Terror alerts: Canadian Muslims losing rights as US exploits the political utility of fear

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Having discovered the political utility of fear, US officials miss no opportunity to invoke the dreaded terror alert, thus keeping the American public scared enough to have no time to think about the real problems confronting them. Another warning against "an imminent terrorist attack" was sounded on December 22, and Air France forced by US intelligence to cancel flights from Paris to Los Angeles over the Christmas holiday period. The flights were later resumed with Air France and French authorities saying they had neither received nor found any evidence of a terrorist threat. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the alerts exist only to persuade the American people of the need for the extreme policies being pushed by George W. Bush and his team of hard-line right wing conservatives.

Since September 2001, and to combat the alleged terrorist threat, hundreds of people of Muslim and Arab descent have been rounded up in the US and incarcerated without charge or access to lawyers. Two challenges mounted in two separate courts, one in San Francisco and the other in New York, on December 18 rejected the US government’s right to hold people without charge or trial. The courts also challenged the government’s right to hold people indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where detainees are being tortured, according to admissions by US military personnel.

While the US government got a setback in its campaign to undermine civil liberties, Muslims in Canada continue to suffer from American paranoia. Canadian citizens have been arrested in the US and Afghanistan and some of them deported to Syria while others remain incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, beyond the reach of any law. In fact, after months of denial, the Canadian government made an astonishing admission on December 22: its own intelligence agencies, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), have given the US information on one of its own citizens, Maher Arar, who is of Syrian origin. Arar was arrested on September 26, 2002, by US customs agents in New York as he changed planes on his way from Tunis to Ottawa. The Americans could not hold him in the US, there being no charges against him; instead, he was shipped to Syria via Jordan. Arar spent nearly a year in a Syrian jail, suffering both physical and mental torture. Thanks to the efforts of Mona Mazigh, his indefatiguable wife, he was eventually released last September.

The Syrians were apparently trying to appease the Americans by showing them that they were tough on "terrorists"; the only problem was that Arar is not a terrorist. Despite media allegations that he had visited Afghanistan (as if that were a crime), and had some connection with al-Qa’ida, these all turned out to be false, yet nobody apologised to him. The Muslim community has demanded an inquiry into his case. Jean Chretien, the former prime minister, brushed aside the demand; Paul Martin, the new prime minister, who was sworn in on December 12, first said he would hold an inquiry, but in a television interview on December 23 seemed to back off. He said that he would "get to the bottom" of the matter without compromising Canadian security. This has raised concerns, because without a full inquiry it will never be known what role the two Canadian intelligence agencies played in the illegal arrest, deportation and torture of a Canadian citizen. And what was the reason for the Canadian agencies’ alleging wrongdoing against a Canadian citizen in the first place? There are also other Canadian citizens in Syrian and Egyptian jails.

Since September 2001 Canadians of Muslim or Arab descent have become easy targets. They are not only humiliated at the US border (the Canadian government says it cannot do anything about the behaviour of US officials), but it appears not to care much how its citizens are mistreated even within Canada. Take the case of the Khadr brothers, 20-year-old Abdul Rahman and 16-year-old Omar. Both were arrested by the Americans in Afghanistan, where their father Ahmed Said Khadr had been involved in relief work since the Soviet occupation. While the whereabouts of Khadr senior are unknown, some reports are that he was killed last October when the Pakistan army raided Wana (South Waziristan); others claim that he is running from allegations that he is an al-Qa’ida "financier". The two brothers were taken to Guantanamo Bay; Abdul Rahman was released in October without being charged with any offence, but instead of sending him to Canada the Americans dumped him in Afghanistan without money or documents. Abdul Rahman sought help from the Canadian high commission in Islamabad, but he was rebuffed.

At this stage his grandmother revealed at a news conference (organised by Rocco Galati, a human-rights lawyer, in Toronto) that her grandson was getting no help from Canadian missions abroad, and that the Canadian government had abandoned her grandson, who was by now in Sarajevo. Under the glare of media publicity, the Canadian government denied any knowledge of Abdul Rahman’s having approached them, but said that he would be assisted if he contacted any Canadian mission. The Canadian embassy in Sarajevo then gave him a temporary travel document and put him on a flight to Toronto.

