Four years behind bars without charge or bail
By MATTHEW BEHRENS*
TORONTO (4 June 2004) -- LIKE MOST capitalist nations, Canada is a land of trickle-down democracy. Those with wealth, power and, needless to say, that 'ole white skin privilege, enjoy the system's benefits the most. Those without that combination of fortune -- usually bestowed by luck of birth -- are pretty much out of luck, relying on the odd crumbs of democratic justice which overflow the cups of the well-off.
As political leaders criss-cross this country talking about their vision of Canada, it is both unspoken and unacknowledged that a great many people in this country, specifically refugees and "non-status" immigrants, have no electoral say in decisions which very much affect their lives. Most of the so-called anti-terror provisions of Canadian law are currently aimed at a group of people who cannot "vote the rascals out" because they are still waiting, for years on end, for their citizenship papers.
And then there's five Muslim men, Canada's Secret Trial Five, now detained, without charge or bail on secret "evidence" neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see, a collective 144 months.
During this election, it is unlikely that most journalists will ask about, nor that current Prime Minister Paul Martin -- he of the "no racial profiling in my Canada" bent -- will consider the fact that the most draconian of legal measures in Canada are currently directed almost exclusively at Canada's Arabic, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities.
Nor is it likely that Canada's Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Anne McLellan -- whose signature is needed to start the secret trial process -- will reflect on the volume of human damage which has been inflicted on these targetted individuals, their families, and their communities, where fear that anyone could be next is tangible.
Consider the case of Canada's longest serving secret trial detainee
YET IF EITHER had been in Federal Court this week in downtown Toronto, they might have had pause to consider the case of Canada's longest serving secret trial detainee, Mohammad Mahjoub, who this month marks four years behind bars without charge, held on the secret evidence of a much-discredited CSIS, Canada's spy agency.
How is it, they might have wondered, that Canadian democracy is to survive if we are able to lock people up without telling them why, and then initiate proceedings to deport them to countries where they are likely to face torture and worse, despite international agreements obligating Canada not to do so?
And how is it that, until today, two young children have been prevented for four full years from touching, embracing, kissing their dad? Over the noon-hour break this afternoon, Mahjoub's two youngest sons, aged four and six, were finally allowed a brief 15-minute contact visit with their father under the watchful eye of the RCMP.
That such a simple thing which most of us take for granted -- the human touch which consoles, the hug which affirms life and love -- can be denied so long, especially between a parent and children, spoke to the core of the cruel and unusual treatment of Mahjoub's four years behind bars. That such separation has been enforced based on secrecy is an indictment almost beyond words.
The visit of Mahjoub's children capped an emotionally draining week during which the conditions of Mahjoub's detention formed the heart of a constitutional challenge to his detention. Mahjoub is an Egyptian refugee and torture survivor who came to Canada on the last day of 1995. Accepted as a convention refugee in 1996, he was nailed with a CSIS secret trial security certificate in June 2000. For four years, Mahjoub has been held without charge or bail, often in solitary confinement, on secret "evidence" neither he nor his lawyers have been allowed to see.
And now, in violation of Canada's commitment to the Convention Against Torture, the federal government is trying to deport Mahjoub to torture in Egypt, despite substantial likelihood that he will face prison, torture and worse.
The first of numerous references to hunger strikes
THE WEEK BEGAN much as last June's hearing on the detention of secret trial detainee Hassan Almrei (currently entering his 32nd month of solitary confinement), featuring testimony from Peter Dietrich, an acting regional director for the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA, a new name for the old Citizenship and Immigration Canada, whose bureaucrats were no doubt stung by secret trial detainee Adil Charkaoui's description of them as "Inquisition" Canada).
Dietrich testified about how the federal government turns federal detainees over to the province of Ontario, after which they essentially lose touch with the conditions faced by these detainees.
"The care and welfare" of these individuals rests with the province, he explains. It's very nice language to describe indefinite detention faced not only by the five, but by increasing numbers of refugees who arrive in Canada without proper identification or who, for whatever unexplained reason, arouse suspicion amongst border security. The most recent numbers peg the average weekly detention figures of immigrants and refugees at 683.
Attorney Barbara Jackman asks him what preparations are made for long-term detainees, in terms of programs, ESL, anything other than dead time in a holding facility.
"We have no other arrangements in place," he says.
She asks if his office would be aware of whether federal detainees are in solitary confinement, if they contract AIDS or Hepatitis C, to which he replies "No," unless the province lets him know.
"Don't ya have someone to go in and see if they're OK?" she asks. He leaves that to the province.
Are you advised if a person is on hunger strike? she asks.
"Yes, we may be advised, but we may have heard it on the news, it depends on the profile," he says.
It's the first of numerous references to hunger strikes. What is frightening is the ease with which the term is referred to and acknowledged, an indication that conditions are often so trying that hunger strikes are fairly common in the detention system, a fact not known outside of their walls.
