It is time to bring Little Amira back to Canada

Last year, on February 19th, 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau, on the International Day against the use of child soldiers, declared the following:
“All children deserve a safe space to learn and grow. As part of our G7 Presidency last year, Canada and international partners announced a historic investment of $3.8 billion – the single largest investment of its kind – to support education for women and girls in crisis and conflict situations. Canada has also endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration to protect schools, teachers, and students during armed conflict.”

The words of Prime Minister Trudeau are crystal clear. Canada is serious and committed to protect, schools, teachers and students during armed conflict.

But what if the child is born to Canadian parents who allegedly went to fight in Syria? How if the parents went to fight with radical Islamic groups ( knowing that there are about 40 Canadians who went fighting with Kurdish militia. Their actions were met with somehow a sympathetic public opinion, as if some violence can be accepted depending on who is using it and who is receiving it)? And finally, what if the parents who fought with the wrong side, died and the children are left orphans? Would Prime Minister Trudeau be still committed to protect them?
Until now, the answer is a resounding no. At least for the troubling case of little Amira.

She is a five-year-old Canadian girl, whose Canadians parents went to fight in Syria, and she was born there. Unfortunately for little Amira, her parents and other siblings were killed ( was it during an air bombing by the Russian planes? The American planes or the Syrian regime), and sadly she was left alone in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in eastern Syria earlier. By 2019, the camp population was estimated to 74,000 people, mainly women and children, guarded by the US Kurdish forces.

So far, the Canadian government refused to repatriate little Amira so she can live with her uncles, cousins, grandparents and extended family in Canada. It didn’t want to provide her with travel documents so she can fly home.

There are about 900 children from western countries, including Canada in different refugee camps in Syria, run by the Kurdish forces. Even France who has 270 children from French nationals and in which the public opinion is adamantly against any sympathy towards French Muslims travelling abroad to fight, decided few weeks ago to repatriate 10 of the French children stranded in some of these camps.

These kids didn’t take the arms against anyone. They are not even close to the definition of child soldiers. Thus, they should be, at least benefit from the definition and treatment reserved for child soldiers. Because assuming they are child soldiers, through the actions of their Western parents, wouldn’t they be the “perfect” candidates to be included under the protection reserved for child soldiers?

Recently, the uncle of little Amira decided to go after the Canadian government and sue it because he considered that the Canadian government has been negligent in dealing with the case.

I personally think that this is the best thing to do. “Playing nice” is always interpreted by the government as a lack of means, or lack of determination… By going after the government, I think the family of little Amira is sending a clear message to the Canadian government and to the Canadian public that the right place for little Amira is Canada where her family loves her and wants her among them, despite the circumstance that led to the departing of her parents to Syria.

Despite the alleged acts her parents did or didn’t. She is only five. She needs to be loved, nurtured and most importantly start go to school.

Last week, we read in the news that CSIS, the Canadian intelligence agency has been lying to judges, using illegal methods to obtain warrants against Canadians who went fighting abroad. This is an explosive news. Not surprisingly, it was met with almost no shame by the government and a sort of indifference from the public opinion.

What if some or most of the information obtained about Canadians fighting in Syria is flawed, biased and even false?
Judge Gleeson, found that CSIS has engaged in illegal activities such as “provision of money” and “provision of personal property” to a person “known to be facilitating or carrying out terrorist activity.”

Judge Gleeson said that, in a case of a Canadian who went abroad to Syria, CSIS paid someone known to be facilitating or carrying out terrorism an amount totalling less than $25,000 over a few years.

Who is the guilty and who is the innocent? Relying on the “false” information gathered by CSIS through person who has been conducting terrorism themselves, has been misleading and damaging to the Canadian government and to Canadians. Judge Gleeson wasn’t outraged because of one isolated case. He talked about a “pattern” over years. Personally, I wouldn’t believe any information after hearing from a Canadian judge that CSIS lied on judges so why wouldn’t they lie on all the government and Canadians.

A public inquiry should be announced and getting to the bottom of this should be the right thing to do by Prime Minister Trudeau and his government.

Last May, sixteen independent human rights experts at the United Nations have called on Canada to repatriate little Amira and have described the repatriation of children as “a humanitarian and human rights imperative”.

The Canadian government should correct the wrong, fulfill its promise of protecting children in zone of conflicts and what is better today than bringing little Amira home.

A slightly modified version of this article was published at rabble.ca

COVID-19 and the war on terror

The COVID-19 pandemic is still claiming lives around the world, sending many people to crowded hospitals and putting medical systems under unbearable strain. It is a scary, concerning and tragic situation.

However, with many of us confined at home, it is also a time to reflect on the fragility of the systems we live in, and perhaps learn from the mistakes and bad decisions that have been guiding many of the governments around the world, including Canada.

After the attacks of 9/11, the United States convinced its allies that the world is threatened by the presence of the terrorists, and urged them to join its “War on Terror.” On September 20, 2001, in a national address, then-president Georges W. Bush famously declared: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make … Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” First came the attacks on Afghanistan and then followed the war in Iraq. The whole region never recovered from the military presence of the American troops and their allies.

Bush even incited Americans to “go shopping” and visit “Disneyworld.” In a very simplistic and false dichotomy, he wanted to summarize those attacks as an attack on the way of lives of Americans — an attack of “barbarism” on civilization, an attack of people who hated freedom on those who cherished it. Every intellectual or commentator who tried to situate those attacks in a more geopolitical and multilayered context linked to American politics and interference in the Middle East was criticized and attacked as unpatriotic (remember the backlash against Susan Sontag).

The majority complied and the U.S. Patriot Act was passed to give extraordinary powers to the state for policing, surveillance and imprisonment of the most vulnerable groups, like immigrants and Muslims. Very rare were the voices who opposed this onslaught on the civil liberties. The motto was ‘less liberties for more security.’

From a mocked and belittled president when he was first elected, Bush became a sort of national hero, a semi-divine figure who would lead his country’s people to war: “This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win.”

