The Problem with Torture: No One Will Believe You

A Report Back from 24 Hours Against Torture

In the waning moments of Toronto's 24 Hours Against Torture vigil, a telling incident occurred when an angry constituent went into the office of Deportation Minister Joe Volpe and demanded to know what was going on.

This individual had just read one of our flyers, detailing the cases of the Secret Trial Five, all of whom are at risk of torture or death if deported to Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. The flyer included quotations from documents released by the immigration and border services agencies which came to the conclusion that, despite the likelihood of such cruel and unusual treatment, the men should be deported anyway.

The response to his concerns, this individual said, was rather blunt. "They're making that up," he was reportedly told by office staff in reference to the group that had spent the previous 23 hours camped outside the office.

Perhaps the alleged comment was the result of a staff that has no clue what takes place in the Canadian deportation bureaucracy, which annually deports more than 10,000 people to an uncertain fate, and which plans to mark World Refugee Day, June 20, with a deportation of Nepalese refugee Subas B.K. to torture in Nepal. Perhaps they were unaware that the United Nations Committee on Torture had just called on Canada a few weeks ago to join the ranks of civilized nations and respect the absolute prohibition on deportation to torture.

Or maybe it was just the result of how racism daily works in Canadian society: the lives, words, and feelings, the daily reality of people who do not enjoy the privilege of white, male skin are in the first instance not to be believed and, in the second, are likely to have been "made up."

After all, that's how Hassan Almrei was treated in the fall of 2003 when the secret trial detainee went on a 43-day hunger strike demanding heat in his solitary confinement cell in the dead of winter. Jail officials and provincial officials simply denied that the problem existed. Hassan must be lying. After all, he is an Arab Muslim. Our culture does not respect the lives of Arab Muslims and Canada's spy agency treats the community as a security threat, infiltrating and spying on mosques, conducting intimidating and harassing house and workplace interviews, and using secret evidence under the security certificate scheme to jail five men a collective 207 months without charge (and incredibly restrictive bail in only one instance).

And the Federal Court judges hearing the secret trial cases almost always come to the conclusion, despite the contradictions, illogical positions, and outrights lies of the white CSIS officers, that it is the detainees who are not "credible."

And so it goes. Mohammad Mahjoub, marking 5 years in prison this June under secret evidence, requires a liver biopsy for Hepatitic C contracted while in jail. This request has been denied. Mahjoub and secret trial detainee Mahmoud Jaballah, both fathers, have requested monthly touch visits with their children, a right available to all federal detainees, but not to these ones. Request denied. Why? Because despite court testimony of jail officials who state these men are peaceful, quiet and respectful, they are still viewed as a "security threat" to fellow inmates and to their potential visitors: their kids.

The reaction from Volpe's office reads like a page from the George W. Bush playbook, which termed "absurd" the latest Amnesty International report on the "gulag of our times," Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, even though much of that report was based on findings released by the Pentagon's own Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention operations and court-martial testimony.

And that same spirit of disbelief is what was on display at the June 14 Arar Inquiry testimony of former Canadian ambassador to Syria Franco Pillarella who, according to the Toronto Star, "says he doubted Maher Arar's credibility because his story contradicted what Syrian authorities were telling him at the time." Indeed, Pillarella had either the gall, naivete or outright dishonesty to tell the inquiry that he had no proof of human rights violations in Syria, one of the world's most repressive regimes.

It was such stories that formed the backdrop to 24 Hours Against Torture, one of a half dozen events across Canada on June 8 that drew attention to the ways in which Canada continues to violate human rights here at home and abroad. About 30 people took part at one point or another during the Toronto vigil, with a core group staying the whole time, watched over by a round-the-clock police and RCMP presence. One group of Toronto police let us know that if we decided to extend our vigil, they would stay on with us from their cruiser, parked in the shade.

Although we were able to discuss the issues with a lot of people and hand out over 3,000 flyers in the busy Bathurst/Lawrence section of Toronto, the response from passersby varied greatly. Some refused to believe Canada jails people without charge on secret evidence, others that we would deport them to torture. Some used our presence as a therapeutic outlet for their own racism, screaming at the top of their lungs that this country was going down the toilet because of immigration (one Canada Post employee, himself an immigrant from Britain, explained that the problem with Canada was they were letting everyone in with no restrictions whatsoever, and "it hasn't changed since I came here."

But most disturbing was the appalling silence and apathy, the way in which so many people -- confronted with placards that read "This is what happens when Canada deports people to torture," followed in large print with descriptions provided by Amnesty International of the cruelties inflicted upon human beings by their captors -- pretended that this vigil, and the issue it symbolized, was just not happening.

It's another sign of the psychotic nature of the Canadian political scheme: while Canadian politicians will solemnly and hypocritically mark World Refugee Day and the International Day in Solidarity with the Victims of Torture this June, their hired guns in immigration will be busy beating down doors in the middle of the night and snatching frightened refugees from their beds for a quick trip to detention and deportation, sweeping shopping malls and construction sites for "undocumented" workers, and pursuing efforts to deport to torture the Secret Trial Five.

Thankfully, though, there are pockets of resistance. From coast to coast on June 8, events were held to call on the Canadian government to end such deportations, with a press conference in Vancouver followed by a rally and march, a spirited walk through Anne McLellan's Edmonton constituency, a well-attended evening rally with music and poetry at the Human Rights monument in Ottawa, a 24-hour vigil at Paul Martin's Montreal constituency office, and a good turnout for a rally in Halifax (preceded by an editorial on secret trials in the local paper).

And the Toronto Star reports that the Ecumenical Association of Portuguese and Hispanic Churches, which represents 123 congregations, will open church doors as sanctuary for vulnerable "underground" residents if immigration officials don't stop their stepped-up "enforcement" sweeps of construction and related work sites.

Some upcoming and ongoing events:

Toronto: Ali & Ali and the Axes of Evil: a Free Reading, with donations for the Esperanza Fund (which aids secret trial detainees' families), Thursday, June 16, 7 pm, The Drake Underground (1150 Queen Street West)


Saturday, June 18, 12noon - 8pm, Dufferin Grove Park (on Dufferin, south of Bloor/Dufferin station)

Stop the June 20 Deportation of Subas B.K. to torture in Nepal: Letters should be sent to Anne McLellan and Joe Volpe (contact for a backgrounder)

Human Contact is a Human Right: Allow Touch Visits for the Children of Secret trial Detainees! See more at

No One is Illegal Montreal to Ottawa March, Begins June 18 in Montreal

Bail Hearing for Hassan Almrei, held almost 4 years in solitary confinement, Monday, June 27-Wednesday, June 29, Federal Court, 361 University Ave.

(report from Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada)