Wednesday, March 21, 2012
REFUSING A CULTURE OF AMNESIA: REPORT FROM THE TOUR TO END CANADIAN INVOLVEMENT TORTURE
Like most governments complicit in torture, Canada’s rulers, spy agencies, and federal lawyers promote a culture of enforced forgetfulness. Even though two judicial inquiries, numerous Federal and Supreme Court rulings, and scads of human rights reports confirm Canadian complicity in torture, the party line is to spout “there may have been one or two aberrations, but, as Obama preaches stateside, it’s best to look forward and forget about the past.”
As Judith Herman eloquently states in her landmark study Trauma and Recovery, “In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of the victim…After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”
As part of its ongoing efforts to counter the silencing and attempts to discredit those tortured with Canadian complicity, Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture organized on March 8 a Torture Tour of Toronto, publicly naming sites of governmental and corporate complicity in torture in the city’s northwest end. Over 50 people, about a third of them high school students, made a collective statement that no amount of coercive amnesia can erase the traumatic experiences still lived by numerous survivors of Canadian involvement in torture. Their names include Abousfian Abdelrazik, Abdullah Almalki, Benamar Benatta, Adel Benhmuda, Maher Arar, Ahmad El Maati, Mourad Ikhlef, Omar Khadr, Muayyed Nureddin, Sogi Singh, Ivan Apaolaza Sancho, among many others.
The Torture Tour began shortly after the release of a series of formerly classified government documents that clearly showed that the Canadian government and numerous of its agencies, including CSIS, continue as a normal practice to trade in the torture of human beings. These included the frank CSIS admission that the secret hearing security certificate proceedings are built almost wholly on torture as well as two directives from “Public Safety” Minister Vic Toews instructing CSIS to continue using information gleaned from torture and sharing information even if there is a substantial likelihood that would lead to torture.
(Notably for those who mistakenly believe that blood is only on the hands of Harper’s gang, two days after the tour was complete, a new memo surfaced courtesy of Wikileaks that illustrated the extent to which the Liberal government of Paul Martin, Bill Graham et al. worked furiously behind the scenes with the U.S. to ensure any findings and recommendations arising from the inquiry into Maher Arar’s torture would not impede the ongoing “intelligence sharing” that led to the torture of Mr. Arar. The memo, written by then U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, praised then “Public Safety” Minister Anne McLellan for her participation in what the U.S. was requiring of its northern ally to deflect from the focus on Canadian complicity in torture: “an aggressive public diplomacy campaign” hyping alleged terror threats.
Despite fierce gales and rain, the tour got off to a start at the office of Conservative MP Bal Gosal. Following an acknowledgement that Canada’s first rendition program targeted First Nations children – the kidnapping and forced captivity, accompanied by brutal physical and emotional abuse, of countless thousands of children – speakers provided an overview of the Harper government’s current complicity.
Gosal’s office manager politely listened to the concerns of the demonstrators who walked into his office. But it was strange, however, to be talking about judicial inquiries, court decisions, and declassified documents pointing out Canadian complicity in torture, and to have the office manager nod and smile slightly, behaving as if he were listening to someone recite items on a grocery list, not the horrors they were discussing.
“Are you not concerned, perhaps shocked, that your government is involved in these crimes?” the group asked.
He never answered the question. A petition was presented, calling on the government to respect the 2009 vote of a majority of the House of Commons demanding an apology, compensation, and systemic changes with respect to the torture of Mssrs. Almalki, El Maati, and Nureddin. The manager promised to pass along petitions and inform the group when they would be tabled in the House; two weeks later, we have heard nothing.
THE DAILY TORTURE OF WOMEN
From there, the group headed down to the Airport Strip Lounge, a closed “entertainment” centre to focus on crimes of violence against women. The group chose to go there when it was empty so as not to be seen to be condemning women who work there. They also chose the spot given the club’s website, which advertises itself as a place of “nothing but elegance, superiority, equality and respect” for women. Teacher and social justice organizer Jozef Konyari called these “a few strategic words used to mask the social and economic realities of a society still learning how to be fair, equal and just, not only in theory, but more importantly, in practice.
Some felt the symbol was inappropriate, and Tracey Tief spoke to the larger web of violence against women as exemplified by a brutal economic regime that blocks women’s access and participation at all levels, noting that one could easily show that the act of buying flowers for a loved one is equally symbolic of violence against women if one followed the production chain back the starvation wages of women harvesting those flowers in a pesticide-ridden African greenhouse.
