Refugee Hassan Almrei Vows to Continue 24-Day Hunger Strike Until His Demands Are Met
Court Hearing Adjourned until November 5 as Ontario Government Refuses to Budge
Supporters Urge Mass Call-In to Monte Kwinter, New Minister of Community Safety (formerly Public Safety and Security) to demand Shoes, Sweater, Proper Heat for Hassan
"If they come for the innocents without first stepping over our bodies, then a curse on our religion, and a curse on our lives." -- Dorothy Day
(report from Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada)
TORONTO, OCTOBER 22, 2003 -- The news coming out of court today was not good. Due to tight scheduling issues, the judge hearing a motion to bring heat, shoes and a sweater to the solitary confinement cell where Hassan Almrei has spent the past two years, adjourned the case until November 5. Almrei, already in day 24 of a hunger strike for those very simple demands, has vowed not to eat until the court reconvenes again, which will be day 38 without food.
As the new provincial government of Dalton McGuinty is sworn in October 23, Ontario taxpayers might want to start flooding the office of Monte Kwinter, new Minister of Community Safety (formerly Public Safety and Security -- ministry number below) with calls, demanding to know why thousands of taxpayer dollars are being wasted by government lawyers who have dug in their heels, insisting that in a cold country like Canada, those three very basic rights to warmth cannot be guaranteed to Mr. Almrei.
The past few days in court have been a frustrating exercise in bureaucracy-speak, as terms like "special management offender" and "administrative segregation" get thrown back and forth, confounding a straight-talking judge who wants to know what it all means in human language.
Government lawyer Angela Jeffrey is doing her best to ensure that Hassan's requests are denied, while jail officials are stumbling over each other, offering up contradicting evidence while trying to interpret what appear to be utterly imprecise--not to mention inhumane--jail standards. As Justice Arthur Gans repeatedly asks, what is the definitive reason that Hassan, whom everyone concedes is friendly, nonviolent, and amiable, cannot have shoes to walk the cold cement floors of his cell?
And yet the question at the end of the day keeps coming back to Mr. Almrei: why will he not stop his hunger strike?
At the close of Tuesday's hearing, the judge complimented Almrei, saying he had made quite a "beach-head" with respect to the publicizing of conditions in solitary confinement, and he pleaded with him to start eating again, since the issue was finally being addressed in the public sphere and in the courts.
It was another in a chorus of voices which has been pleading with Hassan not to pursue this dangerous, potentially lethal form of protest: nurses, guards, jail administrators, lawyers, friends, all have been hoping Hassan will end his hunger strike so his already weak system will not cave in on itself.
It is unclear, exactly, how Hassan Almrei is still surviving. The 29-year-old Syrian refugee, held on secret evidence neither he nor his lawyer is allowed to see, has already seen his share of bleak times. For his first 15 months in segregation, ordered there without explanation by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, he was not allowed visitors, was rarely outside his cell, and was very much alone.
Despite the fact that there appears to be not a shred of reality in the allegations against him, he has suffered from being branded an "alleged terrorist" by a hyperactive, hysterical media pack.
It is only in the past six months that a support community has sprung up around Almrei. There are people who have visited him, who receive his daily phone calls, who are happy to try and provide support so that he might be bailed out of prison.
It's incredibly frustrating and painful watching someone you care deeply about slowly shriveling into themselves as the body begins to consume itself. The inspiring efforts of supporters, including Diana Ralph, who decided to forgo food for some two weeks in solidarity, as well as students and seniors from around the globe joining a solidarity chain fast, have helped maintain Hassan's spirits.
But today as Hassan refused any thought of suspending his hunger strike until court reconvenes, it was obvious that this case goes far beyond the simple demands he has made for shoes, sweater and a guarantee of proper heat.
It is first and foremost about struggling to maintain the last vestiges of dignity for a man who has been humiliated, lied to, beaten, robbed of his civil liberties, held without charge or bail, all in the vague, undefined defence of Canadians' "national security."
Many a crime has been committed in that name, and this case is no exception. The treatment of Almrei is a crime, a violation of international standards and norms which Canada says it believes in, a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a violation of our collective conscience. It is doubly so because he represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people across this land who are thrown behind bars because of the colour of the skin, the scarcity of their pocketbooks, the "foreign-ness" of their faith.
It is impossible for anyone who has never been in jail to imagine the cold concrete, the relentless gray of the bars, the steel "bed," the endless boredom, the fear of potential violence from guards or other prisoners, the verbal abuse and humiliation, the utterly desolate feeling that even when your release date is coming up, you still have to hope against hope that nothing bad happens to keep you in beyond that date. It is a violence inflicted on the human spirit which undermines any sense of equality and democracy its jailers proclaim.
And so for those of us who are pleading with Hassan to stop his hunger strike, or at least suspend it pending the outcome of his hearing, it is impossible for us to have even an inkling of the indignities this young man has suffered. His self-denial is a wake-up call to alert the world to the life that is wasting away, without reason, in solitary.
