By RULA SHARKAWI
TORONTO, ONTARIO -- The capture of one of the world's most wanted fugitives, Saddam Hussein, has spurred a rather interesting debate. Suddenly rule of law has become a great new catchphrase in mainstream public discourse.
Saddam has a long list of horrific atrocities associated with his brutal regime.
When it comes to dealing with Saddam, Prime Minister Paul Martin urged U.S. President George Bush to ensure a trial for the despotic dictator that is both "just" and "credible."
That sentiment has been echoed by the Canadian public in letters to the editors and editorials across the country that reaffirm, as a matter of principle, the need to apply the rule of law.
If, as Canadians, we engage in the debate about rule of law and due process for the monster that is Saddam, shouldn't we also be reflecting on how the rule of law is (or isn't) applied here in Canada as well?
Let's look at the principles of justice that form the basis of the rule of law. Consider how the government's security agenda has made it acceptable to disregard the rule of law in the name of national security.
Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But Canada's government has turned this basic principle on its head.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently confirmed that both the Canadian intelligence service, CSIS, and the RCMP were involved in fingering Maher Arar on suspicions of terrorism.
The accusation of guilt was enough to prompt a series of events that resulted in 10 brutal months of torture and imprisonment for Arar.
What meaning do the principles of the rule of law have when 21 Muslim men in "Project Thread," are rounded up and detained in maximum security prisons for months on the "suspicions" of terrorism. All have been released. None was charged with terrorism activities.
Yet, accused and branded, they are followed by the shadow of the public's inescapable spotlight.
When it comes to "suspicions" about Canadians of Arab origin or the Muslim faith, individuals are now presumed guilty until they prove their innocence. That is if they get the opportunity to stand trial.
Through the adoption of Canada's security agenda, not only can you be singled out, as Arar was, but you can also be accused, publicly labelled a terrorist and a threat to national security and rarely ever given a reasonable opportunity to prove your innocence with a fair and open trial. One, as Martin advocates, that is just and credible.
The use of CSIS security certificates violates a host of rule of law principles.
Again, in the name of our national security, individuals like Hassan Almrei and Adil Charkaoui, detained and held in solitary confinement on a security certificate signed by two federal ministers, (not by a judge or in an independent court of law), will never be permitted to know the charge against them, to see or challenge the evidence brought forward by the state, or to have a public and impartial trial.
Instead, they will get a secret trial, with secret evidence never known to them or their lawyers, in a secret hearing. Gone is the individual's right to defend him or herself in court.
Since 9/11, we have engaged in the security vs. liberty debate. In the process of enhancing our national security, we have allowed for the abrogation of fundamental constitutional rights of select groups in society.
We are not apprehending individuals for crimes they may have committed, but rather for our suspicion of what they might do. Like water being thrown onto a sand castle, eroding these basic principles of justice that form the rule of law only undermines the protections and safeguards so cherished in any democracy.
The rule of law was introduced as an integral part of our Constitution and was intended to ensure that individuals are protected from what was then the arbitrary power of monarchs.
All persons are meant to be ruled by those laws equally, not by the decisions of elected ministers or appointed officials of security agencies.
If an individual is suspected of committing a crime, the process dictates that they be charged, tried and sentenced accordingly by an independent court of law, that is impartial and transparent.
Those in favour of pre-emptive security would argue that these times call for extraordinary measures. What does it say to the security camp when even the U.S. courts are questioning the legality of stripping detained suspects of their rights?
An even stronger statement is made with the court decision to roll back the sweeping powers exercised by elected officials in the "war on terror." The message is clear: It's time to return to the rule of law.
In Canada, why are we more passionate about seeing the rule of law applied to Saddam than we are about ensuring justice in our own backyard?
Shouldn't we also be debating the removal of our own legal spider holes where the rights of Canadians, refugees and immigrants are hidden beyond the scrutiny of the public and our judicial system?
Note: Rula Sharkawi is the communications director of the Canadian Arab Federation.
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