Tears Flow as Members of Five Families, Including 10 Children, Plead for the Release of Their Loved Ones
(In which a group of five families goes to Ottawa hoping to meet the prime minister with a single question on behalf of the children: when is my dad coming home? They are the human fallout from Canadian repression, and the front line of the battle to preserve civil liberties in Canada. If these families cannot win justice, no one in this country can win justice. The shadow of the anti-democracy probe of the RCMP/CSIS which secretly jailed 19 Pakistani men in Toronto a week earlier hangs over the gathering as an omen that unless we continue to speak up, the slender threads of democracy will continue to tear and come apart.)
Ottawa, Ontario, August 25, 2003 -- It takes a lot of courage to fight a fire, courage which has been on display the past few weeks as fires have ravaged parts of British Columbia. Even Prime Minister Jean Chretien came out of his seclusion to view the human toll of the tragedy and to shake hands with the survivors.
There is another fire raging in Canada that is causing deep, possibly irreparable harm to Canada, and threatening the safety of all who live here. It is a fire whose flames lick at the Canadian constitution, and which has already burned deep holes in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In many instances, it has seared Canada's international obligations under such covenants as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The fire is represented by words like "CSIS security certificate," and by headlines from the past week about 19 Pakistani men who disappeared from the streets of Toronto for over a week before anyone knew they'd been arrested. On Monday, the focus was on the Secret Trial 5: Mohammad Mahjoub (jailed since June, 2000), Mahmoud Jaballah (jailed since August, 2001), Hassan Almrei (jailed since October 2001), Mohamed Harkat (jailed since December 2002) and Adil Charkaoui (jailed since May 2003).
These five men have been held, largely in solitary confinement, a collective 94 months without charge or bail, on secret "evidence" neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see. That "evidence" is provided by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a scandal-ridden spy agency with a remarkable record of dishonesty, corruption, and disregard for civil rights .
On Monday, August 25, a courageous group of fire fighters came to Ottawa to extinguish this fire. They were the friends and families of the secret trial detainees who, in a historic moment, were all gathered together in one place, in common cause, in an act giving new life to the worn-out cry of solidarity.
They came to Ottawa to present a petition to the PM with thousands of signatures demanding freedom for loved ones and the end of the secret trial security certificate. They came to Ottawa in the same spirit they came to Canada -- with hope that they would find freedom from persecution and torture. They came here because they believed in the democratic process and the promise of a new, more peaceful life. And they came because they want so desperately to see democracy work.
It's unclear ultimately what every family member expected, balancing their deepest hopes for justice against the litany of abuses they have suffered and continue to endure. But by the time they made it to the red carpet at the entrance to the PMO, they had the door slammed in their face by Chretien's deputy communications director Steven Hogue as a wall of RCMP officers looked on.
It was the end of a one-month journey that began in late July, when a letter from the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada was sent to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), requesting a meeting for August 25. A letter was also sent from Ahmad Jaballah, a 17-year-old whose father, Mahmoud, just marked two years in Metro West Detention Centre, as well as from the Jaballah's MP, Liberal Jim Karygiannis.
Throughout the month of August, numerous calls were made every few days to check on the status of our proposed meeting with Chretien or with one of his aides. Each time we called we were told that the file was still "open," and that we would be hearing from them.
But as our vehicles from Toronto pulled in to Ottawa late Sunday evening, we had not yet had confirmation of this meeting. As of Monday morning, as the vans began showing up from Montreal, we were still told that the PMO had an open file on us, but that it was not clear if we would get our meeting. We kept getting transferred to an answering machine where we could leave a message about our "concerns."
Two weeks after the letters had been sent, members of the Mahjoub and Jaballah families gathered at CSIS in Toronto to seek a meeting. August 14 marked the second anniversary of the arrest of Jaballah, who had won against a previous certificate but who was arrested on a second certificate and was now behind bars despite the fact that CSIS said it had no new "evidence" against him, only a new interpretation of the old "evidence" that had been dismissed by a federal court judge.
Once at CSIS, they were met again with a wall of police who refused them entry. This was not new. At the end of a three-day walk to stop secret trials held in June in Toronto, a similar response met the families.
But on August 14, the media suddenly seemed interested, and lots of cameras were finally there to record the voices of families of secret trial detainees.
"If you don't want us to go in, at least get somebody to come out," said Mona El-Fouli, whose husband Mohammad Mahjoub has been detained 38 months. "So they [CSIS] are free to go into homes and take people out of their homes, but they're not free to come and talk to us and tell us why they did that. If they have evidence, why don't they show it?"
For a few hours, it seems the story will get a national airing. But the big blackout began around 4:15 that afternoon, and the story of secret trials in Canada again went to the backburner.
The trip to Ottawa represents another opportunity to speak to the people of Canada, to awaken their sleeping conscience.
