Jul. 24, 2005 Toronto Star

Linda McQuaig says system holds too many possibilities for abuse

The horrors of Soviet dictatorship were routinely drummed into me as a child. I recall terrifying stories of KGB agents showing up at people's homes late at night and taking them away for secret trials and indefinite detentions.

It turns out that that can happen - and has been happening - in Canada.

Canadian law allows authorities to arrest and indefinitely detain an immigrant or refugee claimant whom they allege poses a risk to Canada. Neither the individual nor his lawyer is permitted to know the evidence against him, and his case is heard largely in secret, without him or his lawyer even present to challenge it.

Essentially, then, the judge hears only one side of the case, and the standard of proof required is the lowest permissible under Canadian law.

If, on the basis of hearing one side of the case, the judge rules against the detainee, he can be deported, even if it means facing torture back home - a violation of Canada's commitments under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

It's easy to see possibilities for abuse, particularly with Canadian authorities under pressure from Washington to show our support for its "war on terror."

Canada is currently holding five Muslim men under this law.

Take the case of Syrian-born Hassan Almrei, held in solitary confinement here for the past 4 1/2 years.

Almrei attended a training camp in Afghanistan in 1990, where he was taught by Afghans fighting the Soviet occupation. In other words, he was on the American side. (Weren't we too?)

Almrei also procured a false document for a Syrian friend who was charged with suspected terrorism in the U.S. But those charges were dropped and that man was deported to Syria for minor immigration violations. Clearly, U.S. authorities wouldn't have dropped those charges if they thought the man posed a danger to the U.S.

Perhaps there's other evidence against Almrei, but CSIS, the Canadian intelligence agency, doesn't have to produce it.

All it produces is a public summary of its case, typically consisting of newspaper clippings, reports from right-wing think-tanks and vague suggestions the detainee might in some way be involved.

The case of Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer tortured in Syria, should alert us to the dangers of how our intelligence agencies operate. Although they had insufficient evidence against Arar to even obtain a Canadian search warrant against him, the RCMP passed their "information" on him to U.S. authorities, who shipped him to Syria for interrogation.

And Arar is a Canadian citizen, entitled to full legal protections. Imagine how much more free-wheeling agents would be with non-citizens lacking those rights.

An open court doesn't guarantee a fair trial - as David Milgaard and other wrongfully convicted can attest. But it is an essential beginning.

Yet, without the protection of open courts and with "evidence" assembled by trigger-happy intelligence agencies, we have given a segment of our community reason to fear that late-night knock on the door.


Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and commentator. lmcquaig@sympatico.ca.