Without charge, without trial, without hope
Security certificates are an indefinite sentence. Whatever happened to due process for all?
For those who haven’t done it, visiting a maximum security prison can be an adventure. There is drama in passing through one heavy metal door after another. It is somehow titillating to wait before a thick window, telephone receiver in hand, for a mystery man clad in orange to emerge behind the glass. It is cool to greet someone by pressing your hand up against the glass, his hand on the other side. Stimulating to have a stranger sit before you, a chance to discover and question someone who has been labelled an extremist by the Canadian government—according to them, linked to Osama bin Laden’s “holy war.”
So it is when I first meet Hassan Almrei.
My first impression of the orange-clad stranger is not what one might expect when coming face to face with a suspected terrorist. Hassan comes off as kind and gentle. Appearances may be misleading, but I have been to a few dangerous places in my time, some of them in the Middle East. Hassan has the kind of face I sought out in such places, where you cannot make it without the solicitude of others. You have to rely on strangers, and you seek out the kind faces, looking for something gentle in people amid the danger and the destruction. Had I met Hassan Almrei at the ends of the earth, I would have trusted him.
Instead, I meet Hassan here in Canada, at the Toronto West Detenton Centre near Pearson International Airport. In these first encounters, in the spring of 2005, he tells me his story. Since October 2001, his home has been a nine-by-12-foot concrete cell. A small window well above his head lets in a little natural light. A fluorescent tube otherwise lights his cell, dimming slightly at night. His bed is a concrete slab with a thin mattress. A metal table is affixed to the wall. He has no chair. The door to his cell is steel; his meals are passed through a slot. Every day, he is allowed to leave his cell for a shower, always under supervision. A few times a week, he is permitted to stroll for a few minutes in an outside enclosure—concrete walls on all sides, but with an open sky above.
Hassan is a thin, gaunt man with a reced-
ing hairline and thick black moustache. He is soft-spoken yet decisive with his words. He also likes to laugh, and so we do—at the mountain of absurdities that he has faced, at the fact that for the first two years of his detention, his cell was poorly heated. We also laugh over the fact that he didn’t have anything to read during his first years of detention, that he sat in his cell shivering under a blanket with nothing to do. There is a lot to laugh about, if you have a taste for the comedy of the absurd.
He wasn’t allowed shoes. So he started to refuse the food passed through the slot. After two years and several hunger strikes, a provincial judge finally heard his request for better conditions in the autumn of2003. The judge discovered that the guards on Hassan’s cellblock wore sweaters and coats while they worked there in winter. So he ordered the heating fixed and stipulated that Hassan be allowed a pair of sneakers. With a big smile, Hassan holds up the cheap Chinese shoes in triumph, “ft cost Canadian taxpayers maybe $150,000. That was the cost of five days of
court, of armed guards. All this for $2 sneakers,” he says. “This is too sad. Why?”
Why indeed is Hassan in solitary confinement in a Canadian prison? He laughs again: “The government thinks I am a terrorist, that I am a threat to national security!” Hassan has not been charged, has not even been able to learn the reasons for his detention, only the damning allegation that he is a danger to the Canadian public. Any national security evidence that the government holds against him is kept secret and neither he nor his lawyers nor the Canadian public can challenge that.
The government has successfully convinced a federal judge that Hassan is a security threat, that he should be deported and, until that time, held in custody.
My interest in this issue started £ in January 2005, when a friend N contacted me to ask if I would ° consider signing an open let£ ter to the government protesting some| thing called a security certificate. At the &
‘CHARGE ME. IF YOU PROVE IN A TRIAL THAT I HAVE DONE ANYTHING WRONG, THROW AWAY THE KEY.5
time, I had no idea what that was. My friend told me it was a measure by which individuals were detained without charge in Canada. With a little Internet research, I discovered that five men were being held in Canadian prisons, that they had been in custody for several years (one of them for four), and that not one had been charged with any offence. I was shocked and a little angry. Not knowing anything more about these men, I agreed to sign the letter. In my country, no one should be imprisoned without proper charges.
Hassan is a Muslim, as are all the detainees. His security certificate was issued in October 2001, only weeks after Sept. 11. Those were panicked times, amid accusations the hijackers had entered the United States from Canada. George W. Bush was aggressively
telling the world that countries were either with the U.S. in its war on terror or against it. Canada, meanwhile, was scrambling to put together a coherent anti-terror policy.
Hassan Almrei was the first high-profile suspect apprehended by the Canadian government after Sept. 11. Ottawa told the media he was part of an al-Qaeda-linked forgery ring involved in assisting the movement of terrorists around the globe. He was described as a follower of Osama bin Laden. Hassan appeared in Federal Court, where intelligence officers said much of the information on which their suspicions were founded had to be kept secret for national security reasons. The judge decided that the belief that Hassan might be a danger to national security was reasonable. And that was that. No appeal. No sentence. Hassan was simply locked away in solitary confinement.