Jackman asks the same question of Dietrich she asked a year before: has anyone raised concerns about long term detainees, such as Mahjoub?
"Not that I'm aware of," is Dietrich's identical answer.
She asks if he has addressed these concerns since they came up at the Almrei hearing last June. He says the issue was "discussed," but he doesn't know what happened to it. Obviously, it wasn't much of a concern requiring follow-up!
Jackman asks him about a planned superjail for immigration detainees, and asks whether it will be set up for families too. Dietrich baldly sates, "CIC [Immigration] does not detain kids," something which would come as a surprise to the children often detained at the Heritage Inn (formerly Celebrity Inn), an ill-named prison in which babies and young children are often interned with their parents.
Wife refused visits
THEN MONA EL FOULI walks past the prisoner box where her husband sits and takes the stand. A dignified, eloquent woman, she discusses the effects of this long term detention on her family. She details problems she has had visiting the Metro West Detention Centre, noting she was denied visits when Mahjoub was in segregation, and on other occasions she would call ahead to arrange a visit, only to have it cancelled without explanation within 5 minutes of her arrival.
"I often wait a long time, and they refuse to let me in, even with the children there," she explains.
El Fouli must take public transit to get to the jail, which means she may not always be quite on time. One time a guard yelled at her that she was three minutes late and refused to let her in. Other guards have sworn at her, and when she does get in, finding a phone that actually works to talk to Mahjoub on the other side of the thick-plated glass takes up much of the 20-minute visit.
Recently, she was denied entry because she had taken part in a friendly demonstration with members of the Jaballah family (Jaballah is also detained at Metro West). She was told that she was trespassing, and would not be allowed in while the matter was being investigated, yet members of the Jaballah family were able to visit later that day and a friend of detainee Hassan Almrei got in the next, even though all were at the demo.
When Mona complained, the guard told her, "I'm just doing my job."
El Fouli describes the emotional strain on her children, particularly her 6-year-old boy, who suffers separation anxiety and often "will just sit and cry." She has to take her kids out early from school to make the visit, which concerns the school principal. This young boy worries about the rest of his family disappearing when he is at school, and he often complains of a stomach ache or headache because he wants, needs, to be with his mother, to know she is not disappearing too. "I'm afraid you'll never come back," he tells her.
From "healthy person" to Hepatitis C
SHE IS FOLLOWED by Head of Security at the West, Frank Geswaldo, a soft-spoken man who details the command structure at the jail and says as many as 15-20 per cent of the detainees there are immigration holds. He is bemused that there actually is a range called immigration, given that it is no different than any other range at the facility. "My question is what's the difference?" he says. "Cells are cells, a unit is a unit."
Geswaldo says Mahjoub has never posed a management problem, has never been charged with misconduct, and confirms no complaints have been received about his behaviour.
He is followed by prison health care coordinator Mary Dwyer, who talks about Mahjoub's medical history at the jail. She notes he arrived in 2000 as a healthy person, complaining of some lower back pain and, reading from the doctor's notes, of "assault on arrest."
She often refers to Mahjoub as the "offender," even though he has not broken the law -- he is detained without charge.
Dwyer also talks about hunger strikes as if they are common colds, something which must often be seen at the facility (those on hunger strike are often sent to solitary, which is next to the nursing area).
Dwyer says Mahjoub requested to see a psychiatrist who said, after Mahjoub's first 18 months of incarceration, that he may have an "adjustment disorder" (surprise surprise), that he was anxious and had difficulty sleeping. He did go on hunger strike during a freezing stretch in solitary confinement, and has since complained of exhaustion, dizziness, and kidney problems. It has taken long periods of time for him to see specialists, and on January 6, 2004 Mahjoub was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Dwyer says there are no plans to isolate prisoners who do have Hep C -- they are given a pamphlet on it, and advised to eat a healthy diet and try to reduce stress. This no doubt comes as comfort to Mahjoub, who struggles with the prison diet and has been in solitary confinement since March.
Jackman asks if there has been an investigation into how, after four years, Mahjoub now has Hep C. None that Dwyer is aware of.
Mubarak's "reception ceremony"
THE NEXT MORNING, Mahjoub is led through testimony about his detention and torture in Egypt by attorney John Norris. Never granted access to a lawyer -- these things are not allowed in Egypt at all, he says -- Mahjoub was threatened with life imprisonment, with the arrests of his brothers (which actually occurred after he got refugee status in Canada), and the arrest of his elderly mother.
Mahjoub described what is known as the "reception ceremony," during which he was blindfolded and beaten by six guards, using fists, feet and sticks.
"The objective is to break the detainee prior to the questioning," he says. Electrical rods were attached to sensitive areas of his body, cold water was thrown on him, after which a fan was directed against him, and he was often kept in a solitary confinement cell which was flooded so he was unable to sit or sleep. Other times he was suspended from the ceiling by his hands or his feet.
