News  Abousfian Abdelrazik: terror, torture, and return

A discussion of Abdelrazik’s six-year exile in Sudan, and Canada’s complicity in his imprisonment and interrogation

Abousfian Abdelrazik is a Sudanese-born Canadian citizen who recently returned to Canada after being stranded in Sudan from 2003 to 2009.

Detained, interrogated, and tortured by Sudanese authorities in Khartoum after being profiled by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Abdelrazik was denied the right to return to Canada by successive governments – a clear violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which outlines that “every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.”

Barred from returning to Canada, Abdelrazik’s six years in exile point to a wider context in which multiple Canadian citizens, including Maher Arar in Syria, faced torture and imprisonment abroad resulting from racial profiling by Canadian and U.S. security and intelligence agencies. In Sudan, Canadian CSIS agents interrogated Abdelrazik in the very same Sudanese prison where Sudanese military officials carried out violent torture against him.

In 2008, he took refuge in the Canadian embassy in Khartoum in coordination with an Ottawa-based legal support team, while a grassroots campaign for Abdelrazik’s return quickly spread to communities across Canada lead by the Montreal-based Project Fly Home.

A solidarity campaign with Abdelrazik quickly developed across Canada to apply pressure on the Conservative government to immediately return Abdelrazik to Canada, culminating in April 2009, when activists purchased a return ticket for Abdelrazik, a condition fixed by the Conservative government in order for emergency travel documents to be issued for Abdelrazik to travel home to Canada. Conservative foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon went back on the previously expressed conditions for Abdelrazik’s return – refusing to issue an emergency passport – a move that led a Federal Court judge to order the government to return Abdelrazik to Canada in a landmark decision in June 2009.

In the Federal Court decision that forced the Conservatives to issue emergency travel documents to Abdelrazik, Judge Russel Zinn described him as a “prisoner in a foreign land” and “as much a victim of international terrorism as the innocent persons whose lives have been taken by recent barbaric acts of terrorists.” Zinn also highlighted the direct involvement of CSIS in Abdelrazik’s arrest, detention, and torture in Sudan.

Today, Abdelrazik continues to struggle for justice, and is calling for his name to be removed from the 1267 UN terror watch list, a list basued not on law but on association and profiling administered by the UN Security Council, to which Abdelrazik was added at the request of the Bush administration without evidence or trial in 2006. Although Abdelrazik has returned to Canada, regular citizenship rights, including social services, education, and health care are not accessible to him due to Canada’s enforcement of the UN 1267 list.

Stefan Christoff: It was a long struggle to force the Canadian government to respect your right to return to Canada and today your struggle is not over. Can you explain?
Abousfian Abdelrazik: Absolutely. It is not over because still I am on the UN 1267 list. Now it is a huge struggle to fight to be removed from that list as it prevents me from living as a normal person, a normal citizen.

SC: Being on the UN 1267 list means you face a complete asset freeze, barring you from receiving a salary for your work, accessing social assistance or medical care, things that many take for granted in Montreal. Can you explain how the UN 1267 list is impacting your life in Canada despite returning to Canada after exile in Sudan?
AA: Canada’s government should help me to be removed from this list. Actually it is the responsibility for the government in Ottawa to appeal for me to be removed from this list after everything that happened in Sudan.

Although I am back in Montreal, I am not free. I can walk on the streets in Montreal but it is not possible for me to live a normal life. The 1267 list puts me in another prison. I can’t work and I can’t access health care. Today I continue to face injustice. Canada needs to appeal for me to be de-listed immediately from the UN 1267 list. I want my full human rights.

SC: For many, the fact that CSIS has a direct responsibility to your imprisonment and torture in Sudan is surprising. Throughout your recent speaking tour across Canada, you have spoken very openly on the direct role the CSIS and the government of Canada played in your imprisonment and torture in Sudan. Can you explain?
AA: After my lawyers received government documents on my case, it became totally clear that the Canadian government in Ottawa and CSIS were directly involved in my detention without trial or charge in Sudan. I was jailed in Sudan because of CSIS; my torture is directly tied to the Canadian government.

SC: Canadian officials visited you during the very same period that you were in prison and facing torture in Sudan. What did these Canadian officials do to assist you?
AA: I was actually interrogated by two CSIS agents in prison in Sudan, in the same prison where I was being tortured, hung from the door frame, beaten with a rubber hose, slapped, and punched. CSIS interrogated me, asking the very same questions as the Sudanese secret police. The CSIS officials knew about my torture and were directly linked to it.