Today, eighteen years later, it is somehow ironic but worth noting that when the peace deal agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban started to make its way through the media, COVID-19 was accelerating its mortal pace around the world, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. It was as if the implicit message to the U.S. government was that with one threat gone, a new one appeared.

In a report prepared by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, released last fall, we learned that the war on terror cost the U.S. economy US$6.4 trillion. 800,000 people died due to direct war violence, and several times as many died indirectly. Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting.

The figures for Canada are not easy to find. Nevertheless, the same report indicates that “Canada spent an estimated $18 billion on fighting and reconstruction in Afghanistan, but there is no comprehensive figure on other costs.”

Also, the same report notes:

“a Parliamentary Budget Office report estimated in 2015 that the cost of providing financial support to Afghanistan veterans would total $157 million by 2025, discounting (in part due to lack of data) health care, pharmaceuticals and rehabilitation services. Disability benefits to Canadian combat veterans for a single year of military operations were projected to cost $145.2 million over nine years.”

Canada was not as directly impacted by the attacks of 9/11. Among the 2973 victims, only 24 were Canadians. Of course, these are lost human lives and their families were devastated, but it wasn’t a direct terrorist attack that hit Canada. Despite this matter, the Canadian parliament hastily passed in 2001 the Antiterrorism Act that mainly and tragically affected the lives of Canada’s Muslim community (representing barely 3 per cent of the population). It affected their jobs, economic situations, travels, civil liberties, families, children and integration in the Canadian social fabric.

The Canadian government also joined the war on terror because of the pressure from the U.S. government and because the RCMP and Canadian intelligence institutions understood that their lack of cooperation with their American counterparts would put their existence and relevancy in jeopardy. In the last two decades, those institutions saw their budgets and powers increase. In 2008, and because the Canadian government didn’t want to reveal the cost of extra security measures introduced after 9/11, CBC found that $24 billion was spent by the federal government on security measures since 9/11. In 2008, the RCMP’s annual budget rose by close to $1 billion since 2001, and the budget of Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS, nearly doubled.

Were those increase justified? Not as much as they were portrayed by some politicians. There was never any evidence that showed those additional funds helped secure the lives of Canadians. In Canada, terrorist risks, understood here as emanating from the Muslim community, were not particularly higher than in any other part of the world. In 2018, Public Safety Canada wrote in its annual assessment “the principal terrorist threat to Canada and Canadian interests continues to be that posed by individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ).”

Despite the increasing violence and the flourishing of white supremacist groups, those institutions are still frozen in the post-9/11 mentality, trying to milk the threats posed by the ‘usual suspects.’

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments accepted those increases in defence, surveillance and police budgets. But there was never an open public debate about the relevance of the Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan that cost at least $18 billion, the death of 158 soldiers and more than 1,800 wounded. It is still a taboo. The late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party who courageously dared to suggest in 2006 in the House of Commons that Canada should negotiate with the Taliban was derided by other political parties as “Taliban Jack.”

False and misleading parallels were always drawn in the media and by politicians between the role of Canada in the liberation of Europe in the Second World War, and its implication in the war in Afghanistan. There was nothing in common between those two conflicts: the stakes were totally different. Unfortunately, the media and some politicians used the same rhetoric to justify a bad decision dictated by American politics and not by the interests of Canadians.

The war on terror in Canada and in the U.S. wasn’t financed through higher personal taxes or more contributions from business. Rather, it was funded through additional borrowing and higher debts and interests. Over the last decades, Canada’s public finances kept worsening and federal and provincial governments kept slashing health budgets, education and social programs. Everybody was asked to make sacrifices. They sold us an illusory sense of safety by looking always at the same misleading source of danger, terrorism, while ignoring other dangers.

Our participation in the war on terror gave us tunnel vision, where the threats were artificially maintained and inflated, while all other dangers were dismissed or diminished. Health budgets, education funding and support for infrastructure, social housing and scientific research were always the last of the priorities of our governments. Those services were the sacrificial lambs in order to participate in the war on terror.

Today, with the high spread of COVID-19 and the increasing number of fatalities, provincial governments wake up to a sad reality. The hospitals are in need of masks and ventilators; nurses and doctors are overworked; schools are not equipped with online resources that would have made it easier to keep children educated while schools are closed.

COVID-19 is revealing the naked priorities of our governments. When Trudeau announced money to help Canadians laid off because of the crisis, and to give a fiscal break to small businesses, he is not being nice and charitable. These are overdue measures that should have been taken decades ago. Perhaps the situation of Canadians today would have been less vulnerable, and our health systems would have been more prepared to face this pandemic.

If COVID-19 has any positive message, I see it as making us reassess our personal priorities and policies as a country. Maybe it is time to tell ourselves — without being accused of being a terrorist apologist, a socialist or just naive — that the war on terror was a bad decision, and that instead we should have invested those billions of dollars in health, education and the most vulnerable in our society.

This column was first published on rabble.ca

Kingston arrest shows terrorism charges are exclusively for Muslims

A few weeks ago, seven teenagers were taken into police custody after a lockdown at a high school in Milton, Ontario. One was released, and six others were arrested. No one was injured but a knife was recovered, as well as two weapons believed to be firearms.

This incident was reported by a few media outlets in Ontario. It isn’t clear whether the teens were charged or not. A simple search on the internet brings up dozens, if not more, of such incidents happening across Canada. Bombs threats, possession of weapons, and threats of violence, all the work of Canadian teenagers and all happening right here in Canada, probably near one of your neighbourhood high schools.

Despite the gravity of the acts, there were no RCMP press conferences, no terrorism charges laid against these teenagers, no security experts invited by the national media to analyze the phenomenon, and no politicians asking for an overhaul of the refugee screening program. The language spoken by these young perpetrators didn’t interest any commentators. And Opposition leader Andrew Scheer hasn’t asked any questions about the incident in Milton, and didn’t call for a tightening of firearms legislation, even knowing that his predecessor Stephen Harper dismantled the federal long-gun registry in 2012. No special aircraft was used for surveillance of these neighbourhoods and no FBI tips to the RCMP about any of these incidents were shared. Nothing like this happened. Basically, no one cares.

