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Trial by error

Editorial by Bruce Wark


The controversy over terrorism and torture as depicted on the Fox show 24 calls to mind the quotation: “I wish there were a knob on the TV to turn up the intelligence. There’s a knob called ‘brightness,’ but that doesn’t work.” 24 stars Kiefer Sutherland as a hard-boiled US anti-terrorism agent who routinely tortures bad guys. “With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused,” Jane Mayer writes in the current issue of the New Yorker. She adds, “almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.” Well, I guess 24 is no stupider than the official war on terrorism launched after 9/11. The premise of both is that the denial of human and legal rights to terrorism suspects is an effective and necessary weapon—as though torturing people or throwing them in jail indefinitely without charge or trial will somehow deliver us from evil.

@body 2006:In the milder Canadian version of this morality play, Christian characters with names like Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day abuse the legal rights of Muslim immigrants or refugees exotically called Mohamed Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Almrei. Last week, the Canadian Islamic Congress called for a public inquiry into the indefinite jailing of these and two other Muslim men under a so-called “security certificate” process condoned by both Liberal and Conservative politicians. “Maher Arar has been rightly vindicated in receiving an apology and settlement for Canada’s part in his ordeal of torture in Syria,” the CIC statement said. “But five other Arab-Muslim men currently detained without charges are not being accorded comparable justice.”

Two of the five, Adel Charkaoui and Mohamed Harkat, spent three years in detention before being released under strict house arrest. Last week, a judge also ordered Mohamed Mahjoub freed from detention and placed under house arrest. He’s been held for seven years and was entering the 84th day of a hunger strike. The judge ruled that Mahjoub “is an ailing and aging man preoccupied with his health and the lack of contact with his family.” The two others, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Almrei, are still confined to the maximum-security Kingston Immigration Holding Centre. Both are on a hunger strike after spending six years in detention. All five of the men are appealing the government’s repeated attempts to deport them to countries such as Syria, Egypt and Algeria where they could face imprisonment, torture and execution.

The government claims the five have links to international terrorism but it’s impossible for them to defend themselves. Under the security certificate process, they see only a summary of any evidence against them and don’t have the right to question key witnesses. The judges reviewing their cases may hear testimony in secret without the men or their lawyers present. Human rights organizations, legal scholars and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have criticized security certificates as unjust. So far however, Canadian courts have upheld the process. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether security certificates violate the Charter of Rights.

In the meantime, the five “suspected terrorists” are in legal limbo. When the mainstream media report on their cases, they often repeat damaging, but unproven allegations provided by government officials. That’s what happened to Maher Arar in December 2003, when the National Post ran a front-page story quoting anonymous Canadian and American intelligence sources saying they were “100 percent sure” that Arar had trained at an Al-Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan. We now know that allegation was bullshit—a false charge based on a “confession” extracted under Syrian torture. But we have no way of assessing the allegations against any of the five men now facing detention, house arrest and deportation. Security certificates may meet the narrative standards of a witless TV show produced by the right-wing ideologues at Fox TV, but surely the Canadian government can do better. Isn’t there an intelligence knob anywhere in Ottawa?

Are there any knobs in Ottawa? Email:

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