Rituals, Ceremony and Theatre

A Personal Account from the Land of Secret Trials 

By Liz Barningham, Durham, Ontario

August 1, 2005 -- Last week I had a new and enlightening experience.

I attended a bail hearing in a Federal court on University Avenue in Toronto: metal detection and security at the front entrance, then long hallways to the elevators where only one is functioning. Up to the seventh floor, sharing the elevator with the lawyers for the prosecution. To the courtroom and another security check. 

The Courtroom. Stern instructions at the entrance about appropriate behaviour and then into a windowless room lined with wood. Padded seats for all those on the business side of the barrier, hard wooden pews for the public. 

Looking around before the entrance of the judge, I identified: 2 lawyers for the defence, 3 for the prosecution; the clerk of the court, the court recorder, a slew of media people, many recognisable; a few interested supporters of the defendant, a phalanx of armed, grim-faced RCMP officers in bullet-proof vests, a translator and a thin, diminutive defendant, well into yet another hunger strike. 

I realise that it's going to be a long day, so I get out my knitting and am thus able to knit and relax and to absorb the events and emotions of the courtroom. 

There is some rustling of paper and the muted creak of people standing up. I realise that the judge has come into the courtroom through a door immediately behind her seat. Ritual requires that everyone stand while the judge enters and leaves the courtroom. I'm really not sure why. I wish her and her office no disrespect, but why is everyone standing and then sitting down again. These days it takes me so long to get to my feet, that everyone is seated again before I can even think about standing -- what is all this about? 

Today's proceedings are just one more day of a very long drawn-out bail hearing for Hassan Almrei. Hassan is one of 5 Muslim men arrested under the authority of "security certificates", invoked by CSIS and signed by two members of government. None of the 5 thus arrested nor their lawyers are allowed access to the "secret evidence" claimed by CSIS. No charges have been laid. One of the men, a landed immigrant, has been released on bail under severe restrictions. The other four remain in jail not knowing what the authorities think they have done and with no idea how much longer they will be held. 

Representatives of the Canadian government actually wish to deport the men to the countries in which they were born: Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria. Two of the men have already suffered torture in Egypt -- they all know that, having been "house guests" of CSIS, they would almost certainly face torture if deported to these countries. And let's not forget that Canada is a signatory of the international "Convention Against Torture". It would be illegal to deport anyone to probable torture and these detainees haven't even been charged with, far less convicted of, any crime. 

Back to the courtroom. This is not a trial. This is one day of a bail hearing. While Hassan awaits the news of his fate -- will he be deported to Syria, the country he left at the age of seven? -- he would like bail. He has spent four years in solitary confinement. Four years in a concrete cell 9ft by 12ft. There is an alternative. Many thousands of dollars have been raised as bail, one couple has renovated part of their house to provide a home for Hassan. There is a growing list of people who have offered to provide him with escorts if this is what the court would like. 

I pause in my knitting to look around me and to absorb the theatre of the day.

-         The RCMP officers who look so formidable: then I realise that in fact they look bored and one is spotted playing electronic games on a handheld device.

-           Members of the media wander in and out but most do seem to be absorbing what is taking place.

-           Hassan's friends and supporters look concerned and follow every turn of the process.

-          The defence lawyers -- gently persistent in their questions of the CSIS agent on the stand.

-          The lawyers for the prosecution -- dominated by a dramatic Dickensian figure who gives the impression that he fears Hassan may bite him.

-          The CSIS agent - astonishingly vague, ill-prepared and ignorant, using language that is arrogant and racist.

-          The judge -- a serious looking woman who appears to follow everything closely with little change of expression except for the eyebrows which disappear into her hairline at some of the ridiculous remarks made by the "unnameable" CSIS agent.

-          The translator -- a pleasant but worried looking woman.

-          The defendant -- a small frail man, neatly dressed in white shirt and black pants, ready with smiles for his friends and obviously concerned that he is not even allowed to exchange a polite greeting. 

My knitting grows. I think about what is actually happening in this courtroom. Is this due process? Whey is this man being held? I think of Kafka, of Brecht of Ionesco, of the absurd. 

I start to feel impatient. If what this is all about is keeping Canadians safe from the defendant, then turn him over to the custody of the strong and caring people who have offered him a home, who are offering bail security and escorts. Quite apart from being more humane, I can't help thinking how much more effective and less expensive this would be. But then I realise that I'm making the mistake of being logical, practical, of caring about human beings. 

Back to the ritual -- reminiscent of a religious service: a high altar, an area from which members of the public are barred; officiants in ceremonial garb; a hushed atmosphere (one member of the public was admonished for his "loud body language"); padded seats for the officiants and hard pews for ordinary mortals; arcane language familiar only to the participants and regular attendees. 

What is all this about? A government agency, infamous for its incompetence, attempting to look busy. I cannot help but think of children and their games. To exclude adults, to heighten their fun and to avoid tedious explanations, "It's secret," squashes all attempts to find out what is happening. Here in court the grown-up children are using the phrase "National Security" in exactly the same way. 

I'm still knitting -- I haven't even dropped any stitches. I think about Hassan whom I have come to know over the past months and more. He is watching the actors in this ritual who will ultimately contribute to his fate -- surrendered to torture in Syria, indefinite incarceration in Canada or will sanity prevail? 

What has he done to deserve this fate? 

- He is accused of having told some lies, of having made poor choices in some of his friends and associates, of his parents being involved in religious activities, of having received military training by the forces who were then being funded by the U.S. Government. Hassan is a Muslim immigrant to Canada.

- I too have told lies. In my younger days I made such poor choices of friends and associates that I almost didn't survive. My parents, especially my father, were involved in religious activities. Although I have not received military training, my father and brother were career soldiers and my husband was conscripted into the armed forces where he spent two years learning about weapons and how to kill. I am a pink-faced and blue-eyed immigrant to Canada. 

Now shift the kaleidoscope another notch. Does this profile fit you or your family or your friends? Should we all be facing indefinite incarceration or deportation to torture?

What are our rituals all about? Freedom and democracy? 

As a society we need to give our collective head a shake and start thinking without panic. Perhaps if we can treat individuals with clear thinking, practical compassion, then we can learn how to use our legal system more effectively. 

What about the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by a Canadian in 1948? What about Habeas Corpus and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215? In 800 years have we not learned that either we respect human rights, all of them, or we don't?

Nobody should be held without charge. Nobody should be deported to torture. Ever. 

Post Scriptum

As I write, August 1st, 2005, Hassan in now on day 40 of his latest hunger strike. He is demanding one hour a day outside his cell , as ordered by the doctor to help an injured knee. Hassan has no control over what is happening in his life, so, like an anorexic, he has stopped eating. He is damaging his body and he may die. If he does, the responsibility will be ours. Canadians are responsible for the actions and inaction of our government. The government is responsible for its servants and agents such as CSIS. CSIS is responsible for the arrest of Hassan and four others. We are responsible for Hassan's hopelessness. I urge you to contact your local M.P. and demand human rights for all: charge and try Hassan and the other four or release them and stop the mental torture of threats of deportation to certain physical torture.