But when the protagonist of similar acts is a teenage boy, most likely of Muslim background, and came to Canada as a Syrian refugee, it is a whole different story. The RCMP is involved, the FBI — previously implicated in an operation that led to the killing of Aaron Driver, a young Muslim-Canadian who was a supporter of ISIS, in obscure circumstances — are now in the loop. A Pilatus PC-12 RCMP aircraft was surveying the teen’s Kingston neighbourhood for days before his arrest. A press conference was held by no less than the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team of the RCMP. Even financial monitoring agency FINTRAC, which has so far been inefficient in stopping major money laundering and gave anonymity to a Canadian bank found guilty of not respecting the rules, joined the efforts. And of course, Scheer was so worried that he asked for a re-examination of the screening process for refugees coming to Canada.

From this Kingston arrest, we learned that explosives were found in the teen’s house and that initially two young people were arrested. One young man was later released and not charged, even though he had been named by the media. The other person turned out to be a teenager and was subsequently charged.

According to the RCMP, explosives were found in the house; however, by his own admission, the RCMP superintendent told the media that “there was no specific target identified.” Nevertheless he was adamant in saying that “there was an attack planned.” Despite all these confusing statements, the teen was charged with “knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity,” and “counselling a person to deliver, place, discharge or detonate an explosive or other lethal device in a public place.”

This week, I was at a vigil on Parliament Hill to commemorate the killing of six Muslim men by a young Canadian man, Alexandre Bissonnette. Despite the planning of his heinous crime, and his clear intent to spread fear and terrorize Muslims in a place of worship, Bissonnette was never charged with terrorism. He was described as a bullied and troubled teenager, and as a “lone wolf,” but never as a terrorist.

The Crown psychiatrist for his case said Bissonnette “didn’t promote any type of ideology in carrying out actions” (understanding ideology as Islam).

In opposition, the recently arrested Kingston teenager, even though he was not charged with belonging to a terrorist group and thus would have been a good candidate for the qualification of “lone wolf,” was still charged with terrorism.

Today, I have not a single doubt in my mind that this teen is Muslim. Today, I have the deep conviction that terrorism legislation in Canada is made to indict Muslims and Muslims only.

During that vigil, there were Liberal politicians present. They all condemned Islamophobia and hate. And that is commendable.

Looking at the centennial flame, and thinking of the widows and orphans and victims with life-long injuries left behind by the actions of Bissonnette, I wondered in silence if any of those politicians ever thought that the same legislation their own party voted for is responsible for stirring the pot of Islamophobia.

When Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale candidly “urges people not to jump to conclusions based on early reports” and accuses Scheer of “talking as if he knows the outcome of a police investigation,” doesn’t he realize that these same mediatized arrests by his own law enforcement agencies, and their problematic collaboration with the FBI (found guilty of entrapment many times) are responsible for this climate of fear and the “jumping to conclusion” attitudes that he is denouncing? Couldn’t the case of the Kingston teen have been dealt with differently? He could have been charged on the basis of the Criminal Code, like in the other teenagers’ arrests across the country — teenagers, frequently found with weapons and firearms, and who no politicians, no security experts, no RCMP, no FBI, no national TV, are there to talk about and care about.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

In 2019, Canada can act with courage in global affairs

I don’t believe in simple annual reviews. They aren’t very useful or relevant to people’s lives or countries’ politics. A year is a relatively short period of time when it comes to detecting patterns or deducing trends in human lives and politics. I believe that a longer period of time can be more useful in trying to establish observations and determine where we seem to be going.

Today I look back seven years ago, to 2011, and remember the beginning of the Arab Spring. It started in Tunisia, the country where I was born and the country for which I gave up any kind of hope for political change since I came to Canada in 1991. But what happened there in 2011 had a huge impact on international affairs — it impacted the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Europe, the U.S. and even us, here in Canada.

The spark that started in a small poor town in the interior of Tunisia was ignited by huge economic and regional disparities, police brutality and corrupt government. Those are the prevalent ingredients in many countries of the region and they are, I believe, a fertile ground for social and political unrest.

In 2011, the entire region of the Middle East was swept by a wave of street protests, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and followed by Yemen, Bahrein, Libya and Syria. Unfortunately, only Tunisia was able to get out with some mitigated positive changes: a newly written constitution, a free press and free democratic elections, but challenges are still hanging over the country and the threat of economic turmoil and political collapse are real.

Similar protests on the streets of other countries calling for political change have miserably failed. Even worse, they were quashed in bloody repression and in the case of Syria and Yemen, swirled into tragic civil wars fuelled by sectarianism, geopolitical interests and international foes.

The initial legitimate calls and movements asking for dignity, better living conditions, and an end to police regimes and military dictatorships were generally first met with silence, then carelessness and later with the active participation of Western democracies and Russian intervention to crush these movements for change. Western countries and Russia may have different reasons to stop these changes, but they wanted the same results: the status quo. This element is crucial for Israel’s security in the region (an argument that always comes first in Western capitals) but also for Saudi Arabia’s sake (since it is providing lucrative arms deals to many Western countries). Silencing and destroying these calls to democracy was possible with Canada selling arms to Saudi Arabia and with Russian President Putin selling arms and lending colonels and commanders to defeat the Syrians rebels and save their friend, Bashar al-Assad, preserving his power in Damascus, and consequently, the Russian presence in the region.

The consequence of this military intervention was a flow of refugees crossing to Europe, the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS and the crushing of all hope for any genuine democratic change in the region.

Some countries, like Germany, accepted one million refugees but many others refused to do so; instead countries like Hungary and Italy established entire political platforms to prevent the acceptance of refugees.

In Canada, we aren’t immune to the impact of the wars in the Middle East, even if many Canadians are not aware of them. Alexandre Bissonnette, the young Quebecer who killed six Muslim men and seriously injured five others in the Quebec City mosque shooting, justified his gesture through fear of refugees coming to Canada.