"A doctor is there so if you lose consciousness, he intervenes to stop further complications," Mahjoub says.
There is also psychological torture -- a ladder is drawn on the wall and the detainee is told to climb it, or a TV set is drawn on the wall and the detainee is told to turn it on, and if neither happens, there is more torture.
He is asked about food.
"It is embarrassing, even ridiculous, to talk about food in Egyptian prisons," he says. The bread was often very old and hard, often encrusted with dirt, and often times they were fed only highly salted beans, causing an unquenchable thirst after which water would be denied. Sleep deprivation was also employed. Mahjoub was never charged nor sent to court.
He left Egypt in 1991, on the advice of one of the investigating officers who told him he might be sent to prison, without explanation, for the rest of his life.
Mahjoub then discusses the long, hard journey he has travelled at Metro West, interrupted by a two-month, unexplained transfer to Millbrook.
As a devout Muslim, it was hard at first to establish a safe space for daily prayers -- he and two other Muslim prisoners asked fellow inmates to give them 5 to 10 minutes of quiet time. Until August of 2003, he was in a cell with two bunks and someone sleeping on the floor, making it very difficult for him to pray during cell time.
Mahjoub says that despite many complaints, it was only recently that he began to receive Halal food. Throughout the day, Mahjoub details a litany of humiliations he faces as a Muslim in an institution which does not meet his spiritual, physical and psychological needs.
He discusses the many strip searches he has endured. "As a Muslim man, does this cause you problems?" Norris asks.
Mahjoub starts to cry. "A strip search is an attack on my manhood. If I refuse I would be beaten. Every time I try to explain to guards that this is humiliating to a Muslim, especially in front of other inmates."
He has suggested alternatives, such as taking off all of his clothes saves for his underpants.
"I ask not to stand naked in front of jail staff or other inmates. They tell me: 'this is Canada, this is jail policy.'"
He relates how he was once strip searched in front of female staff.
"I tried to explain to the guard this was unacceptable, and his answer was: here is the ombudsman's telephone number."
Mahjoub felt terribly isolated, a condition which worsened after Sept. 11, 2001, when he found he was unable to contact members of the Muslim community because everyone was afraid. "I had no choice but to remain quiet until this court hearing."
In all the strip searches, nothing has ever been found on his person.
Norris asks whether the showers are private or communal. It is a question which brings to the surface one too many humiliations for Mahjoub, and he breaks down sobbing.
It is a tense moment. His wife is across from him, not 20 feet away in the visitor's gallery, yet unable to reach out and comfort her husband as he weeps on the stand. Police officers and government lawyers smirk and giggle during a 10-minute break. Four years of pain, degradation, humiliation, and fear rise to the surface, and Mahjoub's tears fall freely.
He is very quiet for the rest of his testimony, trying to hold back the emotional flood raging inside. He discusses showering with his underpants on, since there is no privacy, and the humiliation of having to pray in the direction of the open toilet in his solitary cell. He recounts an incident where he had high blood pressure, dizziness, fever, extreme exhaustion, and was thrown into segregation rather than given medicine. It is unclear how many times such things have occurred; one senses it is a constant state of anxiety that comprises his life.
He expresses no concerns about other inmates. "Though the inmates would sometimes call me a terrorist, thank God one can manage and deal with the situation."
An Orwellian moment
THE LAST TWO DAYS of the hearing are taken up with in camera (behind closed doors) arguments about whether or not Mahjoub should be allowed to offer a few minutes of testimony without the public in the courtroom. Barbara Jackman, one of his lawyers, states that she cannot publicly offer reasons for, or evidence to support, the need for this session because to do so would create a situation of risk and be prejudicial to Mahjoub.
This motion is vigorously opposed by government lawyers and a lawyer for the Toronto Star. It is an Orwellian moment as government lawyers who rely on complete secrecy in presenting their case in the security certificate hearing are now crowing about the need, nay, the absolute necessity, of open courts to maintain the lifeblood of Canadian democracy. Government lawyer Donald MacIntosh, who spends most of his life trying to prevent the detainee and the public from hearing secret evidence, now waddles in a swamp of hypocrisy as he declares "the open-ness principle is over-riding."
It is also disheartening to see the media once again intervening at the wrong end of the whole secret trial process, allowing the government to make its complete case against a detainee in secret and only intervening to try and prevent the individual who wishes some protection from having a safe space to testify.
Justice Dawson considers the motion, accepts it, and the doors close for the better part of Thursday and Friday. By 5:15 pm on Friday, the court is open again, as Dawson says she needs time to consider the arguments which have been made. A date will soon be set for a continuation of the hearing.
In the meantime, as candidates come to your door asking for your vote, please challenge them about the secret trials, and demand that, if elected, they abolish security certificates, and end the ongoing detention and criminalization of immigrants and refugees in Canada.
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