Monday, July 18, 2005

Are We Ready for Torture by Proxy? - The Toronto Star, July 17, 2005

Jul. 17, 2005. 01:19 PM

Hassan Almrei says he has never had any links to Al Qaeda and he fears the consequences of deportation. “Everybody knows in Syria you would be tortured,” he says, “and I would tell them I am Jesus’ dad if that would stop the torture.”

Are we ready for torture by proxy?
The government can't hold him indefinitely, but doesn't want to set him free on Canadian soil.


This is what we know about Hassan Almrei, who has spent almost four years alone in a Toronto jail cell.

Almrei, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee, attended a training camp in Afghanistan in 1990, where he learned how to use an AK-47 to fight with the U.S.-backed mujahideen against the Soviet Union's occupation of the region. He says he never actually used that training, but twice went to Tajikistan to "scout out Russian positions" with a Chechen commander.

He has also admitted to procuring a false document for a Syrian dissident who was initially charged on terrorism offences in the U.S., but was later cleared and sent back to Syria on an immigration violation.

Almrei came to Canada in 1999 from Saudi Arabia. RCMP officers, armed with an immigration order alleging he is a danger to national security, detained him in October 2001.

Almrei says he has never had any links to terrorism and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. The government, backed by a federal court justice relying on secret reports, believes he does.

For that reason, an adviser to federal Immigration Minister Joe Volpe is now weighing the options: send Almrei to Syria in the name of national security, even if the Canadian government acknowledges he's at risk of being tortured; if not, what then? Canadian law does not allow indefinite detention, nor since 9/11 has it grappled with imposing permanent conditions on someone the government believes poses a risk to national security.

Almrei is not charged criminally either in Canada or Syria. The immigration legislation under which he is detained provides a lower threshold of proof, since judges only need to be convinced there is a "reasonable" likelihood of a terrorism association, rather than the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." The case has been heard largely in secret.

Almrei's case is a significant indicator of where Canada stands in the war on terror, yet most Canadians wouldn't recognize his name. Warning against such complacency, Louise Arbour, a former Supreme Court Justice and now the U.N.'s High Commissioner of Human Rights, cautioned in a speech in Toronto last month to "never underestimate the force of indifference."

Until Sept. 11, 2001, Canada's position on torture was clear. As a signatory to the Geneva Convention Against Torture and in compliance with international law, Canada condemned torture as morally reprehensible under any circumstances, for any reason. Thousands of torture survivors walk Canadian streets alongside thousands of others who faced being tortured in their homelands, had Canada not offered them a safe haven.

Toronto is home to Canada's Centre for Victims of Torture, a world leader in caring for torture victims since it was created 25 years ago. Torture, like that suffered by Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi — whose nails were ripped from her fingers and whose body was broken and burned in an Iranian jail before she died — has been categorically denounced by the federal government.

But the war on terror has allowed moral ambiguity to creep in. The London bombings this month serve as a reminder that terrorism continues to threaten Western countries. How does Canada secure the country? Can these efforts trump the rights of individuals? Does George W. Bush's war on terror constitute an actual war, whereby certain civil liberties are suspended? Are we willing to change our stand on torture if it would make our country safer?

The United Nations has warned the federal government that deporting Almrei and four other non-citizens accused of links to terrorism would violate international laws. But human rights groups question whether we're already complicit in torture by sharing intelligence with states like Syria.

Those groups have long chronicled reports of abusive treatment of prisoners in Syria and allegations of torture.

At least three Canadian citizens claim they were detained and questioned in Damascus on information provided by Canadian security agencies. They believe this demonstrates Canada has its own form of the much-maligned practice of rendition, in which U.S. authorities deliver terror suspects to countries known for harsh interrogation methods in order to circumvent American laws prohibiting torture. In the words of Alex Neve, Amnesty International's Canadian secretary general, "Does Canada torture by proxy?"

"We need to respect the Charter of Rights," notes Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate's standing committee on national security and defence. "It's there for precisely these sorts of times. This is the test of us as a society, whether we are going to treat people with respect and ensure human rights. I'm a hawk on dealing with terrorists but I think we don't lower ourselves to their level."

Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, fears the debate over security and human rights is one-sided and that the Canadian public, despite the warnings this week, does not appreciate the real threat the country faces.

"It's a tremendous moral dilemma and it's not an easy decision," he says. Human rights must be respected, but for Canada to lose its right to expel non-citizens deemed a risk to security, Rudner argues, is "a welcome sign" to terrorists and militants, serving to bolster Canada's reputation as a haven for terrorists.

Almrei is held on what's known as a national security certificate, signed by two federal ministers on information provided by Canada's spy service and upheld by a federal court justice who hears much of the case in private. Security certificates have only been used 27 times in Canada's history and a federal court recently upheld the constitutionality of this immigration legislation.

In 2002, Canada's top court opened the door to deportations where torture is a likelihood, but only in "exceptional circumstances." What defines "exceptional" is still unclear.