In 2018, hate crimes soared across Canada, with Quebec recording the highest number. Xenophobic and Islamophobic groups like the Three Percenters have flourished in Canada, increasing their memberships and spreading false news targeting Muslims and refugees on social media. They have organized protests in Canadian cities to create a sense of urgency and incite the population to fear “others.”

In 2019, there will be a federal election in Canada. Already, populist MP and founder of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier (who showed very poor judgement when it came to choosing a romantic partner, once dating a woman with ties to criminals while he was foreign affairs minister, and leaving highly secret documents with her), is now claiming that he wants to save Canada from all the immigrants who are undermining “Western civilization’s values.”

Since he was elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shy about fighting Islamophobia. Even when one of his MPs introduced a motion to study Islamophobia, its causes and impacts, the Conservative Party of Canada waged a “holy war” against that initiative. Quickly, the move turned into a purely partisan issue and the report that came out afterward was weak, with almost no recommendations.

At an international level, the Trudeau government kept a similar line to its predecessor, the conservative government of Stephen Harper. Trudeau kept the Harper government’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, until recently, when he started looking for a way out — but not before the gruesome assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, most likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the debacle of the tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, where she raised the fate of Saudi women activists and was immediately viciously attacked by Saudi government officials on Twitter and threatened with economic reprisals.

All these examples bring me to my initial point: our internal politics are not isolated from external politics, and vice versa.

I hope for this coming year, 2019, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is courageous both at home and abroad — supporting democracy by finally cancelling the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, promoting peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict (instead of equating the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to anti-Semitism), and supporting the development and construction of Yemen. In this way, he can leave a real legacy as prime minister. Canada is a small player when it comes to international affairs but with the erratic behaviour of the U.S. president and America’s international decline, there is a vacuum that Canada can fill with ethical political decisions.

This article has been originally published at rabble.ca

Mohamed Harkat should never be deported to torture

I first heard about the case of Mohamed Harkat in December 2002. It was a dark time for me and my family. My husband, Maher Arar, was detained in Syria; I had become a single mother with two young children, living on social assistance. The whole world was swept with anti-terrorism policies: if you were an Arab Muslim man, you would be at high risk of racial profiling, interrogation and eventually deportation to torture.

I learned about the case of Mohamed Harkat when I saw his wife, Sophie Harkat, on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, making an emotional plea for the release of her husband. I immediately felt a sense of sympathy for her. I felt we were fighting a similar battle. We were two women caught in the legal aftermath of 9/11, trying to bring justice to their loved ones, but surrounded by a wave of suspicion and a climate of fear.

Mohamed Harkat was arrested in front of his home in Ottawa under a security certificate. At the time, very few Canadians would have known about the controversial procedure that allows two cabinet ministers to sign a certificate ordering the deportation of a refugee or permanent resident out of Canada. This measure existed before the events of 9/11 and before the new national security legislation that followed. Nevertheless after 9/11, it became the tool par excellence to order the deportation of those deemed “dangerous” terrorists or sleeper agents. The security certificate is supposed to offer ministers a speedy way to order the deportation of an alleged terrorist. However, since 2002, these measures have been proven — through several court decisions and long public campaigns — problematic at many levels.

Mohamed Harkat’s case proved that as well. After his arrest, he was detained for a year in solitary confinement, then transferred to “Guantanamo North,” the Millhaven prison built at the exorbitant cost of $3.2 million specifically to house Arab Muslim men detained under security certificates. When Harkat was released from prison, he was put under house arrest with conditions considered to be the strictest in Canadian history. As Sophie Harkat mentioned in public speaking appearances, during this time she became her own husband’s de facto jailer, responsible for making sure he didn’t use the internet or drive outside the designated perimeter without the knowledge of Canada Border Services agents.

After 16 long years fighting his security certificate, today Mohamed Harkat is still threatened with deportation to his native Algeria. The secret evidence that led to his arrest has been destroyed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the informants used in this case were never cross-examined, and we learned through court proceedings that some of that “evidence” was collected through a suspect named Abu Zubeydah, who is still detained in Guantanamo Bay and who was waterboarded 83 times and subjected to torture such as sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and confinement in small dark boxes.

Mohamed Harkat escaped Algeria in 1990, at the start of the civil war that ravaged his country of birth for over a decade. He left to live in Pakistan and later came to Canada as a refugee claimant fearing for his life if he returned to Algeria. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment and treatment in Canada make him a perfect candidate for immediate arrest and detention in Algeria if deported there by the Canadian government.

According to Amnesty International, Algerian authorities “took no steps to open investigations and counter the impunity for grave human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of torture committed by security forces and armed groups in the 1990s during Algeria’s internal conflict, which left an estimated 200,000 people killed or forcibly disappeared.”

So why does the Canadian government want to send Mohamed Harkat back to Algeria? Do they want to turn him into another “disappeared” man?

After the Supreme Court of Canada deemed security certificates unconstitutional in 2007, Canada’s new security certificate legislation was modelled on the British system. Two years ago, the British government was barred from deporting six Algerian men suspected of having links with Al-Qaida to Algeria over concerns of torture.

Despite what British government lawyers qualified as “agreements with Algeria against torture,” the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that “potential future political instability in the country could undermine the assurances’ longevity.”

Why is Canada following the British model for security certificates yet turning a blind eye to decisions coming from that country — decisions that would help keep Mohamed Harkat in Canada, away from torture?

Prime Minister Trudeau and his government are under a lot of pressure from the Conservatives, who are trying to paint them as soft on terrorism. This is not new. The Conservative government has taken a hard line on terrorism — and anyone suspected of having links to it — in the past. They did it when they passed sweeping anti-terrorism legislation in 2015, they did it when they refused to repatriate Omar Khadr from Guantanamo, and they do it today on the issue of the return of Canadians who travelled overseas to fight in Syria. History has proven them wrong. Prime Minister Trudeau shouldn’t bow to this political pressure. Mohamed Harkat has suffered enough. His place is in Canada. He should never be deported to torture.

