Jul. 2, 2005.

Signs of sympathy for terror suspects

Celebrities take up cases of five held in indefinite detention


There is some good news. After four years of running scared, people are beginning to realize that, hey, maybe it's not a good idea to eliminate civil liberties entirely in the name of fighting terror.

The cheering news this week was the decision of Alexandre Trudeau, the late prime minister's son, to testify on behalf of Syrian refugee Hassan Almrei, who has been held without charge in a Toronto jail for almost four years.

Almrei and the other four Muslims held under the provisions of so-called security certificates haven't aroused a wave of sympathy in Canada. The government wants to deport them because it says it has evidence that they are connected to terrorism. But it won't say what that evidence is.

It has admitted that it does not have enough to charge them in criminal court with terrorism.

This puts the five in the unenviable position of trying to fight shadows. In most cases, they don't know where Canada's security forces obtained the information being used against them. Even when they do, they cannot cross-examine the source.

What if he got his facts wrong? What if he provided information under torture? What if he is lying? What exactly did he say? The accused can never know.

In a normal world, there would have been an outcry long ago. But like Americans, Canadians were frightened by 9/11. They feared the CN Tower would be blown up by Al Qaeda. They secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, mistrusted swarthy men with moustaches.

So there was not much sympathy. And, in the media - with a few notable exceptions - there was not much coverage.

Because, after all, media people aren't much different from anyone else. Nor do the media like to print or broadcast things that their audiences don't want to hear.

To call this a conspiracy of silence would be an exaggeration. But there was an unspoken consensus that, in the broad scheme of things, the fate of Almrei, Mohamed Harkat, Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Adil Charkaoui did not much matter.

For the longest time, their only supporters were organizations considered marginal by the mainstream, like Toronto's Homes not Bombs and its indefatigable spokesman, Matthew Behrens.

Celebrities stayed away in droves. There were no black-tie fundraisers for Almrei. No one offered to make a Hurricane Carter-style movie about Harkat. The security certificate five were definitely not fashionable.

Until this week.

I do not mean to belittle Trudeau. His record on human rights issues shows he is serious. His decision to help Almrei is consistent with what he has said and done before.

But he is also, in Canadian terms, a celebrity. And his appearance in Toronto this week is a bellwether, like his decision to show up in Montreal earlier this year, alongside filmmaker Denys Arcand and singer Bruce Cockburn, at Charkaoui's successful application for bail.

It suggests that maybe, just maybe, there will be some momentum for something to be done.

Because when celebrities are involved, the media are involved. Trudeau's appearance this week made the front pages of both the Star and the National Post.

And when the media are involved, politicians start to get nervous.

So I'm cautiously - or is that naively - optimistic that these five may

finally get a break. It's even possible that more people will begin to pay attention to one of the most under-covered issues of the day, the ongoing parliamentary review of Canada's anti-terror laws.

Surely it's only a matter of time until an organization devoted to civil rights - say, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression - hosts a corporate-sponsored gala for the security certificate five.

I trust Toronto Mayor David Miller will show up. I'm not sure that Matthew Behrens will be invited. He's not famous.