One of the justices on the Supreme Court for that decision was Arbour, who now oversees the U.N. Committee Against Torture, which recently criticized the ruling.

"In my view, a country is as much at risk of destruction, and so are the ideals it stands for, by the collapse of its human rights norms, and of the rule of law that acts as their guardian, as it is by the explosion of bombs on its territory," Arbour told the Canadian Club in a speech last month in Toronto.

"When we are asked to decide how much of our liberty we are willing to abandon for our security, we are asked, in reality, how much of the liberty of others we are willing to sacrifice for our own security."

Arbour was questioned about the apparent contradiction between the Supreme Court ruling and the Geneva Convention Against Torture. She conceded that the laws many countries adopted after Sept. 11, 2001 are "evolving," then noted, "The international community has been urging Canada to reconsider that position and to close the door even more firmly (to torture) than it has."

Hassan Almrei's cheeks sag slightly from the weight he has lost after three weeks of a hunger strike and his hairline has crept further back from where it was the day the doors of Toronto's West Detention Centre first shut behind him.

When asked why Canada should not send him back to Syria, Almrei can quote Prime Minister Paul Martin's comments during a recent visit to Russia concerning the sanctity of human rights, or the words of Defence Minister Bill Graham, when he held the Foreign Affairs portfolio, who demanded Iran must conduct an open, fair and public trial to deal with Kazemi's death. It's ironic, Almrei argues, that Canadian politicians are outspoken about basic rights and the transparency of trials abroad, but will allow his case to proceed behind closed doors.

Forty-four months in solitary confinement afford a considerable amount of time to ponder the intricacies of his case. But simply put, Almrei says the best reason not to send him to Syria, a country he left when he was 7 years old, is that he's not guilty. Guilt or innocence wouldn't matter anyway if he's returned as a "suspected terrorist," he says.

"I spoke out publicly against my country, my government. They will be more than happy to put me in jail," Almrei says, as he twists a tissue in his hands during an interview in the detention centre this week.

"Thousands of Muslim people went to Afghanistan; it doesn't mean all these people were members of Osama bin Laden's organization, which is what the government believes," Almrei says. "Back then we were freedom fighters, now we're terrorists."

`A country is as much at risk of destruction ... by the collapse of its human rights norms ... as it is by the explosion of bombs on its territory.'

Louise Arbour

UN High Commissioner

for Human Rights


`Some people in Canada would be of the view that human rights

and dignity are absolute. But

we'll very seldom find a terrorist willing to speak.'

Martin Rudner

director, Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies


In an earlier conversation, Almrei scoffed at the prospect that he would be treated fairly and allowed to live freely in Syria.

"Everybody knows in Syria you would be tortured, and I would tell them I am Jesus' dad if that would stop the torture."

Almrei has recently acquired some high-profile supporters, including Alexandre Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. When asked last month by a Toronto justice why he was coming forward with $5,000 to post for Almrei's release, Trudeau answered, "For my country."

"It's in the interest of Canada to not be detaining people who haven't been charged."

While not as high profile, but certainly as persuasive, Almrei has also received support from an unlikely source — three guards from Toronto West Detention Centre who work in the segregation range where Almrei is detained. At the same detention review hearing last month where Trudeau testified, the guards described him as a model prisoner, heralded not just for his upbeat attitude but also as the man who once came to the aid of a guard who was attacked by another inmate.

"From his demeanour and everything I know about him, I found him an honourable man. I would trust him," said John O'Connor, a 20-year veteran of the jail. When asked by Almrei's lawyer if he would accept Almrei as a neighbour if he were released, O'Connor unflinchingly answered "yes."

The fact that we have not suffered an attack here should provide no rationale for complacency or comfort," Jim Judd, the director of Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Senate committee in February.

"In many ways, we have made our own luck, by relentlessly pursuing our targets, using the legal means provided to us under our own legislation, the CSIS Act, but also, in concert with our partners, by using the new measure provided by the government to enhance its ability to fight terrorism at home and abroad."

That's why Canada's security services have forged relationships with intelligence agencies around the world, including countries with questionable human rights records, such as Syria and Egypt. As the cliché dictates, intelligence is the lifeblood of security operations. As Senator Kenny puts it, "you only get as good as you give."

How that intelligence is extracted is at the heart of the matter. Faced with jihadists who have been trained not to offer up information, and are very often prepared to die for their cause, governments have turned to techniques they once condemned.

"Some people in Canada and abroad would be of the view that human rights and dignity are absolute, paramount. But we'll very seldom find a terrorist willing to speak," says Rudner, arguing that there are some pressing cases where answers are needed quickly and coercive techniques do work.

This is the moral dilemma currently being played out in the United States, which was rocked by graphic photographs and reports of abusive treatment of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Just this week, a U.S. Senate committee investigating allegations of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo heard from military investigators that interrogators degraded and abused a prisoner, forcing him to wear a bra and perform dog tricks. An Air Force lieutenant-general who headed the probe concluded the treatment of the Saudi man did not constitute torture and did not violate U.S. law or policy; in fact, he concluded, it was "safe, secure and humane." To which Senator John McCain, himself abused as a prisoner of war in Vietnam noted, "humane treatment might be in the eye of the beholder."