Monday morning dawns early for Mona El-Fouli. Before the sun is up, CTV has sent a cab to bring her to Ottawa's experimental farm where, following a story on mad cow disease, Mona will go before a national audience to explain why she is making her first trip to Ottawa along with her three children. The cab driver is a perky fellow who normally does a lot of pickups for the Canada AM show, and seems to deliver his standard line as Mona gets ready to disembark: "Don't let all this media go to your head, Mona!"
Mona smiles politely and then looks around at the bizarre site of a small camera crew trying to coax some cows into early morning "cow action," but the creatures would rather stare back with that sense of detached wonder at the antics of humans. El-Fouli tries to explain to the male technician that as a woman wearing hijab, she would prefer to put the earpiece in her ear by herself.
Some members of the crew have gone inside a barn and upset another group of cows, who scream out and kick wooden planks constantly, a distracting noise that will underlie Mona's interview. And then Mona goes on and, in four and a half minutes, has to explain the effect the secret trial process has had on her and her children. She explains how difficult it has been, and the threat to her husband if he is deported back to Egypt. Indeed, when Mahjoub first came to Canada and was accepted as a refugee, the Canadian government informed the Egyptian government, and Mahjoub's two brothers back home, a teacher and a doctor, were disappeared, and have not been heard from since.
The interview is very brief, but Mona's message is clear: if the government has evidence against her husband, let them show it and have a fair trial. Otherwise, stop holding him and return him to his children.
It's back into the cab and a trip to a nearby house, where, after the driver's repeated warning not to let all this media go to her head, Mona prepares to do a more extensive radio interview with CBC morning. Throughout the day, CBC radio will be airing lots of coverage of two seemingly related but equally weighted stories: the plight of the families of secret trial detainees, and whether the RCMP should continue to use yellow as part of its uniform colours.
"I'm hoping to speak to the prime minister or member of the prime minister's office and to be able to get them to understand this is not fair at all and to ensure a fair process," she explains. "It's very, very difficult for my husband. It's not easy to be in detention for three years and not to know what it's all about. For the family it's a nightmare. It's stressful for me. First of all, he [Mahjoub] was the sole support for the family. The children keep asking where he is, what he's doing, why doesn't he come back?
" When they go and visit him, they feel uncomfortable speaking to him behind glass, they keep kissing and hugging the glass. It's very emotional. One day my 6-year-old son saw guards behind my husband and started to break down and scream and scream, 'I know, I know that he's in jail, why is he in jail?' It was too emotional a moment. I wonder, if I were to tell him why he is in jail, what would I say to him? Because we don't know what the evidence is that's put him in jail,. So I would like to see the evidence that put my husband for three years in jail."
El-Fouli explains that "at the moment, because they [the children] are still small and they don't understand what jail is all about, they wouldn't understand that there is no evidence against him, so I tell them that he is travelling and that he will be coming one day. But at the same time that I tell them that he is coming one day I wonder, IS he going to come back? What's going to happen to him? And for what reason? I'd like to see the evidence, I'd like to see fair trials."
After gathering all the children together, El-Fouli, Sophie Harkat and her family, and the Jaballah family head downtown with placards and banners to set up at the Human Rights monument.
On the grass near the monument, surrounded by a huge horde of media, gather the wives, sisters, children and adopted families of the detained men. The families are amazed at the masses of media. There is a sense of hope that today, perhaps, their story will get out across the country. Live spots are set up for CBC, CTV, and Global.
It's a morning filled both with the weight of the emotion that comes with living through a daily nightmare, and the liberation that comes with looking around and seeing that you are no longer alone in your struggle. Little children run around playing hide-and-seek behind banners and placards just like any other group of kids would do, only this group of kids shares a common tragedy: their dads are in jail on weightless allegations "supported" by secret "evidence".
An officer with the RCMP comes over and discusses the march route with walk organizers. He is friendly enough, and says he has been in touch with the prime minister's office in the hopes of helping us get a meeting. He also informs us that the Montreal bus has been cancelled, and asks if we'll leave sooner rather than later. We ask his source for this information, but none is provided. (We know that the Montreal folks are coming in vans, not a bus, and received a call that they were a bit behind, and so find the RCMP's "news" curious!)
Before we even start speaking at the rally, the media have gathered in a big pack around Mona, around Diana Ralph, one of the adopted Canadian family members of Hassan Almrei, Sophie Harkat, and Ahmad Jaballah, a 17-year-old who eloquently puts forward his position as he explains how difficult the last few years have been.
"It's been pretty hard," Jaballah says. "First of all, my studies are going down. I can't focus in school for the past two years. I've been missing a lot of school because of going to court and so on. And also this week I'm supposed to be preparing for next week and going into grade 12 but now I'm here in Ottawa doing this, so I can't prepare for school. School is the basis for my future, and as you can see my future is being messed up from the start. So it's been pretty hard. And I'm the oldest, I'm only 17. I'm taking more responsibilities than I'm supposed to. I'm supposed to take care of my five brothers and sisters, and that's not a responsibility for a 17-year-old. I have more stuff on my back than I should have. It's hard."
