Jun. 30, 2005

Terror and civil rights

Canada has had to detain few people as terror suspects since the 9/11 attacks. We have four Arab men in custody. They arrived here, were deemed inadmissible as terror suspects, and are being held on "national security certificates" as they fight deportation. A fifth is free until his case can be decided, but is tightly monitored. That is a small group.

Even so, Canadians are increasingly troubled by this controversial business of holding people for years without putting them on trial.

And rightly so, because it is an affront to human rights.

As Alexandre Trudeau noted this week, "it's in the interest of Canada to not be detaining people who haven't been charged" with a crime.

Trudeau made his statement at a Federal Court bail hearing for Hassan Almrei, a Syrian who has been held at the Metro West Detention Centre for 3 1/2 years. Trudeau and other prominent figures have offered to post bail.

Like Adil Charkaoui, the Moroccan-born man who was freed in Montreal on Feb. 17 on $50,000 bail and subject to electronic monitoring and other restrictions, Almrei deserves a sympathetic hearing as he makes his case for conditional release. So do the other detainees.

Courts in the United Kingdom and New Zealand have similarly ordered detainees freed.

This is not to say that people such as Almrei, who entered Canada on a false passport, don't inspire concern. They do. Canadian officials allege Almrei supports Osama bin Laden, has been in contact with people who have been implicated in the Al Qaeda network and was involved in a forgery ring that produces false documents. Almrei denies he is a terrorist. Still, a Federal Court judge found reason to hold him in custody.

The public is in no position to know because much of the information on this case remains secret.

Even so, the evidence does not seem strong enough to support criminal charges, which in itself is reason for concern. Especially as these cases drag on for years. How long must people remain in limbo?

Canada's security services, beefed up after 9/11, should be able to keep tabs on a few people wearing electronic bracelets and subject to other strict bail conditions to ensure they pose no threat to the public.

We do not have to become a police state, on the wrong side of international law, to hedge against terror.