Commentary  Editorial: Canada must abolish security certificates

Two weeks ago, Adil Charkaoui enjoyed his third victory in his six-year fight with the federal government. Following months of public hearings, Judge Danièle Tremblay-Lamer abolished many of the restrictions imposed on Charkaoui upon his release from prison in 2005. Among other things, the judge’s decision allows the Montreal French teacher to leave the house without a parent and to venture off the Island of Montreal, removes his curfew and weekly sign-ins with the Canadian Border Services Agency, and grants him access to cell phones, fax machines, and the Internet. In her ruling, Tremblay-Lamer noted that no evidence before her suggested Charkaoui – who has never been charged under the Criminal Code – is a threat, nor that he is likely to commit a crime.

Charkaoui’s trouble with Ottawa began in 2000, when RCMP officers surrounded and searched him, his wife, and his mother at the Montreal airport before they boarded a plane to visit family in Morocco. At no point throughout the interrogation – nor at the one administered by the CIA at the request of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) at JFK airport in 2001 – was Charkaoui told why he was being questioned, or of what he was being accused. Somehow, nine years later, these basic questions remain unanswered.

Throughout the public trials over the last few months, the government’s lawyers failed to present any evidence dated after 2000, nor did they present a single witness. Their broad arguments about “national security” harken back to a simpler time, perhaps before the Supreme Court ruled security certificate legislation – under which Charkaoui was first detained – unconstitutional.

As part of immigration law, security certificates only apply to non-citizens, creating a two-tiered and racist form of justice in Canada. They are in direct contravention of the legal standards Canada claims to uphold, and the weak requirements for their implementation are laughably out of proportion with the grave consequences imposed on the detainee. To be named in a security certificate, the Minister of Immigration and the Minister of Public Safety must sign a form stating that the non-citizen in question was, is, or might be a danger, or perhaps a “sleeper agent,” or a threat to “national security” – two terms that remain undefined in Charkaoui’s case. In May 2003, with this simple document in tow, Canadian law enforcement agencies imprisoned Charkaoui under threat of deportation to Morocco. As is common with security certificate detainees – immediately labelled “terrorism suspects” in the mainstream press – a pre-removal risk assessment for Charkaoui soon found that deporting him would involve a “probability of torture, risks to life, and risk of being subject to cruel and unusual punishment.” Being named as a terrorism suspect in Canada has drastic ramifications for detainees in their home countries.

Another alarming aspect of security legislation is the government’s use of secret trials and secret evidence. Only summaries of evidence are released to detainees and their lawyers, and are done so quite rarely. Neither the defendants nor their lawyers have access to the evidence against them. On what basis can they mount a proper defense? A few weeks after landing in prison, Charkaoui was able to read through his 400-page file, which included biographies on Osama Bin Laden and news articles on 9/11. Only 14 pages specifically pertained to his case.

As Charkaoui told a Culture Shock audience last semester, the interrogations he faced in the lead-up to his detention focused on his ideas rather than his actions. “Nothing [was] against me or linked to me,” he said, later detailing the eight reasons why he “fit the profile” of a sleeper agent: he was young, Arab, Muslim, married with children, had a business, attended university, was a martial arts expert, and had travelled around the world. Considering the folly of this so-called evidence, it is no wonder that the Supreme Court ruled security certificate legislation unconstitutional in February 2007. A year after this first victory, the Court informed CSIS that it must end its practice of destroying evidence, and that it must present original copies of evidence as opposed to its officers’ opinions on the material.

Unfortunately for Charkaoui and the other four Arab Muslim men living under security certificates, the Supreme Court suspended its decision on the constitutionality of security certificate legislation by one year. By February 2008, the Conservatives managed to push their new security certificate law, Bill C-3, through the House and the Senate in record time, successfully convincing their peers of the February “deadline” set by the Supreme Court to pass the new law. But this rush was only created after the Conservatives waited until late October before introducing the bill. By the time that Senate received the bill, it had only five working days to introduce it, debate and vote to send to committee – who then hold hearings and debate over the bill and its amendments – followed by another debate and two votes in Senate. And there wasn’t enough time for the House to pass any amendments that did get through this process.

The Special Senate Committee on Anti-terrorism’s review process was especially truncated: it had only ten hours to hear from 24 of the more than 100 community groups that applied to speak against the bill – an event that would normally last a month. At this time, the Canadian Bar Association also voiced its opposition to Bill C-3. In its report, the Anti-terrorism Committee wrote that “[it] would have appreciated more time to reflect upon all aspects of this bill and the views of those concerned, given the life-altering effects that security certificates have on those named in them, and the reflection the process has on Canadian society and values.” Despite these reservations, the bill passed, and new security certificates were issued to the same five men – though the conditions imposed under the old law remained.

The list of injustices suffered by Charkaoui and other security certificate detainees continues; there are dozens of disturbing layers to add to their stories. Despite Canada’s reputation as a free and just nation, it continues to engage in a two-tiered system of justice that relies on laughable standards of evidence and secret trials. Worse, our elected decision-makers have decided that they are no longer interested in the opinions of the Supreme Court and the Canadian Bar Association on legal matters. We urge students to witness the public face of the security certificate process for themselves,and to get involved with groups like the Coalition Justice for Adil Charkaoui. His next public hearing is this Thursday, March 26 at the Federal Court, 30 McGill St. in Old Montreal.

To ensure equal rights for all, Canada must do away with security certificate legislation. For too long, it has institutionalized racism and religious bigotry and made a mockery of our legal system.