This column was initially published at rabble.ca

The torturers’ bargain: Crime and no punishment, but many rewards

Despite being deeply implicated in some of the worst crimes of the Bush administration’s torture regime, Gina Haspel has been promoted to Director of the CIA.

Haspel managed the CIA’s Site Green detention camp in Thailand, the blueprint for the rest of the Agency’s “black sites” around the world: a matrix of secret prisons where the captives could be brutalized with impunity.

Black site detainees were broken physically and psychologically; kept naked, beaten, hooded, waterboarded, threatened with electric chairs and military dogs, sexually abused (including through medically unnecessary rectal feedings so forceful the effects resembled those of violent rape), locked in boxes filled with insects, and forced to lie in their own excrement. One lost an eye, at least two died, and many hallucinated or begged to be killed.

Even more damningly, it turned out that almost one-quarter of the detainees had been sucked into the CIA’s system of black holes completely by mistake, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

One of the prisoners over whose torture Haspel presided, Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, was described by a U.S. Navy reserve doctor as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen … in my over 20 years of experience treating torture victims from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The prohibition of torture in international law is universal and absolute, and the UN Convention Against Torture requires all forms of involvement in it to be criminalized. But instead of being punished, many of the officials responsible for America’s torture program have been advanced to positions of even greater power — a tradition started by Presidents Bush and Obama, and now extended by Donald Trump.

Government lawyer Jay Bybee, for example, who helped construct the legal framework used to justify torture, was given a lifetime seat as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bybee’s co-architect of legalized torture, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, was elevated to U.S. Attorney General.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who approved the torturous interrogation techniques employed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, went on to become President of the World Bank.

John Brennan, who endorsed extraordinary rendition and torture as a CIA official during the Bush years, was appointed first as White House Homeland Security Advisor and then as CIA Director by Barack Obama.

George Tenet, who authorized and directed the use of torture as Director of the CIA, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush — while Bush himself is now being memorialized in nostalgic hindsight as Trump’s contrast in presidential virtue and restraint, rather than his precedent in lawless brutality.

In Canada, too, individuals complicit in torture have long been rewarded instead of removed.

For instance, psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron — who conducted electroshock experiments on humans at McGill University in the 1950s, for a CIA-funded project on mind control — ascended to President of the World Psychiatric Association.

More recently, the O’Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries determined that Canadian security agencies wrongfully labelled four innocent Muslim men as terrorists on the basis of racist stereotypes in the wake of 9/11, and then took advantage of their resulting incarceration in countries infamous for torture to try to extract information out of them.

But none of the authorities inculpated have been prosecuted. On the contrary, several were promoted — among them Mike Cabana, the inspector in charge of the RCMP’s torture-enabling A-O Canada investigation, who climbed the ranks to Deputy Commissioner; and Stephen Covey, the RCMP’s liaison with the torture-mongering Syrian regime, who became a Superintendent.

At least three of the participants in the torture scandal, including Cabana, were subsequently honoured with the Order of Merit of the Police Forces for “exceptional service.”

Giuliano Zaccardelli — who was pressured to resign from his post as Commissioner of the RCMP after lying to a parliamentary committee about the torture of Maher Arar — was given a senior position in Interpol, the global police force.

Last month, Kelly Pocha was fired from her job in a British Columbia car dealership, following outrage about her racist tirade in a Denny’s restaurant denigrating a group of Muslims as “not Canadian” — while the planners and executors of a global system of abuse designed to treat scores of Muslim detainees as non-human have not only been spared punishment, but permitted to rise to the heights of institutions entrusted with enormous amounts of power.

The logic required to rationalize the apparent paradox — the bigger the scale of the transgression, the smaller the penalty — can only be described as tortured.

This article was written in collaboration with the legal analyst Azeezah Kanji and first published at rabble.ca

When reporting competes with fake news, journalism is the first victim

The recent van attack in Toronto has left 10 people dead and 14 injured. It is deeply shocking, and as with all the other attacks around the world in recent years, very troubling.

Beyond the human tragedy, this attack has convinced me that journalism, as I have understood and read it since I started paying attention to the news (about 30 years ago), is on the way to becoming extinct. In the last decade, many newspapers have gone bankrupt and several newsrooms closed. Analysts blamed the situation, rightly so, on the internet or digital media and social media, as well as the lack of a viable business model that would allow journalism to survive. But the social media and the polarization that is turning these virtual places into warzones between “supporters” and “enemies” are not the only factors to blame.

Mainstream journalism and some journalists are increasingly reproducing the quick, biased reporting widespread in social media. What we publicly despise in others seems to be a reflection of our own mistakes. The result is a slowly erosion of what makes journalism a strong pillar of democracy, intended to keep the public informed in an objective and accurate manner.

Here, I use examples to show how some “mainstream” journalists are falling into the trap of sensationalism and quick scoops, thus following in the footsteps of what their competitors are already doing.

Each time a tragic event takes place, a new narrative is quickly shaped and spread, and many journalists run to embrace it, without realizing that each time they are digging a bigger hole in the “seeker of truth and objectivity” grave.

When in 2015, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, journalists reported that there were snipers on building roofs and that the suspect had accomplices. That created a tremendous climate of fear. The “terrorist” label was quickly attributed to the perpetrator and a “hero” was made of Kevin Vickers, who was later appointed as an Ambassador to Ireland by then prime minister Stephen Harper. All these news stories, comments and decisions were made within a matter of days, giving the impression that there were no other versions of events and no other plausible explanations.

Zehaf-Bibeau was portrayed as a monster to the point that, fearing the backlash of being considered guilty by association, not a single Muslim place of worship was willing to bury him in Ottawa and his father had to take his body for burial in Libya. His mental health and drug addiction struggles, as described by his mother in a letter to the media, weren’t taken seriously in his public representation. A mug shot of him with either unkempt hair or harbouring a Palestinian keffiyeh to cover his face made the headlines. Despite all the questions about his real motives, the RCMP Commissioner concluded that Zehaf-Bibeau was a “Mujaheed,” a terrorist affiliated with “international” terrorism, a newly introduced term to describe what I guess should frankly be labelled “Muslim terrorism.”