SC: Do you feel that the Canadian government officials involved in your case need to be held accountable?
AA: All those people who played a role in this matter, in my exile in Sudan, in my torture and imprisonment, must face justice.

SC: It must be difficult for you to put into words what you experienced in Sudan. I remember right after you returned from Sudan, you explained that you wanted to make sure no one else experiences what you experienced, that your experience shouldn’t happen to anyone else ever again. Is this why you continue to campaign today?
AA: Really I want to end torture and prisons; I want to be the last victim that experienced such horrible things. I must struggle for this to be reality.

SC: Some who experience torture take years to gather the courage to speak out and campaign publicly, but you chose to speak out on the very same night that you returned to Canada and continue to campaign for justice; explain why.

AA: The experiences that I went though in Sudan were really awful. It is so hard to describe; I want to make sure that no one experiences the same thing ever again. I will continue with my tour across Canada this winter; I will continue to tell people across Canada my story. I want torture to stop completely, for it to never happen to anyone else anywhere in the world.

SC: Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture, a very important piece of international legislation, but instead of defending your rights in the Sudanese prison where you were tortured, CSIS agents interrogated you in the very same prison in which you were being tortured. At one point in Khartoum, a Conservative MP, Deepak Obhrai, also interrogated you. What do you have to stay to the Conservative government in Ottawa after your experiences?
AA: Representatives from the Conservative government came to Sudan and interrogated me in the Canadian embassy – which is horrible. MP Deepak Obhrai interrogated me rather than helping a fellow Canadian citizen. This is horrible behaviour from the government and must be stopped.

SC: How did this experience make you feel while being stranded in Sudan?
AA: Actually I expected the government to come to help me after being released from prison in Sudan and living at the Canadian embassy struggling to go back to Canada. I expected the MPs who visited to help me, not to interrogate me.

I felt that all hope was gone at that time, because the people who were supposed to help me, the Canadian government, instead interrogated me, which actually made me lose all hope. Obhrai asked me my opinion on Palestine, on Israel, on bin Laden – not talking to me about my own situation as a Canadian stranded in Sudan.

SC: You lived many months in the Canadian embassy in Khartoum. Can you explain this period?
AA: It was very difficult to stay in the Canadian embassy – very, very difficult. Cameras watching you all day and all night, monitoring every movement. Having your life monitored at the embassy and not being able to go anywhere was so difficult, just staying night after night at the embassy compound without any support from the Canadian government to return. For me, staying at the embassy was like another prison because I had to stay 24 hours a day within the embassy compound.

Staying at the embassy was mental torture; embassy staff were always pressuring me to leave. Actually the embassy staff who tried to help me were fired, especially the local staff from Sudan. [They were] fired for just bringing some food for me to eat.

SC: When you made that choice to enter the Canadian embassy in Sudan, you were looking for protection?
AA: Yes, absolutely. After I entered the embassy in Khartoum, from the moment that I told the embassy staff that I was staying and gave them a letter from my lawyer in Canada, they treated me very badly, especially the consular official Eric O’Connor.

SC: In April 2009 many people across the country came together, buying you a plane ticket back to Canada, a condition issued by the government for you to return to Canada, for you to secure your own ticket. Although the ticket was secured by activists in Canada, your hopes were dashed – as the government didn’t issue you travel documents. Can you talk about how you felt following the pressure from the grassroots in Canada calling on the government to return you to Canada?
AA: [I spoke] with my lawyers and supporters quite often over the phone. I heard about the protests in Montreal and other cities in Canada. Actually it is hard for me to describe how much this meant to me.

SC: Back in Canada, you have had an opportunity to connect with the grassroots activists who worked to educate people about your forced exile in Sudan and held street protests while you were in Khartoum. How has it been for you to connect with the people in Canada who fought for your return?
AA: Actually I am very glad to meet the people who supported me across Canada. While living at the Canadian embassy in Khartoum, activists from Montreal called me, expressing their support. This gave me strength to continue to remain at the embassy and fight to return.

Officials at the Canadian embassy really pressured me to leave and treated me badly, but knowing that the people of Canada were supporting me gave me spirit to continue. I slept in the bathroom at the embassy for many months. This was so difficult and humiliating. The bathroom at the embassy was my room after years in prison and torture in Sudan.

After coming back to Montreal I have connected with the activists that supported me. I am so glad to see them and to know them today.