Ontario Government Refuses to Budge on Day 75 of Mohammad Mahjoub's Hunger Strike

Heavy Security, Including Police Dog, Patrol Ministry Lobby as Mona Elfouli meets with Government Representatives


Members of Toronto's Arabic and Muslim communities may start to seriously wonder whether supporting the Liberal Party, federally or provincially, is worth the cost in blood that will soon be on both political parties' hands should Mohammad Mahjoub, on day 75 of a hunger strike, die in custody.

Mahjoub, a secret trial detainee held over five years without charge or bail on secret evidence, is demanding from his solitary confinement cell immediate hospitalization to monitor his vital signs during this critical, dangerous phase of his hunger strike; a liver biopsy to check the progression of Hepatitis C contracted in the detention centre, and related medical treatment; and touch visits with his two young children, aged 6 and 8.

An independent medical doctor visiting Mahjoub on Sunday afternoon concluded that he needs, within the next 2 or 3 days (as of Sunday), to be hospitalized, because Metro West does not have proper monitoring equipment. Specifically, the doctor notes the "risk of life-threatening arrhythmia if strike continues more than 3 days" as well as an IV connection for "electrolyte imbalance when indicated" and warns of impending renal dysfunction.

Thusfar, the response from both Ottawa and Queen's Park appears to be in perfect harmony: let Mahjoub die. It's been a long summer of hunger strikes demanding minor improvements to inhumane conditions of detention for Canada's secret trial detainees. And both the federal and provincial governments have played a cynical game of ping-pong, passing the responsibility back and forth while men who have never been charged with anything starve to death in their prisons.

Today was no different. The provincial government, feeling the pressure of the thousands of phone calls and letters pouring in from across Canada, finally agreed to a brief meeting with Mona Elfouli, who has tirelessly campaigned to free her husband, and Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada. Having pleaded last week with government officials for a meeting but receiving no response, they called government officials early this morning to say they were on their way downtown to demand an immediate meeting, and that representatives of the provincial government had better find some time to hear first-hand what was going on.

Their first stop was Queen's Park, where they saw a mounting security effort in process, expecting the demonstration that was coming later in the day. Queen's Park security immediately recognized Behrens (previously banned for life from the legislature for planting zucchinis, among other protests) and asked what was going on. When we asked to get in to see someone from Premier McGuinty's office, they called up, but the response was no one would meet with us.

We then headed to the offices of Corrections Minister Monte Kwinter, whose silence on these issues has been deafening all summer long. As security measures were being implemented in that building, Elfouli and Behrens noticed that Minister Kwinter, who has refused any meetings, tried slipping out before the rally. However, he was recognized and approached as he tried to get into his limousine.

Kwinter was asked why he has refused to negotiate with Mr. Mahjoub and whether he was prepared to allow Mohammad to die for seeking such basic human rights as health care and hugs with his kids.

"I can't talk to you about the case," he scolded Behrens.

"Then you can talk to Mona, who is married to him," Behrens replied.

"I can't speak with her," Kwinter said, not even acknowledging Mona's presence.

"You will be responsible should Mr. Mahjoub die in your jail," he was told.

"We have things under control," he said as an aide pushed him into the back of his limo and sped away.

As Elfouli and Behrens were escorted into the locked down ministry, the lobby filled with OPP security officers, including one at the ready with a German Shepherd police dog in a scene which Mona commented was eerily reminiscent of Birmingham, Alabama or Johannesburg, South Africa. The message could not have been clearer: when folks who happen to be Muslim seek some accountability from their government, they must be intimidated into silence by police power and police dogs.

But the meeting with an assistant deputy minister and a legal advisor to the ministry was an exercise in fruitless frustration. Their attitude was fairly condescending, implying that all this could be solved if Mohammad simply began to eat again. The two lied to us, claiming they had been in touch with Mahjoub's lawyer earlier that day and that things were being taken care of. They also said that due to confidentiality issues, they could not discuss specifics of Mahjoub's case, even though last year Mahjoub specifically signed a release authorizing Behrens and Elfouli to deal with those very issues.

"You have to understand," we were told, that a lot of this was new to the individuals in the government and that they had been working all weekend on the issue. How could a 75-day hunger strike be new, and what would they have been doing spending hours working when all it would take to solve the crisis is issue proper medical care and allow touch visits with the children?

As the barking of police dog echoed through the lobby and into our small meeting room, Elfouli patiently explained why Mahjoub is hunger striking, outlining a litany of problems at the jail from denial of visits to the children because they had participated in a peaceful demonstration to free their father to denial of basic medical treatment.

The Ministry officials countered that they had gone a long way to solving the problem of Mahjoub's failing eyesight, saying they brought in a specialist and that the prescription should be filled any day new for new eye glasses. This too was a lie, since it was campaign supporters who arranged to have the eye doctor come to the jail, and his prescription for new eyewear has yet to be filled 8 months later.