Abdul Rahman spoke at a press conference in Toronto on December 1, which had been arranged by his lawyer. Three days later Rocco Galati received a chilling message on his answering machine, threatening his life because he had dared defend a "f——- terrorist." Galati immediately contacted the police and called a press conference about the death threats against him; the police refused to provide him protection. Fearing for his life, Galati resigned from all cases involving national security and terrorism. Until then, he had taken briefs for several Arabs and Muslims on similar charges. He played the message during the December 4 press conference: "Well, Mr. Galati. What’s this I hear about you working with the terrorist now, helping to get that punk terrorist Khadr off. You a dead wop," the message was.

Galati says that he believes the call is a serious warning that he should give up all national security cases. Toronto police traced the call to a phone-booth in Mississauga, a suburb outside Toronto. Far from appreciating the gravity of the situation, the Toronto Globe and Mail ridiculed Galati’s statements editorially on December 5: "Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati has begun taking his own hyperbole a little too seriously. He announced yesterday that he has received an ‘institutional’ death threat, presumably from the CIA or CSIS, and that he is therefore withdrawing from the half-dozen or so cases in which he represents alleged terrorists before the courts." Galati had also represented Mahmoud Jaballah, a teacher at the Salahuddin Mosque in Toronto, who is accused of being a member of the Egyptian jihad group that is allegedly linked to al-Qa’ida.

Galati says that he had heard the man’s voice twice before, in similar recorded telephone threats uttered against another former client who later disappeared. This former client was Delmart Edward Vreeland, a US naval intelligence officer who had been held in Toronto, allegedly on charges of credit-card fraud, after he arrived from Moscow in 2001. He claimed to know something about the mysterious death of Marc Bastien, an information-systems handler at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. Vreeland claimed that Bastien had been poisoned by the Russians, but his jailers dismissed his statements until Line Duchesne, the coroner in Quebec, concluded that Bastien had indeed been poisoned.

There was also something else that Vreeland had said or written, that was far more explosive and significant. In August 2001 he gave his jailers a sealed envelope with the request that it be handed over to his lawyers. They did not do so until September 14, 2001. In that letter Vreeland had stated that an attack would occur on the World Trade Centre in New York, on the Pentagon and on a number of other US landmarks, on September 11, 2001; the letter further stated that the US government was fully aware of the impending attacks. Vreeland’s letter is part of the court record in Toronto. His claim that he was a naval intelligence officer, however, was rubbished by the US government, which demanded his extradiction to the US on credit-card charges. Vreeland’s other lawyer, Paul Slansky, a partner of Galati’s, had established through a speaker phone to his office in the US from the Toronto courtroom, that Vreeland was indeed a naval officer.

But eight months later, while on bail awaiting an extradition hearing, Vreeland disappeared. Slansky told the court that he had gone to Vreeland’s apartment to pick him up to bring him for the court hearing, but found it ransacked, with key evidence related to his client’s claims against the US government (particularly that government’s prior knowledge of the impending attacks) missing. The lawyer is convinced that Vreeland was "killed, kidnapped or harmed" because he had evidence that the US government had prior knowledge of the September 2001 attacks. Both Galati and Slansky are now saying similar threats are being made against them. They say they recognize the voice of the man who said he wants to kill Galati; a similar threat was made against Vreeland, and he disappeared.

Galati is concerned that, despite mounting evidence, neither the police nor the media in Canada are taking his claims seriously. The fact that Canadian intelligence agencies have been implicated in fingering Canadian citizens, and sending them to torture in foreign lands, while the Canadian government refuses to inquire into these misdeeds, is cause for concern. The close collaboration between Canadian and US intelligence agencies in targeting Muslims is also a matter of grave concern. Living close to the US means living in perpetual threat of US heavy-handedness. It is one thing for the Canadian government to advise its citizens not to travel to the US if they fear being arrested, and quite another for Canadian intelligence agencies to collaborate with the US against Canadian citizens.

One final, equally ironic note: when the Law Society of Canada heard about Galati abandoning his clients, it began an inquiry against him. He may lose his license to practise law. However, the Law Society has not deemed it fit to ask why the police are refusing to provide protection to one of its members. As Galati says, Canada is turning into another Colombia, where defence lawyers either disappear or are killed. He could add Egypt, Tunisia and a number of other pro-Western countries to the list as well.

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