Hassan's body is broken. It is 100 pounds lighter than when he was thrown into the hole two years ago. He is a veteran of two shivering winters when he could never get warm enough. Yet his soul, he insists, is free, and will always remain so. That they cannot take away from him. Nor can they destroy his sense of pride, and dignity.
Martin Luther King used to say that one could not really live until one overcame a fear of death. Hassan is a man of deep faith, for whom death is no longer an abstract concept to fear, but a very real possibility he has faced every day of his life in jail, wondering whether he will survive the ordeal in Canada only to be deported to Syria where he would face torture and, most likely, murder. He still dreams about what it might be like to get out of Canada's Guantanamo Bay, to open his Freedom Restaurant and to just get back to what he loves to do: provide good food to make people healthy and happy.
Like his fellow Muslim secret trial prisoners, it appears that faith has carried Hassan through this ordeal. It is a tribute to their devotion to their faith that they remain hopeful, devoid of hatred, bitterness, demonization of those who have placed them in cages to be ridiculed, defamed, hated by those who have allowed fear to run their lives.
Throughout the past six months, as I have come to know, respect, and care deeply for my adopted brother Hassan, we have had many discussions about life, philosophy, the nature of transformation and the radical power of an all-embracing love which cuts through the steel bars and concrete walls that separate us.
I have learned much about my own sense of faith, my own deeply held (though often challenged) belief in the radical notion of beloved community. My daughter has challenged her teachers in history class, who have pooh-poohed the idea that Canada has detained Muslims on secret evidence. She is one of the only teenagers in this country who has spoken to someone detained in Canada's Guantanamo Bay, and she is proud to know him and learn from his strength and courage.
And so tonight, I know I am faced with swallowing hard and trying not to nag Hassan to start eating again. Instead, I hope that the people who have come to know Hassan through our e-mails and through seeing him in court will recommit themselves to forcing this government to provide what has been Hassan's long-refused right.
No one should be faced with freezing to death or starving to death. No one should be humiliated and deprived of their dignity.
Hassan's hunger strike is now at a crucial stage. He is calling on all of us to recognize his humanity, his suffering, and his hope. In answering his call, there is so much we can do: writing letters, calling the government, attending the CSIS action in Ottawa on October 31, and calling for an end to the brutal security certificate and CSIS' and the RCMP's terrorizing of Canada's Arabic and Muslim communities, among others.
As I go to sleep tonight, I will try and imagine Hassan in his solitary cell, where the only sound is the echo of guards' boots walking the floor. I will try to imagine what it would be like to forgo food for almost a month, and, as I try to understand and find some sort of peace with Hassan's determination to continue his hunger strike, I will recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom Hassan and I have shared much discussion.
These words were delivered by King in an early assessment of the civil rights movement in the U.S. At the time, King concluded that a "growing self-respect has inspired the Negro with a new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first-class citizenship becomes a reality. This is at bottom the meaning of what is happening in the South today. Whether it is manifested in nine brave children of Little Rock walking through jeering and hostile mobs, or fifty thousand people of Montgomery, Alabama, substituting tired feet for tired souls and walking the streets of that city for 381 days, or thousands of courageous students electrifying the nation by quietly and nonviolently sitting at lunch counters that have been closed to them because of the color of their skin, the motivation is always the same -- the Negro would rather suffer in dignity than accept [racial] segregation in humiliation."
Hassan has been given no choice but this: suffer in dignity or accept solitary in humiliation, die on his feet or live on his knees. The amount of space he has to maintain a life of dignity is now up to us.
For more information on what you can do to help, contact email@example.com or (416) 651-5800, www.homesnotbombs.ca
Hassan wishes to thank everyone who has written cards of support, who has fasted and demonstrated, and who has come to court.
PLEASE CALL THE MINISTRY AND ASK TO SPEAK TO THE NEW MINISTER OR SOMEONE IN HIS/HER OFFICE ABOUT THE NEED TO MEET HASSAN'S DEMANDS.
Minister of "Community Safety "
25 Grosvenor St., 18th Flr., Toronto, ON M7A 1Y6
(416) 325-0408, fax: (416) 325-6067
please cc us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can or at the PO Box listed at the top of the news release
Kwinter's constituency office is (416) 630-0080, fax (416) 630-8828
1. Show Hassan you support his just demand for heat, in the interim, and for a hearing in which there is no secret "evidence," over the longer term. Postcards or short letters of support can be sent to Hassan Almrei, Metro West Detention Centre, 111 Disco Road, Rexdale, ON M9W 5L6. Please notify us at email@example.com if you do write, so we can make sure he is getting his mail. Letters from outside of Canada welcomed as well.
2. Take part in the National Day of Action to Stop Secret Trials, Friday, October 31. In Ottawa, there will be a large gathering at CSIS. If something is not planned in your community already, get in touch and we can discuss setting up a local vigil with flyers (or visit our website at www.homesnotbombs.ca for details)
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