Jun. 25, 2005

Indefinite detention, or risk of torture

Syrian refugee claimant in jail

since 2001, no charges laid


Hassan Almrei has been in solitary confinement in a Toronto jail for three years and eight months. He has never been charged with a crime. The government says he is a security risk but won't say why. If it succeeds in deporting him to Syria, he says he will be tortured. Yet, if he stays here, he can be kept in jail indefinitely without trial. He is caught in a Catch-22 situation that could depress the sunniest of people.

When I talked to him by phone last week, he didn't sound in very good shape.

Almrei's situation casts some light on the Maher Arar case and vice versa. Both are Syrian-born. But Arar is a Canadian citizen, while Almrei, a refugee, is not.

In 2002, the U.S. arrested Arar in New York on suspicion of terrorism and deported him to Syria. A judicial inquiry is now trying to sort out what role the Canadian government played in his arrest, deportation and imprisonment.

One telling bit of information that the inquiry has made public is a Nov. 21, 2003, internal government memo dealing with Almrei.

The memo is, in effect, a warning. It says Arar's statement that he was tortured in Syria gives new credence to Almrei's claim that he risks mistreatment if returned to Damascus.

It says the government will have to mount a public relations effort to counter this perception. "Given the recent publicity around the treatment of dual Syrian-Canadian national Maher Arar ..." it reads, "it is likely there will be significant negative publicity."

The focus on Arar, the memo goes on, also puts at risk "a number of comparable security cases" where the government is trying to deport refugees and immigrants back to countries with dodgy human rights records.

"It is important to (immigration officials) that there be broad interdepartmental support" for such deportations, it says.

The Almrei memo may help explain why the federal government has been so loath to admit publicly that Arar risked torture in Syria.

Then-foreign affairs minister Bill Graham has testified that he was never told Arar was in danger of torture - even though two senior officials in his department raised the warning internally.

The inquiry has also heard that in August 2003, after Arar told a Canadian official visiting him in jail that he was "mentally destroyed" by his ordeal, Graham immediately announced that the Ottawa man denied being tortured.

Last week, former Canadian ambassador to Syria Franco Pillarella dismissed as mere generalizations reports by the U.S. state department that detail Syria's use of torture.

At a bizarre level, these instances of wilful blindness are logical. An admission by Ottawa that Arar was tortured would undercut the Canadian government's bland assurances that those it hopes to deport to Syria - like Hassan Almrei - will be safe.

As for Almrei, he is at times bitter, at times frantic. By his own admission, he has done wrong. He helped secure a false passport for another Syrian who at one point was arrested by the U.S. for terrorism but later cleared. He says if the government wants to charge him for that, it should.

But it is the limbo that drives him crazy. He finds it hard to sleep. He has nightmares: "I dream all the time ... I don't even feel like a normal person anymore."

He says he is touched by the kindness of people - including some guards at the Metro West Detention Centre. Yet, he can't understand why so few Canadians think there is anything wrong with a system that presents him with such an impossible choice: to stay in jail indefinitely here or risk physical torture abroad.

"I would expect this treatment in Syria," he says. "But not from a country that calls itself democratic."