In our meetings, I learn that Hassan Almrei was born on Jan. 1, 1974, making him
seven days my junior. From Syria, he is a selfavowed jihadist and fundamentalist. His father, a teacher, was a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which professes that Islam is the only true founding principle for Arab statehood. In Egypt, the Brotherhood was implicated in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. In Syria, it has for years been the target of harsh repression: membership in the Brotherhood is punishable by death. Facing persecution, Hassan’s father relocated his family to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. There, he raised his family in a devout Muslim fashion. Hassan knew the Koran by heart before he was 10.
Around 1991, when Hassan was 17, he went to Afghanistan to do, he says, humanitarian work. It was a few years after Soviet troops withdrew; like many of his generation, he had been encouraged by both the local clerics and the Saudi government to support the Muslim cause in Afghanistan against the in-
vaders. Hassan returned to Afghanistan the next year. He eventually participated in a number of military patrols into Tajikistan to fight Russian troops stationed there. He tells me he never actually fought. “I wish I could say that I had the honour of fighting, but I did not,” he says. “We never came across the enemy.”
In the early ’90s, Afghanistan had a myriad of competing camps, each with its own leader. Osama bin Laden was only one of those. Hassan claims to have never associated with him or his followers. But he did come to be friends with a man named Omar Ihn al-Khattab. Al-Khattab was a real jihadist, who eventually went on to Chechnya to fight the Russians, eventually being killed in 2002. But until then, even after Hassan had sought refuge in Canada, he kept in contact with al-Khattab. Again and again, Hassan makes the point that “there is no dishonour in fighting Muslim causes wherever Muslims are persecuted. Like Chechnya. AlKhattab was a brave and honourable man. He was a good Muslim.” But, Hassan adds, “I believe in fighting the enemy, in fighting
combatants, not in attacking innocent women and children or civilians. I cannot agree with bin Laden. I will not judge him. But God will.”
In 1999, Hassan travelled to Canada, using a fake passport purchased from the Muslim Brotherhood. He was granted asylum as a refugee. “In Saudi Arabia, I was a secondclass citizen. I was tired of living in such a corrupt and unjust place,” he tells me. “I wanted to make a new life for myself in a free country.” In Canada, Hassan worked at a few jobs, among them operating a pita shop in Toronto’s Yorkville area.
Then, in 2001, the government-appointed translator from Hassan’s refugee hearings put him in touch with another Syrian
national, Nabil al-Marabh. Al-Marabh was looking to purchase a fake passport, with which to return to Syria to visit his ailing mother. Through his contacts, Hassan procured a fake passport in Montreal that he sold to al-Marabh. But days after Sept. 11, al-Marabh was in custody—in the United States, where the FBI claimed he was suspected of procuring fake passports for terrorists. Soon after, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service began to monitor Hassan. “I hear that the Americans are even saying Nabil got the passports for the 19 hijackers,” he recalls. “For heaven’s sake! I got a passport for Nabil. How did he get all those passports?”
CSIS interviewed Hassan in his lawyer’s office. Out of fear, Hassan denied he was ever in Afghanistan, that he knew al-Khattab, or that he got a fake passport for alMarabh. Days later, he was arrested on a security certificate. Nabil al-Marabh pleaded guilty to an immigration offence and, in 2004, was deported to Syria. By then, Hassan was in jail, labelled a threat to national security.
The security certificate process has actually been around, in one form or another, since the late seventies. It has been used to expel organized crime members, spies, even a Holocaust denier. It can be used against any non-citizen the government deems a threat. More recently, the measure has been used against those suspected of being linked to terrorist organizations. One may argue, quite reasonably, that it is normal for a country to be able to refuse admission to undesirable foreign nationals before they become fully naturalized and are accorded all the rights of
CANADA SAYS HASSAN ALMREI CAN VOLUNTARILY AGREE AT ANY TIME TO BE RETURNED TO SYRIA
citizenship. Our government has a number of means to do that: from turning people down at the immigration desks in our embassies, to, most harshly, issuing security certificates against individuals who have been residing in Canada, sometimes for years.
But the use of security certificates becomes more complicated—and contentious—when the individuals are refugees. In these cases, the Canadian Refugee Board has found that the person in question is in serious risk of bodily harm, persecution or other injustices in his or her country of origin, and that Canada is obliged to grant asylum. And according to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, “Contracting states shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.” But if national security is indeed
invoked, the UN Convention Against Torture, of which Canada is also a signatory, states that “no state party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” So, in principle, Hassan cannot be sent back to Syria if he would be at substantial risk of torture there.
