians interned in concentration camps during World War II. Surely, they must have done SOMETHING wrong, the Canadian government doesn't simply seize the assets of a whole community and lock them up by the thousands!

Well, history has shown the truth of that human rights disaster, with the federal government apologizing and offering some limited compensation. But it may be a while before the disaster of secret trials is truly acknowledged and compensated for. One only hopes that sudden realization is not too late for Canada's Secret Trial Five, Muslim men who collectively have now been held 129 months and who would be subject to gross human rights abuses if deported to their countries of birth.

Elfouli calmly explains that her husband is a kind and loving man, and that no proof has ever been offered to support the CSIS claim that he might, in the past, present, or future, be associated with an organization whose activities would make him an inadmissable person to Canada. All her family has ever asked for, she explains, is for charges to be laid if the government of Canada truly believes her husband has been up to no good, and for evidence to be tested in open court. Otherwise, he should be released immediately.

Husnah Jaballah and her two oldest children, Ahmad and Shaymaa, field similar questions about Mahmoud Jaballah with a tired patience. He too would be subjected to torture , if not execution, if returned to Egypt. It is sad that the victims of secret trial security certificates have to constantly defend themselves and their loved ones against the "what-if" questions.

Even for those reporters with the gall to ask CSIS "What if YOU are wrong," "what if YOU are incompetent," "what if YOU are not telling the truth, what if YOU are biased," the response will be that CSIS does not offer comment on individual cases.

But such questions are not generally asked of an organization, CSIS, which is regularly criticized for lying, for withholding information which goes against its theories, for getting its facts wrong, and whose "intelligence gathering" techniques are still at a primitive stage.

Indeed, when CSIS interviews someone with respect to an investigation which could lead to a security certificate being issued, those interviews are NOT taped. Worse, verbatim notes are NOT written down. CSIS agents admit they sometimes jot down a name or two, then go back to the office, type up their summary of the interview, and destroy any jottings they may have made. A three hour interview can be thusly reduced to a two-page "summary" which is doctored to make the interviewee appear defensive, apprehensive, reluctant to cooperate. Then it is the word of a white CSIS agent against that of a Muslim man. Good luck in a country where racism is as Canadian as the Maple Leaf.

Often at such "interviews," a translator is not provided or, if one does show up, the translator is either not up to the task or, as in the Jaballah case, ends up snoring so loudly on the living room couch that it keeps the children from falling asleep.

The chance that CSIS might misinterpret answers to their questions under such circumstances (even assuming they are going into the interviews honestly) -- when cultural, linguistic, religious and political subtleties are unlikely to be fully appreciated -- is huge. The chance that the Muslim target of the interviews will be given the benefit of the doubt in such potentially perilous territory is minimal at best.

It is on the basis of such shoddy practices that these proceedings occur, followed by the secret hearing in which the individual and his/her lawyer is not allowed to be present.

It is against this backdrop that Monday's March Break Madness got under way. Before leaving Union Station, a declaration of intent was made clearly for all to hear. The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials is an anti-racism campaign placed in the larger context of opposing the current and historic anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policies of the Canadian government. We are opposed to anti-Semitism as well as sickened by the idea that anyone would question the horrors of the Holocaust.

That such a statement needed to be made in 2004 speaks to the ongoing concern that there are those who continue to propagate the idea that the German people have been "libelled" by the well-documented history of the Holocaust. A number of supporters of Ernst Zundel, who had shown up because he is also held on a security certificate, drifted away after this was made clear.

The march to CSIS is led by a nine-year-old at her first demo, clutching a sign that reads "Free My Uncle Hassan," as well as 6-year-old Ibrahim and 10--year-old Afnan.. "Free the Secret Trial Five" they chant as they hand out flyers and postcards to be sent to Anne McLellan, the minister responsible for signing security certificates.

Upon our arrival at the CN building at 277 Front Street West (where CSIS occupies three floors), a number of children came forward to voice their sadness at missing their fathers.

"We thought this country was supposed to be free," sighed 10-year-old Afnan Jaballah. "We need to focus on the real violence and the real crimes that are going on in our city, like the shootings in Scarborough, and stop hurting innocent people like my dad," said 17-year-old Ahmad Jaballah. His younger brother, Ali, aged 8, said quietly, "Either let my dad out of jail or put me in there so I can be with him."

The four youngest children then played ring-around-the rosey- around a stack of secret evidence boxes. They circled around faster and faster as supporters gathered in to sing:

Ring around the CSIS

Where's Your Secret Evidence?

We know and You Know

You got diddly squat!