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American security guard, attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. The narrative that came out immediately was that Muslims (Omar Mateen’s faith) are haters of LGBTQ communities and that Mateen went on a rampage as an attack on the sexual orientation of nightclub visitors. Another narrative, widely circulated, went on to describe Omar Mateen as a self-hating closeted homosexual. It took only a few hours and days for these narratives to be circulated in social media and endorsed by “mainstream” journalists. It took more than two years of investigation, legal procedures and thorough journalism to quash these erroneous stories. Last month, Glen Greenwald from the Intercept wrote an investigative piece exposing that the real motives of the perpetrator were related to the U.S. wars and killings of Muslims in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a young Canadian man, killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque. Some media outlets, quickly followed by a number of national columnists on social media, reported that Bissonnette had accomplices and that his accomplice was a Muslim man of Moroccan descent. Bissonnette’s motives were not rapidly disclosed. A general unease made some journalists less eloquent about the linking of this man to white supremacy movements. Bullying and mental health kept emerging as the main “known” motive of the cold-blooded murders. A clean-shaved picture of him was also shown in the media and his history of anxiety and depression history was repeatedly mentioned. A hero was even found in the actions of Azzeddine Sofiane who was killed in the course of trying to save some of the other worshipers. A heroic act, indeed, but in my opinion, another attempt to positively distract us from the narrative of the horrible actions of the perpetrator.

Alek Minassian, the man arrested and charged with killing 10 people this week by driving a van onto the sidewalks of Toronto, also “benefited” from a narrative quickly shaped by social media, and endorsed by journalists looking for sensationalism and a bit of “market share” in this new model of news.

A reporter from CBC declared on Twitter that the perpetrator was “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern,” trying to associate the attacker with the now classic narrative of “another Muslim or Middle Eastern violent guy.” Later, after this narrative made its way into many news outlet and websites, some journalists quickly jumped and kept asking — was this case not related to “international terrorism”? How did they know? Is it the mere religious affiliation of the perpetrator that makes you a terrorist? Or rather, through negation, “if you are not a Muslim, a.k.a. a terrorist, then you can be anything else.”

Soon after, another narrative came to be built by reports (once again gleaned from social media) indicating that the attacker was a misogynist belonging to an “incel” group — men who are angry about their involuntary sexual inaccessibility to women. As quick as the police and journalists were to “clean” the attacker of accusations of terrorism, they were not as quick to corroborate this troubling news. Maintaining fuzziness in this case makes all explanations plausible and none true. What is supposed to be a rule of objectivity is becoming a fluid argument that some journalists use when it suits them, to refute some claims and accept others.

And once more, a hero is instantaneously found — in this case, the police officer who didn’t shoot at the killer. It’s a gesture that we have seen many times in other situations, especially when the suspect is clearly identified as a person of colour. What should be a rule is unfortunately portrayed and accepted as the exception. A heroic gesture that we cheer despite the real tragedy being lived by people, and the human and social damage created by the attacker in the community.

These examples illustrate how both social media and mainstream reporting are shaping dangerous and misleading narratives that, in the long run, are slowly causing the erosion of the real work of journalism.

This article was first published at rabble.ca

Our society’s double standards in the application of due process

We live in a strange era. An era of deep polarization of views. An era of flagrant contradictions. An era of erosion of principles of justice.

My husband, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born and raised in Syria, faced a public trial in 2002 while he was the victim of extraordinary rendition initiated by U.S. authorities with the complicity of Canadian law enforcement as well as Jordanian and Syrian authorities, official and de facto allies of the U.S. war on terror.

When my husband was given a paper in his U.S. cell stating that he had been arrested because of his alleged association with Al-Qaeda, he didn’t get a lawyer or day in court. He was transported in the middle of the night to an airport where a private jet, known as a ghost plane, flew him to Amman, Jordan. But many people in Canada believed that the U.S. couldn’t be mistaken, people who included politicians, journalists and regular Canadian citizens.

When former U.S. president George W. Bush infamously said in 2001, “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” he knew that many people would fall into the new fault line he created. Indeed, despite many disagreeing with Bush, many also listened to him. He created a clash of civilizations, and in a way he succeeded.

If Twitter and Facebook existed at that time, I have no doubt there would have been campaigns calling my husband a terrorist and demands to keep him in Syria to “rot with the terrorists.” Actually, even without social media, those “calls” were relayed by politicians, and journalists and media.

Amidst all this confusion and cacophony, one thing saved my husband: the principle of due process. Not that it was offered to him — I fought with supporters to bring it back to him.

I kept telling people around me that if my husband was guilty of any wrongdoing, he should be brought back to Canada and face justice. Deporting him to a Syrian prison and keeping him there wouldn’t serve any justice.

The notion of due process allowed the most skeptical to listen. Applying the argument of due process to a “suspected terrorist” helped my husband escape a possible death and a very likely life of torture and misery in a Syrian gulag.

There are two direct and serious implications of the 9/11 attacks. The first is the justification of torture as a tool for extracting information from Muslim suspects, with the normalization and “branding” of the ticking bomb scenario by the likes of Alan Dershowitz. The second is the entrenchment of the “war on terror” narrative in public discourse, leading to the disappearance of the principle of due process for Muslim suspects.

From the moment the suspect is arrested until the time he faces the justice system, he has already been tried in the public arena by politicians, journalists and pseudo experts, who most of the time make speculations that are presented as absolute truth. When the time comes for a trial, public opinion has already chosen its side: usually incrimination of the terrorist suspect.

When Hassan Diab, a Canadian citizen suspected of participating in the 1980 bombing of a synagogue in Paris, was arrested in 2006, the notion of due process was not held up for him.

