Only in Canada: When Torture Becomes A Public Relations Problem

Federal Government Admits It Doesn't Have Enough Information to Even Lay a Criminal Charge Against Hassan Almrei, Held Almost Four Years in Solitary Confinement Without Charge or Bail on Secret "Evidence" Neither He nor his Lawyer is Allowed to See


Almrei still fighting deportation to torture in Syria.


TORONTO, JULY 7 -- Heavily censored documents coming out of the Arar Inquiry in Ottawa reveal that the callous approach toward individuals facing torture abroad or at home is not simply the domain of ignorant ambassadors, CSIS agents or shamefully dishonest cabinet ministers who "didn't know" what was going on.

Rather, what they illustrate is an institutional bent against human rights which runs deep within bureaucracies such as the one at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), whose Division of Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs and International Women's Equality prepared an Orwellian 2003 document outlining justifications for -- and public relations concerns arising out of -- the planned deportation to torture of secret trial detainee and Syrian refugee Hassan Almrei.

The documents are also significant because they show the government, at an internal level, acknowledges there's no case against Almrei, stating at one point the "evidence" against Almrei "does not meet the threshold for criminal charges to be laid against him in Canada."

The documents are authored by a department which defines its mandate in glowing terms on their website, trumpeting: "Human rights is a central theme of Canadian foreign policy for a number of reasons:

* Canadians expect their government to be a leader in the human rights field by reflecting and promoting Canadian values, including respect for diversity, on the international stage.

* Canadians recognise that their interests are best served by a stable, rules-based international system. Countries which respect the rule of law tend to respect the rights of their citizens, are more likely to benefit from development, and are much less likely to experience crises requiring peacekeeping, emergency assistance or refugee resettlement missions.

* The UN Charter and customary international law impose on all countries the responsibility to promote and protect human rights. This is not merely a question of values, but a mutual obligation of all members of the international community, as well as an obligation of a state towards its citizens."

And yet as these documents reveal, this nice rhetoric is simply window dressing for a brutal policy that includes Canadian support for acts of extraordinary rendition (deportation to torture), indefinite detention in Canada in cases where, as the government acknowledges, there is not even enough information to lay a criminal charge, and a flagrant violation of international laws and treaties to which Canada is a party. Maybe if the government actually adhered to a "stable, rules-based international system," it would not be treating the Secret Trial Five so miserably.

These policies have placed Canada in a negative light at the United Nations over the past two months, where in May the Committee Against Torture called on Canada to end its practice of deportation to torture, and in June the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, having visited all of the Secret Trial Five, expressed its "grave concern" about their being held on mere suspicion. Canada did not exactly endear itself to the U.N. earlier this year either with its vote against a resolution condemning Islamophobia.

In setting the stage for reading these documents, it is helpful to recall that the fall of 2003 was a time of major focus on the issue of secret trials in Canada and the mistreatment of Arabic and Muslim Canadians abroad. Chiefly, many will recall that Maher Arar was returned from Syria after almost a year of brutal detention and torture (or what newspapers still have the gall to report as "allegations" of torture).

Many in Canada were beginning to learn about Hassan Almrei as the individual who likely holds the unenviable record as the person held longest in solitary confinement in this country (almost four years). He was not allowed visitors or contact with the outside world apart from his lawyer, for his first 15 months in detention. Hassan went on a 43-day hunger strike in the fall of 2003 for the right to have heat in his solitary cell during the brutal Canadian winter, as well as a pair of running shoes.

In one heavily blacked out consular cable, dated November 29, 2003, an unnamed Canadian official discloses that "the recent Almrei case is an illustration of the way in which allegations of torture arising from the Arar case have complicated our ability to remove an individual from Canada."

That individual is Hassan Almrei, who was fighting a deportation order at the time.

That week, Arar had released a short statement regarding Almrei, in which he said, "I do not know Mr. Almrei and I do not know about the charges that have been made against him. What I do know is that many organizations and his lawyer have expressed concern that if he is deported to Syria, he may face torture.

"Given my experience, and what I lived through, and what I heard happening to other people in prison in Syria, I believe Mr. Almrei would face the same ordeal, if not worse. I still cannot believe that human beings treat human beings that way in Syrian prison.

"There is nothing that justifies sending people to countries where torture is commonplace."

In another memo from one Kathryn Porter, of the Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs and International Women's Equality Division, the torture of Arar is also seen as a factor which complicates Canada's political agreements. She writes in a memo that there are concerns about what legal mechanisms were used by the U.S. in serving Arar up for torture in Syria, cynically noting, "In the interest of being prepared to defend Canada's continued support for the Safe Third Country agreement, it would also be helpful to know whether Mr. Arar or his American lawyer ever raised any issues with respect to torture or persecution..."

The so-called Safe Third Country agreement is one which has prevented countless refugees from finding safety in Canada, as the U.S. is considered a "safe" country for those fleeing persecution. So the torture of Mr. Arar, deported straight from New York, becomes a problematic issue for a government that wishes to force more and more refugees to be kept in the U.S. and not allowed entry into Canada.

An Action Memorandum to then Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham , dated Nov. 21, 2003 and marked confidential, deals with the "Removal of Syrian national (name blacked out)," but obviously in reference to Almrei.

The document appears to have been prepared by Porter, which recommends to the minister "that you speak to your colleague at Citizenship and Immigration to indicate your support for the approach being taken in relation to the deportation to Syria of Syrian national (blacked out), for whom a security certificate was co-signed in October 2001 by the Minister of Immigration and the Solicitor General, indicating that he may wish to take into consideration the allegations in the Arar case."

