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Civil liberties: The long struggle for justice

Jessica Squires

November 23, 2011

Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah, Hassan Almrei, Mohamed Harkat and Adil Charkaoui: arrested on security certificates. Ahmad Abou El-Maati: jailed and tortured in Syria. Ahmad Abou El-Maati: renditioned to Egypt. Abdullah Almalki: arrested and detained in Syria. Omar Khadr: tortured at Bagram and Guantánamo Bay. Maher Arar: renditioned to Syria and tortured. Abousfian Abdelrazik: detained without charge in Sudan. Muayyed Nureddin: detained and turned over to Syria. Bashir Makhtal: transferred to Ethiopia, perhaps to face the death penalty (he’s still there). Hassan Diab: facing extradition to France on hearsay evidence.

All Muslim. All detained or imprisoned—in Canada or abroad. All publicly smeared by the Canadian government and Canadian security forces. Many tortured, often with Canadian complicity.

This is the record of civil liberties in Canada.

If the list seems overwhelming, consider this: it’s only a sample of government attacks on civil liberties since 2001. It doesn’t include dozens of young Muslim men detained, deported or wrongfully charged and imprisoned over crimes they didn’t commit. The most high-profile of these cases have corresponded with parliamentary debates or government media releases about “fighting terror”—especially attempts to restrict civil liberties.

While Muslims have been the primary targets of attacks on civil liberties, the wider public has also been affected. The G20 Summit in Toronto in June saw the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history: over 1,100 arrested, but fewer than 100 now charged. International speakers critical of Canadian foreign policy have been denied entry into Canada—including British MP George Galloway, US anti-war leader Medea Benjamin, and Palestinian democracy activist Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. Similarly, Canadian NGOs have had their funding cut, not because they didn’t meet requirements for it, but because they opposed the Harper agenda: KAIROS and the Canadian Arab Federation are just two examples.

Since Canada’s “Anti-Terrorism Act” (ATA) became law on December 18, 2001, the RCMP and CSIS have launched a series of operations that have violated the most basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by Canadian law. Project O Canada, a Toronto-based RCMP anti-terrorism investigation, with arms in Ottawa and Montreal, led to the wrongful detention and rendition abroad of Canadians Maher Arar, Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad El Maati. Project Thread, an operation of the RCMP’s Public Security and Anti-Terrorism unit, raided homes and arrested 26 young men, accusing them of terrorism; none were ever charged and almost all were deported to countries that treated them as if they had been convicted. Almost half of the so-called Toronto 18, arrested and detained under the ATA, had all their charges stayed.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. A number of important victories in the fight to defend civil liberties have helped improve the terrain for future struggles. The importance of these victories should not be underestimated, especially in light of the difficult conditions in which they were won.


In 2002 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that deportation to countries suspected of torture may be justified only in “exceptional circumstances.”

In 2006 the O’Connor Inquiry entirely cleared Maher Arar. The government was forced to issue a public apology and compensate him with $10 million. Although its recommendations have yet to be fully implemented, the ruling was crucial: it exposed the government’s complicity in violating civil liberties, and changed the terms of debate among the public.

In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled security certificates are unconstitutional in several aspects. Some detainees were released, although under harsh conditions. Also in 2007, Arar received an apology from the US House of Representatives. (Despite these successes, the Canadian Parliament renewed the ATA that year.)

In 2008 Adil Charkaoui successfully argued to the Supreme Court that CSIS’ destruction of evidence, retaining only the written summaries of interviews, was an infringement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Omar Khadr’s lawyers succeeded in forcing the release of video footage of Khadr’s interrogation by US authorities. Their release further exposed Canadian complicity in torture. And the Iacobucci Inquiry exonerated Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad El Maati, finding Canadian officials partly to blame for their torture.

In late 2009 Charkaoui’s security certificate was quashed. The one against Almrei was ruled unreasonable.

These victories were made possible by two factors. First, the Canadian anti-war movement was a global leader in recognizing the role of Islamophobia in the “war on terror.” In the days after 9/11, it took a clear position against racist scapegoating, uniting with Muslims, Arabs and their allies against attacks on their civil liberties.

Anti-war movement

Second, the anti-war movement committed to defending civil liberties as part of its anti-war opposition, defending those under attack—even when it was unpopular to do so. Without a doubt, there were many debates, but the movement was vindicated. The links between the government’s pro-war agenda abroad and its attacks on civil liberties at home are much more obvious than before.

War always breeds racism. World War I saw anti-immigrant discrimination and widespread detention. World War II saw anti-Semitism and internment camps for Japanese-Canadians. Creating a dehumanized “other” at home—to blame for conflict abroad—is a tried-and-true tactic of almost every government at war.

There are still major challenges facing us. The Conservatives plan to reintroduce the ATA, even though it expired in the previous Parliament. The changes to security certificates in Bill C-3 are only cosmetic, while fundamental problems remain. New certificates have been issued against all five of the men fighting them, and three certificates are still to be fought n the courts and in the public eye. Nureddin, Almalki and El Maati still await an apology. Although finally let back into Canada, Abdelrazik is barred from employment and his name remains on the UN no-fly list. Diab could soon be deported under Canada’s unfair extradition laws.

Nevertheless, resistance must continue. And it will. While still too few in number, every victory defending civil liberties makes another one possible—even in difficult circumstances. As we re-new our movement a decade after 9/11, the key is to keep solidarity at the heart of every struggle.

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