Harkat: I'm no terrorist, just a victim of chaos

Mohamed Harkat takes stand to deny connection to al-Qaeda

The Ottawa Citizen online


OTTAWA (28 October 2004) -- TO HEAR HIM TELL IT, Mohamed Harkat has been the innocent victim of turbulent forces the world over: a student whose university ambitions were dashed by a political crackdown in Algeria; an aid worker who lost his job in Pakistan as Afghan refugees returned home; an asylum seeker in Canada falsely accused of being a terrorist.

Mr. Harkat took to the witness stand yesterday to defend himself for the first time against government allegations that he's an al-Qaeda terrorist.

He flatly denied any connection to the terrorist network.

Asked by his lawyer, Matt Webber, whether he'd ever been to Afghanistan, the one-time base for al-Qaeda and the home of its training camps, Mr. Harkat said: "Never, ever."

Asked if he had ever associated with senior al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, as alleged by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Mr. Harkat told his lawyer: "I never did, sir."

Mr. Harkat repeatedly insisted there's no truth to any of the terrorist-related allegations that underpin the security certificate issued against him.

That certificate, signed by two federal ministers in December 2002, has kept him locked in the Ottawa Detention Centre for almost two years.

He will be deported to his native Algeria if Federal Court Justice Eleanor Dawson finds the certificate reasonable.

Testifying in English in a calm, soft voice -- a microphone had to be set up so that Judge Dawson could hear him -- Mr. Harkat told the court the story of a man wronged.

Mr. Harkat testified he grew up in a small Algerian town where he studied hard to succeed in school. He did so well on his high school final exams, he said, that he was admitted into the university of his choice: Wahran University, a school about 400 kilometres from his home town. He began classes there in September, 1989 in pursuit of an electrical engineering degree.

But by March, political events in Algeria put an end to his studies. Mr. Harkat said he left university and went into hiding after a military crackdown on a political party to which he belonged, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). The FIS promoted free markets, lower taxes, cuts to military spending and an end to government corruption.

"I was so happy to change the situation in Algeria," Mr. Harkat said of his political involvement, "so happy something new is coming to Algeria."

Mr. Harkat said he was introduced to the party by his high school math tutor who convinced him to allow the FIS to use a family-owned property as an office. That office was raided by the police who arrested local FIS leaders, he said. His uncle later warned him by telephone not to come home, that the police were looking for him.

"I was scared and I went to hide out," said Mr. Harkat. "In Algeria, if the army caught you, they can do anything. Or the police."

He obtained a visitor's visa to Saudi Arabia and flew to that country with the names and phone numbers of contacts gleaned from his fellow students. He said he was hoping to resume his university studies.

But he quickly realized it was impossible to enter a Saudi university since applications had to be made from outside the country. What's more, he found the $250 he came with -- it was enough money for a year in Algeria -- was fast disappearing.

He slept in a mosque and ate only two meals a day while trying desperately to find a job. One of his contacts arranged a position for him with the Muslim World League, an Islamic charity, in Pakistan. (The Muslim World League is a Saudi-based charity suspected by some western security agencies of financing terrorists.)

"I was so happy," he testified. "It like opened the door for me. There was nothing left for me except begging people on the street."

It turned out the job in Pakistan involved managing a warehouse in what's known as the migrant's district, between Karachi and Peshawar, said Mr. Harkat. The warehouse was part of a makeshift city established for about 100,000 Afghan refugees who had fled the fighting in their homeland.

Mr. Harkat said he worked for the league for four years in the early 1990s, sleeping in the warehouse, and supervising the delivery of supplies for the refugees.

The time is crucial in the case against Mr. Harkat. CSIS claims that Mr. Harkat, during his years in Pakistan, travelled to Afghanistan and formed an association with Mr. Zubayda, who is now in U.S. custody. According to CSIS, Mr. Zubayda has identified Mr. Harkat by "description and activity" as operating a guest house in Peshawar, Pakistan for mujahedeen travelling to Chechnya.

Mr. Harkat, however, flatly denied those charges, saying he never set foot in Afghanistan, has never met Mr. Zubayda and has never knowingly assisted any Islamic extremists.

Rather, Mr. Harkat told court, he lost his job in 1994 as Afghan refugees began to return to their shattered country. Unable to renew his work papers and visa in Pakistan, he began to explore options for leaving. He considered claiming refugee status in England or Canada, and decided on the latter because he was convinced he would receive justice.

He bought a false Saudi passport since he would be unable to get to Canada on his own passport -- Canada required Algerians to obtain visas -- and made his way to Toronto in September 1995, claiming refugee status and turning over his phoney documents. He was allowed to leave the airport on the understanding that he return within three weeks with a translator.

Mr. Harkat immediately took a bus to Ottawa, convinced the capital was the best place from which to make a refugee claim. He went to the Ottawa Mosque on Northwestern Avenue where he met an Egyptian-Canadian, Mohamed El Barseigy, who was looking to share an apartment.

Mr. El Barseigy agreed to drive Mr. Harkat to Toronto for his appointment with immigration officials. Also in the van was Ahmed Said Khadr, the man believed to be the highest-ranking Canadian in al-Qaeda.

Mr. Harkat testified yesterday he had never met Mr. Khadr before and did not speak to him anytime after their shared ride. (Mr. Khadr was killed in an October 2003 shootout with Pakistani security forces.)

In Ottawa, Mr. Harkat worked up to 90 hours a week while holding down three jobs: two at local gas stations and one at Pizza Pizza. He was married on Jan. 2, 2001, to a woman from Northern Ontario, Sophie, and continued to try to secure a better job. He trained to drive trucks, but couldn't find work.

CSIS was a fixture in his life. He was interviewed by the security agency at least five times between 1997 and 2001.

He was arrested in the lobby of his Ottawa apartment building on Dec. 10, 2002 on the strength of the security certificate that alleges he is a member of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell.

"Do you have any idea why CSIS thinks you are an Islamic extremist?" Mr. Webber asked at the end of Mr. Harkat's day on the witness stand.

"No," said Mr. Harkat, fighting tears.

He will be cross-examined today by government lawyer James Mathieson.


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