For many, he was already considered guilty. His descent as a Muslim Arab from Lebanon made him a culprit before getting a fair and open trial. Even when a Canadian judge in Ottawa examined the extradition demand from Canada to France, and admitted that the evidence were shaky and flimsy, he still ruled for his extradition. Many blamed it on our extradition laws. They claimed that the judge had his hands tied by the low threshold for extradition in Canada. I concede that point. But not totally. I would argue that the whole anti-Muslim, anti-Arab climate paved the way for such a decision. Why do we gamble with the innocence of someone who has everything working against him, for whom public opinion is shaped by the narrative of terrorism and being “either with us or the terrorists,” and judge him guilty or just ignore his plight?

Today, even the #MeToo movement seems affected by this terrorism fault line.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent, Swiss-born theologian and scholar of Islam, was accused by two French women of rape. Despite going on his own volition to the police and being cooperative with the investigation, he was immediately arrested and put in prison without even visits from his family. Clearly, due process wasn’t deemed necessary in this case. In my opinion, his ethnic background and religion stripped him of this legal principle. His legal and media treatment today is very similar to what Muslim terrorist suspects would receive. Even his incarceration in solitary confinement in Fleury-Mérogis prison is highly symbolic since this is a prison where many Muslims suspected of terrorism have been held, including Hassan Diab.

Yeas ago, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and poised at the time to be a strong candidate for the French presidency, was accused by a Manhattan hotel worker of sexual assault. Many of his social and political connections stood by him, defended him publicly and claimed that his sexual misconduct (and other later discovered crimes) were a sign of his virility and sex appeal. Later he was acquitted of all accusations of pimping, rape and sexual assault, and now some even speculate about his political comeback.

In 2012, Glen Greenwald, wrote a book entitled With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. In the book, Greenwald focuses on cases of financial fraud, domestic spying and torture in the U.S. and how some corporations and individuals are evading justice and accountability because of their power and money. Today, the same can be seen not only in the U.S. but also around the world when it comes to terrorism or sexual accusations. Your ethnicity, religion and social status will determine whether the same legal principles are applied to you.

This article was already published at rabble.ca

Islamophobia continues to fester in wake of Quebec City mosque shooting

On January 29, 2018, Canada will commemorate the first anniversary of the horrible and shocking killing of six Muslim men, shot by Alexandre Bissonnette in a Quebec City mosque.

Beyond the unanimous condemnation last year (rightly so) of such a violent and terrorizing act by politicians from all level of governments, I believe that nothing was achieved in fighting Islamophobia and stopping the wave of hate sweeping across Canadian cities.

Even the recent symbolic proposal to declare January 29 an official day of remembrance, initiated by more than 70 Canadian organizations, was met with staunch opposition from political parties in Quebec’s National Assembly — the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec — and tergiversation and non-committal replies from both Liberal parties in Quebec and Ottawa.

Like classic arguments used in France or by some conservative politicians during the debate around anti-Islamophobia motion M-103 last winter, each time the issue of hate against Muslims is evoked, it is turned into a semantic debate about the exact meaning of the word “Islamophobia” and about the imagined threats that such initiatives would pose to freedom of speech. As if the killing of six hard-working citizens in a place of worship came out of nowhere or the statistics revealed by Quebec City police last December were just another case of “crying wolf” by victimized Muslims interested in muzzling free minds.

Meanwhile, groups propagating hate, reinforcing stereotypes and ignorance, and inciting violence are left unbothered — or worse, they are growing in intensity and virulence.

During the summer of 2017, a controversy was falsely created about an organized trip at the Parc Safari zoo near Montreal. A group of Muslim families prayed on the lawn, a practice that as a practising Muslim I have been seeing in North America since I first arrived in Canada in 1991. On Facebook, some individuals criticized and attacked the park management, accusing them of allowing Muslims holding prayers in a public space and spreading their religion. With the administration standing by their decision to accommodate visitors as long as they don’t violate park policies, this manufactured crisis became another one added to the long list of incidents in which Muslims are portrayed as threats to the public order, and thus fuelling Islamophobic reactions and fear.

More recently, a Montreal mosque found itself in another fabricated controversy when a TVA journalist alleged that there was provision in the construction contract between the mosque and the builders working for them, barring women from the site on Fridays. Quebec politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the “misogynistic behaviour” of Muslims. There were no second thoughts, no calls to be cautious; every politician had a piece of wood to add to the fire. This time it was not the freedom of speech argument that was raised; instead the principle of gender equality came in handy for some.

Even when the news turned out to be plainly wrong, there were few calls for investigation, no serious reprimand and a very shallow apology by the media outlet.

The accumulation and repetition of these “stories” build on a suffocating atmosphere many Muslim communities breathe across Canada.

A recent media report showed that Toronto is another city where Islamophobia has been growing and left unchallenged by politicians. Anti-Muslim rallies have been held regularly in front of mosques, the Quran was torn in a Peel District School Board meeting about religious accommodation and a Toronto Imam has received death threats because he is helping the board with religious and accommodation issues.

Last December, Pamela Geller, a U.S.-based Islamophobic blogger who once described President Obama as a “third-worlder and a coward,” and said that “[h]e will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords,” was invited to speak by the Jewish Defence league in Toronto, and Ezra Levant joined her at the event.

Once again, freedom of speech was a fine pretext for allowing a blatantly Islamophobic event to take place and hate speech to flourish and become normalized.

I believe there are three categories of people responsible for this troubling situation.

The first are politicians. Many of them have been playing with identity politics for a long time while others have remained sitting on the bench. Not long ago we had a prime minister named Stephen Harper who said that “Islamicism is the biggest threat to Canada.” The uncommon word “Islamicism” amalgamates Islam, fundamentalism and terrorism, making the terms interchangeable. Later, he even gave the example of a mosque as a potential place of youth radicalization, immediately making a connection in people’s minds between Islam and violence.