Recently, an RCMP superintendent forced to testify at the federal inquiry into the case of Ottawa engineer Maher Arar was unapologetic about Canada's co-operation with governments believed to use harsh interrogation methods.

"As appalling as it may sound to you, part of our duties in Canada in trying to protect the Canadian public means that from time to time we have to deal with countries that don't necessarily have the same record as we do and don't necessarily treat their prisoners the same way as we do," said RCMP Superintendent Michel Cabana.

But an Iraqi-Canadian named Muayyed Nureddin argues that when the information shared concerns Canadian citizens, then Canada is responsible for the fate of those individuals. Nureddin has sued the Canadian government for $35 million, claiming that information passed from Canada led to his detention in Syria and accuses the government of being complicit in his "kidnapping" and month-long detention, and the torture he said he endured during his interrogation.

His story is similar to those told by Abdullah Almalki and Ahmed Elmaati, also Canadian citizens. All three men say they were the subject of security investigations in Canada, but never charged. All three travelled in the last few years to Syria and were detained as terrorism suspects, claiming they were asked the same questions in Syria as they were in Canada. If Canada passed the information that led to their detention and harsh interrogation, is Canada complicit in their alleged torture?

Without a foreign intelligence service, Canada relies heavily on other countries for intelligence gathering. Kenny says he believes that while Canada has to be careful with what information is shared, our intelligence services need this help. Said CSIS chief Judd to the Senate committee, when explaining how Canada copes: "There has been a much greater degree of collaboration internationally between security and intelligence agencies of different countries that is an absolute prerequisite to dealing with a sophisticated and global threat."

But how reliable is information gleaned from countries with records of using physical and mental torture during interrogations?

If the highly rated television drama 24 is any guide, then torture is the most effective tool in fighting terror. CIA agent Jack Bauer, played by Keifer Sutherland, received one of his key breaks last season by defying a presidential order not to use torture. It was only after he broke the fingers of a suspect that he elicited the information he needed to stop a terrorist attack.

Within our own criminal justice code, information gleaned through torture or duress is discredited.

For good reason, says Michael Scheurer, the CIA's former head of a task force that tracked Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s and the author of Imperial Hubris, a blistering critique of U.S. policy on terrorism. Scheurer argues that whether it's extreme physical pain or what's often-called "torture-lite" and consists of sleep deprivation, loud music or other psychological abuse, torture doesn't work.

Al Qaeda trains their members to "either lie when they were being interrogated or to give us a lot of accurate information that was dated and generally led nowhere," he said in a recent interview. "So as far as I was concerned, and the officers that worked for me, once we got them off the street and got their documents, anything else that turned out to be positive was good, but we didn't expect very much from it."

Last Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to hold urgent talks with opposition leaders to push through legislation cracking down on those who encourage terrorist acts. The laws will target people who "glorify or endorse" acts of terrorism, or instigate or prepare such actions. Penalties could include deportation. Already, the loose language of the proposed bill and the potential for torture upon deportation has human rights activists speaking out.

Like other countries around the world, Britain introduced new legislation after 9/11 in an effort to protect against terrorist attacks on their own soil. One of the powers introduced permitted the indefinite detention of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism, held without trial. Three years later, due to a blistering indictment issued by Britain's highest court that called the law "draconian," the government was forced to release the nine terrorism suspects held under this legislation, imposing control orders or electronically monitoring their movements. After the July 7 bombings in London, some commentators and columnists began to renew claims that the government made a mistake by giving powers away.

What if Canada moves in the same direction — abolishing the legislation that detains Almrei and others, imposing restrictions on information sharing, effectively, as Arbour encouraged, "shutting the door" on torture? If that happens, what happens to the men Canada believes are a threat to national security?

"Canada's going to have to come up with alternatives. I don't think any Canadian court will say that someone can be kept indefinitely, that's just contrary to fundamental principles of fairness," says Barbara Jackman, the human rights and immigration lawyer representing three of the five security certificate detainees.

Hassan Almrei remains in a legal limbo waiting for a decision from the immigration minister on whether to deport him. Tomorrow he'll be back in court for the continuation of a detention review hearing, where Almrei is hoping a judge will order him released on bail conditions, until a decision is made on his deportation.

For now, Almrei continues to fight the smaller battles. Today marks day 25 of drinking only water and fruit juices. Previous hunger strikes helped him get shoes to wear in his cold cell in the winter. This time he's asking to be released for one hour each day for exercise.

Michelle Shephard is the terrorism and security reporter for the Star.

The Toronto Star



Legal Notice: Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication of any material from is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. For information please contact us using our webmaster form. online since 1996.

0 comment(s):

Post a comment

<< Home

Bloggers of Ontario Unite!

[ Prev 5 | Prev | Next | Next 5 | Random | List | Join ]