After the children went around more than enough times to be thoroughly dizzy, they were invited to open the secret evidence boxes. Jamie, whose adopted Uncle Hassan Almrei has been in solitary confinement since October, 2001, tore open the box to find...nothing! She was followed by Jaballah's children, who have been through this twice with their father. He was cleared of all allegations in 1999 following nine months behind bars, only to be arrested again in August, 2001, and held ever since with CSIS admitting they had no new evidence, only a "new interpretation" of the old evidence which had already been dismissed.

Jaballah's kids tore open the box as their mother looked over them, but before they even had the tape and lid off, she knew herself what would be inside. "Nothing, there's nothing" she exclaimed.

Finally, young Ibrahim and his brother Yusef stepped up for the big box of secret evidence on their dad, Mr. Mahjoub. They had some trouble getting it open, but were eventually able to hold it aloft so everyone could see the vast emptiness within. They know their dad is in jail because of a mistake, and, as Ibrahim said, he was there to help the good dads get out of jail.

"This is the problem with secret evidence," explained one of the protesters. "You never know what's in there, or if there's anything in there in the first place. And if there is, it doesn't get cross-examined."

This was followed by a mystical presentation by the great magician CSISimo, who gathered the children around him and performed one of the easiest magic tricks in the book, one CSIS has mastered: making the Charter of Rights and Freedoms literally disappear before their eyes.

As balloons were passed around, children began chalking all over the sidewalk in front of the building. Stop Secret Trials, Don't Work for CSIS, and the CSIS hopscotch were some of the favourites. Others handed out stickers that read "CSIS Terrorist".

"We don't want to suggest that the United States invade Canada, but if you read the Iraqi Constitution under the U.S. occupation, it would appear the Secret Trial Five would have more rights if they were in Iraq than they do here in Canada, at least on paper," someone explained.

Indeed, the new constitution, proclaimed just the week before, is very clear in rights guaranteed, all of which are violated by the spirit and practice of the CSIS secret trial security certificate: "

(C) No one may be unlawfully arrested or detained, and no one may be detained by reason of political or religious beliefs. [ALL FIVE OF THE SECRET TRIAL FIVE ARE MUSLIM MEN]

(D) All persons shall be guaranteed the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, regardless of whether the proceeding is civil or criminal. Notice of the proceeding and its legal basis must be provided to the accused without delay. [JUDGES APPROVED BY CSIS SIT ON THE FEDERAL COURT HEARINGS, WITH THE BULK OF THE CASE HEARD IN SECRET WITHOUT THE INDIVIDUAL AND/OR HIS/HER LAWYER PRESENT]

(E) The accused is innocent until proven guilty pursuant to law, and he likewise has the right to engage independent and competent counsel, to remain silent in response to questions addressed to him with no compulsion to testify for any reason, to participate in preparing his defense, and to summon and examine witnesses or to ask the judge to do so. At the time a person is arrested, he must be notified of these rights. [BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT ADDUCES NO EVIDENCE, THE PERSON HELD ON THE CERTIFICATE IS PRESUMED GUILTY UNTIL S/HE CAN SOMEHOW PROVE INNOCENCE, NOT KNOWING WHAT CONSTITUTES THE ALLEGATIONS OR THE EVIDENCE]

(F) The right to a fair, speedy, and open trial shall be guaranteed. [INDEFINITE INCARCERATION APPEARS TO BE THE NORM IN MOST CERTIFICATE CASES]

As the game playing wound down, and the children appeared to have worn themselves out, we reflected on the resilience of children in hard times. These children have been terrorized by CSIS, by the arrests and tarring of their fathers' reputations, by the dehumanizing visits to the jails where they can only see their fathers behind thick glass. And yet they still have a great capacity for fun, for laughter, for uninhibited joy. They have been thrust into the centre of the adult world of corruption, decit, and global politics.

All they want is for Canada to be the beacon they hoped it would be when they came here seeking peace from persecution. All the teenagers want is to be teenagers, to not have to take on the responsibilities of adulthood at such a tender age. All the little ones want is to be able to hug their fathers, to have them home to help with their homework or to play games with them. All they want is their families back together.

They continue with their struggle. And, remarkably, they continue to smile, to laugh, to try and have some fun. After all, it's March Break.

As we depart, building managers immediately come out to wash away any sign of the chalk slogans and remove the "CSIS Terrorist" stickers. . As in Soviet Russia, any sign of the truth must not be allowed to remain in front of the headquarters of Canada's secret police.

If you would like to help out the families as they continue their daily struggle to survive, please contact us at the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0. If you would like to write letters of support, especially for the children, they can be sent c/o this address. Donations toward their costs can also be sent c/o Homes not Bombs at the above address.

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