Hunger strikers must be heard

The Ottawa Citizen, Thu 08 Feb 2007

By Alex Neve

Three men held in an immigration holding centre in Kingston have pursued a desperate hunger strike for more than two months now, a hunger strike to draw attention to the dire choices they face. As their health deteriorates rapidly, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day must respond to what has truly become a mounting crisis. Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohammad Mahjoub and Hassan Almrei have been held under immigration security certificates for more than five years. Their detention has truly become tantamount to being indefinite.

They have limited choices: either remain detained while continuing to pursue legal challenges to the blatantly unjust procedure that governs their cases, or agree to be returned to countries where Amnesty International believes they face a serious risk of torture.

Two other men, Adil Charkaoui and Mohamed Harkat, have been released from detention but are subject to some of the most restrictive bail conditions ever imposed in Canada while their cases remain pending.

Numerous human-rights organizations and legal academics as well as expert United Nations human-rights bodies such as the Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have expressed serious concerns about the fact that the security-certificate process fails to meet international standards governing detention and fair trials. Individuals who are subject to security certificates are denied the opportunity to mount an effective defence. Much of the evidence against them is withheld and they are not able to question key witnesses who are the source of accusations against them. The Supreme Court of Canada heard appeals challenging the unfairness of this process, brought by three of these men, Almrei, Charkaoui and Harkat, in June, 2006. The court's judgment is expected soon.

Also of grave concern is the government's position that it is justifiable to deport these men to countries where they are at risk of torture. International law is clear in treaties such as the UN Convention against Torture, ratified by Canada. No one should be subjected to torture. No one should be sent back to a country where there is a serious risk they will be tortured. Canada's position contravenes this essential human-rights protection and undermines the global struggle to eradicate torture.

These concerns about lack of a fair process and risk of return to torture lie at the heart of the hunger strikes. There have been repeatedly calls on Canada to reform laws and practice regarding security certificates and detention conditions for security detainees. Similarly the government has been urged to amend Canadian law in order to unequivocally ban the deportation of anyone to a country where they face a serious risk of being tortured. Yet for years, governments have failed to take action. These men have felt compelled to take this desperate step as a result of the failure to address these serious human-rights shortcomings.

The men have other concerns as well, including the nature of family visits, prison programs, access to medical care, regular exercise and outdoor access. Yet they have no independent complaints process to which they can turn to look into concerns about detention practices. The federal correctional investigator also has raised the concern that transferring these men to the new Kingston Immigration Holding Centre last year would mean they would be unable to "file complaints about their care and humane treatment while in custody."

The hunger strikes have also raised concerns about regular medical monitoring of the detainees. It has been reported that there havenot been any medical check-ups of these three men during the course of the hunger strikes.

Given the lack of an independent complaints process and the apparent failure to carry out ongoing medical monitoring, it is vital that the government move without delay. It must ensure there is an impartial review of the allegations and demands made by the hunger strikers.

The correctional investigator is the most obvious agency to play that role and has already made it abundantly clear that it is prepared to do so. Regular medical monitoring of these three men must also begin immediately and not be subject to any arbitrary or unreasonable conditions.

Alex Neve is secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.