Jaballah is asked why he thinks his father was arrested. It is the fifth time. Previously, he has said the media should really ask CSIS for an answer.
"They claim him to be a terrorist, but I don't believe that. If you ask me what I think, I'd say it's something against Muslims these days, they go all around the world, all around cities and towns arresting Muslims for no reason. It's not just against my dad or the five but it's something against all Muslims."
As with loved ones of the other detainees, Jaballah's message is simple, and does not seem too much to ask, especially considering what they've been through. "If you have anything against my dad, show it and give him a fair trial, I'm on your side," Ahmad says. "Otherwise, stop torturing Muslims and my dad."
After brief speeches from family members, the walk gets underway, stopping first at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, where minister Coderre signs the security certificate. It is also where legislation is being drafted to allow Coderre to rescind citizenship of permanent residents based on secret evidence, with no right of appeal. Finally, we note it was the site of a peaceful sit-in by "non-status" Algerians seeking an end to deportations last May, an occupation broken up in brutal fashion by electric-prod toting RCMP tactical squad members.
We pass by the Supreme Court, which continues to refuse to take on a case where they would have to rule on the constitutionality of secret trials. And then we head for the PMO. The RCMP officer informs us that someone will meet us to take the petitions. We tell him that this is not good enough. We are insisting on a meeting. He says he will call back, and he does. He has been listening to these stories all morning, and he seems affected. He comes back and says we can have a representative of each family go in.
As we approach the entrance to the PMO, the tension is palpable. The little kids are excited about seeing Jean Chretien, the older folks are wary, hoping not to be disappointed yet again, yet also prepared for what may be the inevitable letdown.
As we wait on the red carpet of the PMO entrance, Steve Hogue, a deputy communications director, comes out the door and takes the petitions from Ahmad Jaballah. Explaining the petition, Jaballah says, "It says either show the evidence or release them and end the secret trial. Can you show the Prime Minister? That would be appreciated."
Hogue grabs the petitions and scurries back inside, as RCMP officers close in behind him. There will be no meeting. We turn to the RCMP officer who has been on the phone all morning. He seems more shocked than we do, and tears well up in his eyes as one by one, family members take the megaphone to discuss their reaction.
Hind Charkaoui, whose brother Adil is detained in Montreal, says the government is closed, so we'll have to keep organizing and demonstrating. She then picks up 3-year old Howla Charkaoui, who manages to quietly chant "so-so-so, solidarite" and "no borders, no nations, stop the deportations."
Mrs. Charkaoui stands among the group, eight months pregnant, likely to give birth with her husband in solitary confinement.
Seven-year-old Ali Jaballah speaks as well, saying it's not fair, and that he wants his dad to be free. 10-year-old Afnan Jaballah says she thought this country was supposed to be free, but she sees that it isn't. The kids are getting a heavy-handed lesson in what democracy in Canada is really all about, especially for Muslims.
Ahmad Jaballah picks up the megaphone. Again, it is his leadership and eloquence which point us forward. "We have demonstrated before, and we know we will have to demonstrate again, and come back to Ottawa again and again until everyone is free and we can return Canada to a land of peace and justice," he says.
We close the gathering by hoping that Chretien will one day soon have a chance to look into the eyes of the children and tell them face to face why their fathers are still not coming home. The group retires to a local community centre for lunch, for reflection, and for dedication to working together in the future.
It comes with a cautionary note, however. We remind one another that now that we are together, we are stronger. But CSIS and the RCMP will view that as a threat, and are likely to engage in more surveillance, more harassment, more rumour-mongering, more wiretapping, and more arrests.
With that caveat in mind, we announce that the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada will return to Ottawa for Halloween and a mass trick-or-treat for sealed evidence at CSIS national headquarters on Friday, October 31. Couches will be set up at the entrances of CSIS to offer free psychological counseling to CSIS agents to help them overcome their irrational fear of Arabs and Muslims. Great detectives from history will be there to help CSIS learn the art of the trade, and many will wear masks with the faces of Canada's disappeared, the Secret Trial 5, a number which, unfortunately, may be higher by the time we gather again in two months time.
As we climb back into our vehicles to head home, we get a call on the cell phone. It's from the prime minister's office. They want us to know that the file is still "open." We explain our disappointment at today's turn of events, but say we are free again to meet in late October, and that hopefully a bit more respect will be shown to the families. The voice on the other end thanks us for our concerns.
For more information, contact us at email@example.com. Additional information on secret trials is available on the following websites:
(report from Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada. SPECIAL THANKS to everyone who helped organize this event, from transportation to food preparation to lodging to postering and all the other tasks that are necessary to pull this off. Lots of great coverage appeared on the CBC National, Global and CTV, and in most papers across Canada, with a special on The Current (CBC Radio) on Tuesday morning featuring Ahmad Jaballah, Mohammad Syed, one of the lawyers for the Pakistani men being detained, and a poor response from solicitor general Wayne Easter. See you in October!)