Even if Justin Trudeau considered the Quebec City killings a terrorist act, his government took very little initiative to help provinces and cities come up with education campaigns in schools, in hospitals or public transit to fight Islamophobia. He didn’t make any changes to hate crime laws to dissuade white supremacist groups, that are on the rise in Canada. Instead in 2015, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals voted for the anti-terrorism legislation introduced by Stephen Harper, formerly known as Bill C-51. Once again, they used laws to create two specific kinds of crimes: ones committed by Muslims and ones committed by other people whose faith doesn’t matter.

Here, it is ironic to remember that Alexandre Bissonnette won’t face anti-terrorism charges.

Even the recently passed amendments to the anti-terrorism law keep the heavy feeling that Canada is constantly under threat by terrorists, a.k.a. Muslims, allowing for secret trials to take place, a practice so far only applied to Muslim suspects.

The second group is media. Some media outlets have also been dangerously playing the card of fear against Muslims. They choose which incidents to report and over-represent, like the issue of the niqab during the 2015 federal election. That was not the only time. In 2008, during the reasonable accommodation crisis, many media outlets in Quebec inflated and distorted the cases of religious accommodation demands, making them seem overwhelming. In Ontario, during the “Sharia debate” crisis, some media invited only extremist views from each side, helping to polarize the debate, and leaving the population with more fear than real answers.

And finally, the third group is the general public. When violent events committed by Muslims occur around the world, the onus is placed on Muslims to distance themselves from violence, from their faith, and from the violent ideologies espoused by some Muslim groups. I lived through that and I keep going through it each time a terrorist act is committed in Western countries (mind you that when terrorist attacks happen in other places in the world, they go almost unnoticed).

I wouldn’t expect people to condemn every single Islamophobic act committed as this is not possible and it isn’t fair to make people guilty by simple association. However, I think that there is a huge duty for self-education about Islam and Muslims, and to make an effort to get out of our comfort zone and make new friends who are Muslims. They can be good or they can be bad, as anyone else. But the effort is worth it. Critical analysis of the news and of politicians’ words and actions should not only matter when it comes to work, health and the economy but also when it comes to national security too. Fear shouldn’t blind us and give a blank cheque to politicians. It should rally us to fight darkness and hate.

This article was first published at rabble.ca

Public apologies serve crucial role in democratic societies

Last week, some voices rose up criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the list of apologies he has made since he took office in 2015. Some argued that his late father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, would not have done so; in this patriarchal analogy, a son has to follow in the footsteps of his dad, whether he is right or wrong. Other critics insisted that apologizing to victims is a symbol of current attitudes which find fault in outdated traditions judged to be colonizing and discriminating by today’s standards.

As a victim of government policies of systematic discrimination towards Muslims after 9/11, I totally disagree with those arguments. Apologies are not merely monetary gifts won through a lottery ticket, or hollow words pronounced in public by teary politicians. They are crucial steps for mourning victims and supporting survivors. They are highly symbolic gestures that are instrumental in building a collective memory, defining our history as a country and restoring faith in institutions. On a personal level, I was adamant about seeing words of apology written down on paper. I keep this paper framed on my desk. The words represent a path of light for my children’s future, always mixed with the clouds associated with their names.

Acknowledging the wrongs of past policies is a crucial pillar of the accountability principle that underlies our democratic system. Our judiciary system is built on the notions of due process and personal liability of citizens and institutions. It is not a coincidence that many countries with difficult pasts (ethnic violence, corruption and apartheid) and which afterwards chose to enter the democratic circle held truth and justice commissions. These were not acts of vengeance or weakness or the defeat of some groups by others, but a strong signal to building a new social contract together on a level playing field.

When some criticize the redress and apology received by Omar Khadr, who spent more than a decade in Guantanamo, or Abdullah Almalki, Ahmed El Maati or Muayyed Nureddin, who were all tortured in Syrian jails with the complicity of Canadian law enforcement and intelligence services, these criticisms overlook the fact that the compensations and apologies didn’t arrive overnight on a silver plate. They didn’t miraculously happen because of a change of heart or a feeling of guilt. They came after years of judicial inquiries and legal battles. They came after years of public calumnies by anonymous sources. They came after years of physical and psychological torture. They came after families lived in anguish and social exclusion. They came after reputations were damaged forever. They came after employment opportunities became inexistent if not null.

Those voices should direct their criticism to the government policies that allowed such discrimination to take place in the first instance. When Muslim asylum-seekers are stopped at the border and questioned about how many times they pray a day or about their religious opinions on women’s headscarves, this is called religious discrimination. When young men are arrested in the street, frisked and asked to supply personal information just because of the colour of their skin, this is called racial profiling and carding. When men and women are rounded up at social gatherings or laid off from their jobs because of their sexual orientation, it is called sexual discrimination. When Indigenous children are separated from their communities and sent thousand of kilometres away from their families, prevented from speaking their native language and then physically and morally abused, this has a name: it is called cultural genocide.

When Canadian professor Hassan Diab was extradited to France in 2014 to face accusations of bombing a synagogue that were shown over and over in the court system to be unsubstantiated, and to say the least, untrue, very few voices rose up to ask Trudeau to call his French counterpart and explicitly request Diab’s release and return to Canada. The minute this Canadian citizen is able to return safely to Canada and eventually sue the government for abandoning him in jail despite eight French legal decisions to release him, then those voices will likely complain about how the government is wasting its tax dollars and throwing out apologies.

It is also worth mentioning the case of another Canadian, Abderrahmane Ghanem, who was a youth radicalized in Calgary but who didn’t join any terrorist groups or commit any violent acts. Nevertheless, while travelling to Algeria, his parents’ country of origin, he was arrested, charged and spent 13 months in prison, in very bad conditions. After his acquittal by an Algerian court, his Canadian lawyer, Gary Caroline, linked Ghanem’s ordeal to Algerians acting on information provided to them by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

As long as our systems allows injustice to happen, we are all responsible for these wrongdoings and one day, apologies are needed. It is up to voters to decide what kind of society they would like to live in and leave for their children. Is it an arrogant society looking at the past with nostalgic eyes, or a fair society that is ready to look at the past with critical eyes and ready to build a better future, even if this costs money and entails more public apologies?

This column first appeared on rabble.ca