Detainees are Canada's shame

Kingston Whig Standard , February 07/07

BY Bill Siksay

Last week, six distinguished former Canadian ministers of foreign affairs wrote a joint statement denouncing the United States for its policies of detention without charge and without conviction that have seen more than 800 men detained at Guantanamo Bay. They chided the current Conservative government for not criticizing the U.S. for these policies.

What was breathtaking about this statement is that nowhere does it mention that Canada also employs policies of indefinite detention, detention without charge and detention without conviction, and administers its own system for secret trials where those detained have no knowledge of the evidence against them. In the U.S. it's known as the Patriot Act; here it's known as the security certificate process.

Three security certificate detainees in a special holding facility in Kingston have been on a hunger strike for more than two months, protesting their detention and the conditions of that detention. Mohammad Majhoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Almrei have been detained on security certificates for more than five and six years respectively.

They have never been charged. They have never been convicted. They have never seen any of the evidence against them, rendering them and their lawyers unable to mount a proper defence. These are not the justice values that ordinary Canadians embrace.

The three men are now detained in a special facility, a $3-million federal institution called the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre (KIHC). This maximum-security prison within a maximum-security prison is attached to Millhaven Institution.

KIHC is two small, school portable-like buildings. One is the residential unit and the other the administration unit. Cells are small. There is no real exercise yard, just a paved area the length of two wheelchair ramps between the buildings. The detainees have no programs, have complained of harassment by guards and face restrictions on their religious practices. They are subject to petty procedures, such as standing counts three times a day in a facility that has only three prisoners. In the five and six years of their detention, they have never been allowed a private visit with their families or "touch" visits with their spouses, something regular prisoners at Millhaven can access regularly.

To protest these conditions, the three men have embarked on a hunger strike that some critics have tried to paint as a choice they were free to make. But ordinary Canadians realize this is the only option left for the men, who have exhausted every available method to expose inhumane conditions the Canadian government is currently subjecting them to on a daily basis.

The situation is now critical. Hunger strikes of more than 50 days expose the hunger striker to life-threatening health issues. Heart failure, renal failure, severe hypertension or hypotension and heart arrhythmia all are possible.

There is no advocate or ombudsperson for these men in the current system. The Correctional Investigator of Canada, who provides that function in the federal prison system, has asked for jurisdiction over the detainees at KIHC. So far, the Conservative government has refused, and ordinary Canadians are outraged at their reluctance to act.

Conservative Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day has visited KIHC, but refused to speak to the detainees. If the minister is unwilling to talk to them, or constrained from opening that conversation, he must ensure that someone is empowered to do so. The correctional investigator is the appropriate, impartial official. Eliminating the moral and legal vacuum the Kingston three currently exist in must be done today.

Given the dangerous stage of the hunger strike, Day must also ensure daily health monitoring in the living quarters of KIHC, and a full examination by an independent medical doctor should be arranged urgently. There is no time to waste and ordinary Canadians will not stand for anything less.

Day has often said that the security certificate detainees are free to leave Canada whenever they wish. He knows that is not possible and is tantamount to suicide. These men are from Syria and Egypt, countries where, because of what the Canadian government has accused them of, they would almost certainly be subjected to torture or death.

They cannot be deported to face that risk; the memory of the injustice done to Maher Arar should be as fresh in Day's mind as it is in ordinary Canadians'.

The minister must make a decision now. Allowing Mohammad Majhoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Almrei to die in custody in Canada will not prove that justice and fairness have been done.

Canadians count on their government to uphold our country's proud record of human rights and respect for justice. It would be remiss for the Conservative government to ignore those principles domestically while preaching them abroad.

It weighs heavily on my conscience. How about yours?

- Bill Siksay is the New Democratic Party MP for the British Columbia constituency of Burnaby-Douglas.