In the background document which supports this recommendation -- the position being one of removal despite risk of torture -- the report notes with a certain sense of alarm that Hassan's lawyer, Barbara Jackman, "will introduce the question of the risk assessment by challenging the findings of CIC [Immigration] and making a request for a stay of removal."

The backgrounder notes that "Syria has recently issued a travel document" for Almrei and that it is only valid for 30 days. "If the Government of Canada tries to delay the removal of (blacked out) there is a risk that the Federal Court will release him into society if the judge determines that the removal is not proceeding within a reasonable period of time. CIC believes this is a very real risk." (At the time, Hassan was undergoing both an extensive bail hearing as well as a hearing to win heat in his solitary confinement cell, garnering national attention.)

The memo then goes on to the heart of the matter, one in which it is clear that the reasons for Hassan's detention are on shaky ground at best.

"This [release on bail] would be an extremely undesirable outcome as the evidence against (blacked out, i.e., Hassan) DOES NOT MEET THE THRESHOLD FOR CRIMINAL CHARGES TO BE LAID AGAINST HIM IN CANADA"(emphasis added.) In other words, Hassan could be released on bail and get on with his normal life, since there is nothing to charge him with, which would give the lie to the bold and unsubstantiated CSIS claim that Hassan, a failed businessman and pita shop owner, poses any sort of risk to Canadian security.

"It is also our understanding," the document continues, "that there are no outstanding charges against (blacked out) internationally or any other options for removal to a third country."

And so why is this man being held almost four years in solitary confinement?

The memo then tries to find legal justification for removal to Syria, relying on Immigration's (CIC) inadequate conclusion (later deemed illegal and "perverse" by the Federal Court) that Hassan would not be at risk of torture if returned to Syria. "CIC is reluctant to revisit the risk assessment, notwithstanding the recent allegations by Arar of torture in a Syrian prison." Again, CIC is concerned that if the truth about the nature of Syria comes out, then Hassan would indeed be granted a stay and a ban on removal.

Then it reads, "The Minister if Citizenship and Immigration is aware of the Arar case (rest of sentence blacked out) he wishes to proceed with the removal [of Hassan]. He is prepared to stand by the process followed and the decision taken in this case and, as required, to make the distinction between the facts of this case and the Arar case."

Immigration seems concerned as well about the effects of this case on the other secret trial detainees, noting "there are a number of comparable security cases pending removal, so it is important to CIC for there to be broad interdepartmental support for the process followed in this case."

The memo goes on to note, as if to cover its bottom, that "Canada should, nonetheless, anticipate the possibility that a complaint may be made to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the UN Commission for Human Rights or the UN Committee Against Torture."

Another fairly blacked out paragraph contains the indication that in the then current (2003) assessment, Hassan would not be at risk of torture if returned to Syria, adding "the risk assessment does acknowledge the seriousness of the repercussions of this decision if incorrect and further notes that the danger posed by (blacked out) outweighs the risk to him personally."

Keep in mind, again, that the process leading to this assessment was deemed unlawful by the Federal Court, and yet Canada was prepared to remove Hassan on the weakness of such a case. Further, the government is acknowledging the margin for error, noting serious repercussions if they are wrong.

Rather than dealing with the very real moral and legal issues of removing Almrei to torture in Syria, and likely a fate worse than Maher Arar's, under the heading called "Communications Implications" the backgrounder notes: "If and when [Almrei] is deported from Canada, it is to be expected that there will be negative reactions to Canada sending a Convention Refugee back to the country which is believed to have persecuted him. In particular, refugee advocates, human rights advocates and the media are likely to be vocal given the recent publicity around the treatment of dual Syrian-Canadian national Maher Arar in Syria. Given the activism and high profile of his counsel, Barbara Jackman, and the fact that (blacked out, but the name would be Hassan's) has already been in the news because of his complaints about his treatment in jail, it is likely that there will be significant negative publicity about this case."

The recommendation coming out of this is banal, and serves in stark contrast to the noble words of the department's website printed above: "Required Q & As and media lines will be prepared. However, CIC will be the lead department."

So the ultimate result for Canada of sending someone off to torture is that the media and some human rights activists may be asking questions. Prepare those sound-bytes!

The document also notes with alarm (since justified!) that "in the wake of the publicity around the treatment of Maher Arar in Syria, it is possible that Members of Parliament will take an interest in the treatment of [Hassan]. Required Q&As will be prepared."

So there you have it: the CSIS and Immigration have been up to serious no-good business, and the last thing they want is for members of Parliament to find out what is being done! Welcome to a 21st century "democracy." Thankfully, some members of Parliament have taken action, meeting the detainees and their families, posting bail in some cases.

Orwell would be pleased, some say, at this bizarre set of documents, a small grouping of the many at the Arar Inquiry that shed a not too pleasant light on the inner workings of the federal government. Hassan Almrei would like to know what the expression "Orwellian" means. A copy of Orwell's novel 1984 was ordered and delivered to the jail over a month ago but, for unnamed security reasons, he is not allowed to receive it. Hassan had to struggle with jail authorities earlier this year when a copy of Kafka's The Trial was similarly withheld from him.

Meanwhile for Hassan, it's another day in solitary confinement. He thanks folks across the country for their letters of support, and hopes against hope that his second chance at bail will be a successful one.

(report from Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, PO Box 73620, 509 St Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0,,