It seemed that the ministry's main goal was getting Mohammed to eat again. But Mahjoub feels he cannot end his hunger strike without a solid, written commitment from the provincial government to change his conditions. Without that, he sees no reason why the government would not continue to engage in practices that have led to his legitimate complaints. The attitude of ministry officials was almost a sense of shock, indeed, anger, that they had been put in a position where someone was threatening to go all the day to starvation to get them to pay attention to his demands. But those in power usually play the victim in such circumstances, and those like Mahjoub, and Hassan Almrei before him (who ended a 73-day hunger strike), feel the only voice they have is the hunger strike.

What do you think we have been doing the past five years, Mona asked them, noting time and again efforts have been made to negotiate with prison officials, the Ombudsman of Ontario, and anyone else who would listen, all to no avail.

In the end, they told us, it was in Mr. Mahjoub's hands. Elfouli directly told them that no, it was in the hands of the government, and that she would hold them responsible should Mohammed die.

A silent march of shame was then organized to head west to Queen's Park, where dozens of security were on standby for the peaceful crowd of about 60 people. NDP MPP Marilyn Churley came out of the House to read the federal NDP's strong statement against security certificates and escorted Behrens and Elfouli into the building to meet with someone from the Premier's office. McGuinty, however, would only sent out a junior staffer with no authority who promised nothing, not even a commitment to a process to deal with the issues raised by the hunger strike.

It is clear that neither Mr. McGuinty nor his government cares about this Arab Muslim man dying in his jail. Worse, McGuinty plans to hobnob with Arab community members tonight at a $150-a-ticket garden party, where hopefully he will be questioned as to how he can allow such brutality to carry on.

Throughout it all is the weak, humble voice of Mahjoub in solitary. In a phone conversation at 6 pm this evening, Mr. Mahjoub wanted to thank his supporters for their efforts, and to publicly thank jail officials, including guards and health care staff, who he says have shown a particular amount of care in the last few weeks as his health has rapidly declined. He wishes to draw a distinction between professionals within the jail who are doing their jobs and those responsible at government levels, provincial and federal, who are making the key decisions about his life. Informed of all the activity supporting his demands, he said he felt slightly more hopeful. But hope can only carry a starving person so far and, as the doctor recommends, hospitalization is needed urgently.

Mahjoub also said tonight that he recognizes that the changes he seeks will not be brought about overnight. If he feels comfortable that an accountable, transparent process has been put in place to ensure his demands will be met, that would help him reconsider the hunger strike.

Meanwhile, about thirty people gathered outside the Montreal offices of Prime Minister Paul Martin, in a building which also houses Montreal offices of Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). People were shaken by the news that the Ontario government was refusing to hospitalize Mahjoub. Janet Weinroth, also a member of Palestinian and Jews United (PAJU), spoke spontaneously, expressing her deep concern that there had been so little public attention to the appalling situation.

A small delegation of friends of Mona Elfouli's, including Janet and two health professionals, then entered the building, hoping to follow up with two officials who had already met with supporters of Mahjoub in past weeks: Mme. Santaro, a representative of Paul Martin's office, who met with a delegation of doctors and nurses on 2 September and has not followed up with the health professionals; and Mr. Raymond Archambault, a representative from the CBSA, who did follow up with friends of Mona's on Friday to confirm that he had delivered letters from Human Rights Watch, Ligue des droits and Canadian Council for Refugees -- written to support Mr. Mahjoub's demands -- to officials in the federal CBSA office, but who had not at that time followed through on his promise to Mona to pass on a message directly from her that she would be holding them and other Canadian and Ontario officials responsible for the death of her husband. Neither official, nor anyone else from the two offices, was available to meet with friends of Mahjoub's today.

The delegation followed on a multifaith prayer service of Christians, Jews and Muslims organized last Friday afternoon in Montreal.

In Ottawa, a hastily organized demo brought together six people with a couple of placards and a bullhorn, and informed all passers-by that Mohammad Mahjoub was in an urgent medical crisis, and that he was in the care and custody of the Government of Ontario. They urged people to demand that MPP Richard Patten and Premier Dalton McGuinty intervene in the prison system in order

that Mohammed's "utterly reasonable" demands be met.

Following a good 40 minutes of leafletting and chanting, a delegation (of two) went up into the second floor of the office building to meet briefly with Patten's constituency staff, where they

explained the purpose of the gathering and the demands.

In Edmonton, a chain fast in support of Mahjoub continues as well.

Please keep up the pressure: Demand that Mohammad e hospitalized and properly monitored in a medical setting. Call McGuinty's office:

Premier Dalton McGuinty

PHONE: (416) 325-1941

FAX: (416) 325-3745