'When you go out, you can't enjoy It. Maybe the car won't start. I’m always thinking: can I make it home in time?’
MOHAMED HARKAT TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HOUSE ARREST, FAMILY WASHROOMS, HIS FAVOURITE MALL AND LIFE WITH HIS MOTHER-IN-LAW
Mohamed Harkat came to Canada in 1995He claimed refugee status—which was granted in 1997—arguing that if returned to his native Algeria, he woidd be persecuted because of his political affiliations. In December 2002, the pizza delivery man and gas station attendant was taken into custody on a security certificate; the federal government believed him to be an al-Qaeda sleeper agent, though no charges were brought against him. He spent more than three years in prison. The government is still seeking to deport him, but last year he was released on bail after a federal judge ruled delays in his case were unnecessary. He currently lives in Ottawa with his Canadian wife and her family.
Your bail conditions are some of the strictest in Canadian history. What’s the worst condition?
A: All of them, actually. It’s house arrest. I can’t stay in the house alone, or even in the daytime I can’t go to the yard without my wife or her mother or her mother’s partner. Somebody has to be with me 24 hours a day. Now my mother-in-law is working, and her partner’s sister is in the hospital, so he’s with her all the time. It’s my wife doing the heavyweight carrying, she’s with me all the time. She can’t work, she can’t do nothing. It’s a frustrating situation.
Q -.And the Canadian Border Service Agency can come into your house at any time.
A: Even at night. In February, I’d say they came in five times. They’re here right now.
Q: But I heard the doorbell ring, at least it’s a polite invasion.
Q: For a lot of Canadians, having to live with their mother-in-law might be the worst part. You must have a very understanding mother-in-law.
A: I believe she’s doing more than what a real mother would do, even accepting to put the cameras in front of the house and in back of the house, to monitor what time I go out and who’s coming here.
Q: You have to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet on your ankle. How do you take a shower with that thing on?
A: It’s waterproof. It’s small, but when I walk it goes up and down, it makes a rash. You feel it, it scratches. When I go outside, I have to take another monitor with me, and that one’s big and huge. I have three outings a week, for four hours, and I have to reserve them in advance. If you say you want to eat at McDonald’s, 48 hours in advance the location is approved. If I change my mind, there’s no choice. I have to eat there, or go nowhere.
Q: And you have two CBSA officers following you at all times.
Q: What’s your favourite outing?
A: The mall, actually. The dollar store. Or walking on the canal. Last week I went to watch a movie, Wild Hogs. It’s funny. Still,
when you go to the movie, you can’t enjoy it. I’m thinking about the car, maybe it won’t start, maybe there’s an accident on the street I’m going to take. I’m always thinking: can I make it home in time?
Q: Have you ever almost missed the fourhour deadline?
A: Almost three months ago, my momwhen I say my mom, I mean my mother-inlaw—just bought this car. [By coincidence, near the end of an approved outing] the police followed the car. They checked the plates, but they’re not attached to that car. Because our mail is intercepted, my mother got the letter to renew her plates, but it came late. The police said, “Okay, the car has to be towed because the plate belongs to another car.” I’m explaining to him, “I’m under house arrest, I have to get home, I just have 15 minutes left”—I’m just begging. I’m thinking, What are you going to do, Harkat? Suddenly, I’m explaining my situation, and he drives me and my wife home in the back of the police cruiser. I run to the door, she put the key in, I run upstairs, put the bracelet in [its holder]—we just made it. It would have been a breach [of my bail conditions] if we hadn’t made it. I would’ve had to go in front of a judge to explain.
Q: Have you had any actual breaches?
A: There was a bathroom thing. I’m at the Rideau mall, and I have to use the bathroom. My wife stands exactly in front of the door of the men’s bathroom. She can’t see me, but she can see my legs. And [the CBSA] use that
as a breach, they said my wife has to go with me inside the bathroom. So I can [only] use a family bathroom, or I have to come back home. That’s one reason I can’t enjoy the outside. Because if I went with my motherin-law—I can’t use the bathroom with her! And going outside, we drink coffee, we’re going to have to use the bathroom, so we have to come back home before the time is up. But I don’t want to give the government an excuse to point finger at me.
Q: Are you ever recognized when you’re out in public?
A: A lot, actually. Some people, they give me a hug and thank me for surviving all these allegations, and some people just pointing finger at me, “Oh, a celebrity,” and they just cheer me from far away. I can’t speak with nobody outside, that’s another condition, can’t have a meeting outside—even my sisterin-law, I have to approve it 48 hours in advance and tell the Canadian Border Service which location we’re going to meet in. I’ll give you [another] example: I got an invitation for supper in the Parliament, honouring Maher Arar. They [the CBSA] want me to give all the names of the people who will come to the supper. [I couldn’t get a complete list, so] they didn’t approve it, they cancelled my outing. To go to a mosque, it’s the same thing. There will be people around me, they’ll want to shake my hand or something, but they have to be approved.