Syria has already allegedly tortured Canadian citizens, like Maher Arar. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have determined that it is a country that sanctions the use of torture, especially in the case of
Islamic fundamentalists. A Canadian judge would therefore be hard-pressed to concede there isn’t substantial risk of torture for Hassan Almrei in Syria. But this puts Ottawa in a bind: deemed a security risk, Hassan must be detained, even though the courts will likely never allow him to be deported. So will Canada need to jail him indefinitely?
The Canadian government maintains that Hassan can at any time voluntarily agree to be returned to Syria or another country that will accept him. If one were inclined to see Machiavellian intent in the workings of our officials, Hassan’s treatment at Toronto West might be seen as a way to wear him down and accept deportation. But in Federal Court, the government has also argued that even if there is risk of torture, the potential danger posed by the detainees to the Canadian public outweighs that concern. In other words, the all-powerful worries about national security would allow the government
to arbitrarily send detainees back.
The courts haven’t yet granted permission to Ottawa to do so. But while Hassan and the other detainees remain in jail, the hearings continue. Moreover, the position of the Supreme Court of Canada, articulated only months after Sept. 11 in a ruling involving deportation proceedings against an alleged Tamil Tiger fundraiser, is not very reassuring to the detainees. The court decided that under “exceptional circumstances,” individuals could be deported to places where there is risk of torture.
This ruling, and the various implications of security certificates, have already garnered attention from the UN, which sent a human rights working group here last year. In a press conference at the end of the visit, one of the UN officers disparagingly declared that “if Canada cannot find a way to better protect human rights, who will?” Louise Arbour was a Supreme Court justice
at the time of the high court ruling, but as the UN high commissioner for human rights, she has come out
criticizing Canada’s apparent willingness to allow people to be returned to places where torture is common.
Hassan Almrei, meanwhile, remains in limbo. In April, he and three other detainees were moved from provincial detention centres to a new federal facility near Kingston, Ont. Perhaps the province was beginning to resent having to bear responsibility for these men in a federal matter. Perhaps the frequent hunger strikes and protests were becoming more and more bothersome. In any case, the provincial facilities are not intended for such long stays. One detainee, Mohamed Mahjoub, has been held for nearly six years now.
The detainees have been periodically asking for bail, mostly in vain. But in February 2005, against strong government arguments to the contrary, a Federal Court judge in Montreal allowed for Adil Charkaoui, de-
tained on a certificate since 2003, to be released into a kind of house arrest in which his own family effectively became his jailers. Two weeks ago, another Federal Court judge ordered that Mohamed Harkat, detained since December 2002, could be released under even stricter conditions, including 24-hour-a-day surveillance by his wife and mother-in-law. (The federal government is appealing the decision.) But whether held in prisons or at home, each detainee states, almost as a mantra: “Please charge me.” As Hassan says, “If you can prove in a fair and open trial that I have done anything wrong, lock me up and throw away the key. And I will ask no one to shed a tear for me.”
‘I FEEL ASHAMED THAT MY COUNTRY IS TREATING YOU THIS WAY, WHOEVER YOU ARE5
These men have not been found guilty of any crime, which, in Canada, means that they are innocent. But in spite of Canadian laws and principles, innocent men are being treated like criminals. Their wives and families are being made jailers. Next week, the Supreme Court will begin to ponder the security certificates. I am one Canadian who won’t wait for their judgment to say that security certificates are just plain wrong. They should be abolished, and these men should be tried in criminal court. If they cannot be tried there for lack of evidence, they should go free. If the government still thinks these men are dangerous, it should put them under surveillance and make a case against them.
If the security certificates aren’t abolished outright, at the very least the process can be improved. Defence lawyers should be allowed
access to the secret evidence, and given a chance to question it before a judge. It is simply perverse that government lawyers and federal judges decide the fate of individuals without due process. How is a federal court judge alone, and off the record, supposed to properly question the murky information brought before him by the Canadian security establishment? The security certificate process could also be brought before the Security Intelligence Review Committee instead of the Federal Court. The SIRC may be in need of some overhaul, but at least it has a modicum of staff and expertise to properly question and challenge information brought forward by the security establishment.
Whatever happens, security certificates as they now exist are shameful to Canada.
The last time I visited Hassan, he was still at Toronto West. His latest request for bail had been denied. He was beginning to be worn down and we didn’t laugh as much, but he thanked me for taking on his cause. Once more, I needed to tell him, as I had a few times before, “Hassan, I like you. But I am not speaking out against security certificates because I like you. I do not know or care if you are a terrorist. It is not for me to judge you. I am opposed to them because I feel ashamed that my country is treating you this way, whoever you are. I expect more from my country.”
No one who has ever set foot on Canadian soil should have to face torture. And no one should ever be deprived of their freedom, especially not so coarsely, without knowing why it has been taken away from them. That’s all. M
Secure Freedom, Alexandre Trudeau's documentary film on Hassan Almrei and national security certificates, airs on CTV on Sunday, June 11 at 7 p m. EST.