Security Certificates: a shameful legacy for Canada

Last week, the last person held under a security certificate in Canada was ordered released by an Ontario Judge, under strict conditions. Hassan Almrei, a Syrian national was held in solitary confinement for almost 8 years under the controversial security certificate process. He protested the conditions of his incarceration with the only tool that he had, launching several painful hunger strikes during his incarceration in attempt to have his most basic rights respected.  He is suspected of terrorism but was never charged with any crime and was never given the opportunity to defend himself in an open trial.

Two years ago, the federal government decided to build a facility segregated from other inmates on the grounds of Millhaven penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario. This small and intensely secure maximum-security prison for foreign ‘terror suspects’ detained in Canada came with a price tag of 3.2 million dollars for its construction, and millions more to run. It was there that Hassan Almrei, Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohammad Mahjoub, Mohamed Harakt, all other suspects held under the security certificates ,were kept in what is being called by many human rights activists the “Guantanamo North”.

The emptiness of this expensive facility is a reminder to many Canadians how the security certificate process was poorly conceived and handled by the government.  What was intended to be a speedy and streamlined procedure to arrest and deport to their countries of origin non-citizens who allegedly represented a national security threat to Canada, has instead turned out to be a lengthy, controversial, and unconstitutional process, as  determined by an unanimous 9-0 ruling in February 2007 by the Supreme Court.

Today, after this recent release, of the final detainee, we have strong and clear evidence that the security certificate process is deeply flawed,  resulting at times in two options: the indefinite detention of individuals, or their deportation to counties where they may face torture or even death.

It is unfortunate that the Canadian government didn’t listen to the early protests of members of the legal community, activist, and NGOs who raised their concern and raised red flags with regard to the use of security certificates for terrorism suspects, proposing instead to allow all the suspects to go through an open and transparent trial where they could see the evidence against them.  But if there is one lesson that can be learned after this facility is left empty, it is that we must learn from our mistakes. We now know that the outcome of the exercise certificate is an expensive and lengthy (if not indefinite) detention, with the suspension of basic civil rights for the individual involved, including the right for that person to defend himself against accusations.

We have an excellent opportunity  in this to call clearly and unambiguously for the closing of another shameful legacy of the “war on terror”, namely the Guantanamo Bay prison where a Canadian young man, Omar Khadr, is still being held facing the prospects of a shadowy trial.  While the American government is in negotiations with some European countries to accept some of the Guantanamo prisoners as asylum seekers because if they are sent to their countries of origin they may face torture of death, the Canadian government is following the ostrich policy, behaving as if it is not aware that Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen, or as if it is waiting for the US to initiate the talks and ask Canada to take him home.

Canada made a terrible mistake in building its own “Guantanamo Bay North,” proceeding despite vocal criticism against it by credible voices from legal and human rights organizations. Today, our government can, to some degree, redeem itself and us as well, by correcting another mistake, and adding its voice to the countless others that are calling for the closing of Guantanamo, and the repatriation Omar Khadr to Canada, where he can be rehabilitated as a child-victim of circumstances that he had no ability to understand, let alone escape.

Monia Mazigh, human rights activist, She is the author of the book: Hope and Despair: My struggle to free my husband Maher Arar. She lives in Ottawa with her family. This article was  published in the Toronto Star. January 12, 2009.


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