Q: What ifsomeone wants to come visit you at your house?
A The pass have first security it pre-approved, time, clearance they have and but to then they can come any time. Maybe 100 to 150 people [have been approved to visit me]: supporters, people fighting for me on the Committee for Mohamed Harkat. Lots of people are following my story.
Q: I read somewhere that you make furniture to pass the time. How did you learn to do that?
A: I just bought a saw and check how other furniture is built, and copy it. I made a closet in the living room, a place for my books, desk, a night table. Some of them are perfect. Some of them, you don’t want to have them in the house.
Q: Describe a typical day, when you don’t have an outing.
A: I wake up, wash, take my breakfast, and watch TV for a little bit. I do my prayer around 12 o’clock, and after that I work out for two hours straight. Abs, push-ups, weights. I watch Judge Judy when I’m working out, just for laughs. Around 6, supper. Sometimes I cook, sometimes my wife cooks. After that, watch TV—Trailer Park Boys, The National with Peter Mansbridge, and I watch the Passionate Eye, depending on the subject—or a late movie, and go to bed. And I’ve just started organizing to read books now. The first one I want to read is about globalization. You know why? Somebody gave it to me for a Christmas gift.
Q: But you’re Muslim.
A: Yes. But we celebrated Christmas, because my wife [and her family are] Catholic.
Q: Isn’t one of the conditions that you can’t speak in Arabic?
A: The phone is tapped, so anything I say in Arabic, they can translate it later. But in public, I can only speak English. It’s not a condition, but I promised when the judge asked me, and my [wife’s] family doesn’t speak Arabic, and they have to be able to understand what I’m talking about.
Q: Most of the time you were in jail, you weren’t in the general population, right?
A: I spent one year in solitary confinement. Most of the time, I’m crying. I thought I’d be deported, I don’t know what’s going to happen. And when you’re alone, you get crazy. The guards just toss me the food in the hatch, and they close the hatch. No television, no newspaper—for three months, there is nothing I have, just the bed. Even the toothbrush is outside.
Q: However difficult your current living conditions, they have to be better than that.
A: Yeah, but the main thing’s the same: I’m labelled a suspect, I’m facing deportation. They send me to Algeria—nobody knows the regime there, what they’re going to do with me. If I go to that country, I know they’re going to take skin off of me, they’re going to torture me until my death. That’s the main thing I’m scared about.
Q: Your wife cannot work because of your bail conditions, and you can’t either. So how do you support yourselves?
A: We’re getting assistance. Welfare. She has a loan for the lawyers, and school loans, but we just put everything on hold. We don’t use credit cards, we’re living a very simple life.
Q: Your wife has done so much to keep people aware of your case. Without her, where do you think you’d be right now?
A: Maybe I’m still in jail. She did more than what I did for myself. That’s how love is built, and I love her very much. Now, in the future, I’m thinking if she needs anything from my body—my heart, my kidney, or anything—I’m going to give it to her. To pay her back. It’s very hard to pay her back.
Q: She’s said that you had a gambling problem when you met her.
A: I was playing blackjack, and the machines.
Q: Do you play cards now, at home?
A: Yes, but just for fun. My mother-in-law is kicking my ass, actually.
Q: Do you everget bored of thinking about your case the whole time?
A: Not bored, it’s just, nobody wants to hear my voice. I am innocent. I didn’t do nothing wrong. I’m not al-Qaeda, I’m never going to support somebody who wants to hurt other people, it doesn’t matter what colour or religion or nationality. Just give me a fair trial and let me defend myself, because my life, my family’s life, my wife’s life—it’s upside down.
Q: If you are deported, will your wife go with you?
A: She’s never going to go to Algeria. Why I’m going to send somebody from a safe place to a war zone, why put her on the front line? At the same time, I’m still believing in the Canadian system. They won’t send me for
what happened like the Arar torture, I’ll end up dead. Just give me a chance at a fair trial, that’s all I’m hoping for. I don’t want more suffering, my hair is changing to white. I’m so lucky I’m not in a mental hospital so far.
What the Supreme Court of Canada decided about the security certificate, I haven’t lost faith in the system. I’m not against protecting Canadian interests and national security.
I really support that. But there has to be a balance. I just want to see the evidence against me, that’s the only way I can defend myself. Just open the case, and if there is a cloud, I can clear it. M
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