Konyari read out a powerful reflection on the war against women which, he said, remains largely hidden and silent. He quoted from Brian Vallee’s book The War Against Women, noting: “In the same seven-year period when 4,588 U.S. soldiers and policemen were killed by hostiles or by accident, more than 8,000 women – nearly twice as many – were shot, stabbed, strangled, or beaten to death by the intimate males in their lives. In Canada, compared to the 101 Canadian soldiers and police officers killed, more than 500 women – nearly five times as many – met the same fate”
Konyari also pointed out that according to the United Nations Convention against Torture, Cruel and Inhumane Treatment, “torture consists of ANY act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental is inflicted on a person,” adding “this describes the treatment of countless women within the GTA area and beyond.” He recalled the stories of two of the hundreds of Toronto targets of such violence, and then asked the question posed by Rhonda Copelon: “How are these stories, which take place within our homes and communities, less damaging than violence of official prisons and interrogation ‘booths’? The tortures authorized by U.S. officials against male detainees in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, including methods of sexualized humiliation and fear-induction, bear strong resemblance to what is tolerated as ‘domestic’ violence”
“Does the government of Canada inflict severe pain or suffering when it chooses to increase military spending by 54% (22.3 billion 2010 - 2011) since 9/11 – an increase that makes Canada the 13th largest military spender in the world – instead of choosing to properly fund Canada’s 593 women’s shelters? Does the government of Canada inflict severe pain or suffering when it fails to provide services for the over 100,000 women and children that seek safety in shelters each year?”
CANADA’S TORTURE TAXI
The group proceeded to protest across the street from the hangar for Skyservice Business Aviation, the Canadian Torture Taxi that not only awaits word from Ottawa when it can deport to torture secret trial detainees bound for dungeons in Egypt and Algeria, but has also increased its regular deportation business to a range of other human rights abusing countries such as Somalia.
The tour continued to the place that rounds up the human materiel for deportations, the Canadian Border Services Agency. Group members read out a statement condemning the agency’s role in the detention and deportation of tens of thousands of women, children and men who come to Canada seeking safety but who are rejected by an unfair system that still fails to grant a proper appeal. They noted the trauma that is experienced by the thousands arbitrarily detained without charge by CBSA, and the shackling of detainees who require medical attention, including pregnant women.
While some spoke with the refugee claimants who have to make the long trek to this faraway office from all parts of the Greater Toronto Area for weekly check-ins, others were confronted by an angry parking lot representative who objected to the crime scene tape that had sprung up around the entrance to the building, and insisted organizers take it down. When he was informed that this was a crime scene and that we could not take it down, he said he could not do it—was he afraid to interfere with a legal naming of this place?
The group headed to SNC-Lavalin, which had been busy last year building a prison for the torturing Gaddafi regime that, it laughably claimed, would be built to international human rights standards. In any event, the group stated, no prison can respect human rights since prisons as a concept are anti-human, and the replacement crew for Gaddafi, likely to inherit the prison, has been implicated in torture and extrajudicial executions as well. We also noted that SNC had been the focus of a campaign to divest itself of a factory in Quebec that pumped out almost 700 million bullets a year for the U.S. military, a campaign that ultimately proved successful.
This message was repeated at Metro West Detention Centre, where the group discussed dismissing the notion of good guys and bad guys, and the perverse idea that this is where “bad people” end up. We have bad institutions, not bad people, and the people who create inhuman conditions never end up here: places like this only continue the spiral of violence. The group also recalled that this is where secret trial detainees Hassan Almrei, Mahmoud Jaballah, and Mohammad Mahjoub had spent years suffering in solitary confinement without charge or bail based on information gleaned from torture. Almrei spent four and a half years in one solitary cell, without heat for the first two winters, and all the men endured lengthy hunger strikes as long as 80 days in an effort to slightly improve conditions.
Metro West guards were unnerved and, when they saw Crime Scene tape on their front sign, called the police with a complaint of property damage,. About 20 minutes later, 9 squads cars showed up, some stopping in the middle of the street and accosting young high school students taking part in the tour.
Meanwhile, the group stood vigil at Caterpillar, where grandmother Beth Guthrie, a longtime social justice activist, talked about the corporation’s role in the repression of Palestinians. Just as General Motors is slated soon to pay symbolic reparations to the victims of apartheid South Africa who were brutalized by officials using GM vehicles, so Caterpillar may one day face a court hearing for similar crimes.
“Most of us enjoy watching those great big Caterpillar construction machines,” Guthrie said. “When my sons were little I used to take them to construction sites where they could watch them dig holes and break things. Then they went home to the sandbox to play with their toy versions of the same machine. In our town the bulldozers and diggers seemed to be employed in building things and making a better world.
THE TORTURE OF OCCUPATION
“Then in March 2003 Rachel Corrie was killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer. She was a young American peace activist trying to stop it from destroying the home of a Palestinian family in Gaza and it deliberately drove right over her. I had just begun learning about what was happening in Palestine and one of my friends knew Rachel, so it felt very close to me.”
The United States buys the bulldozers from CAT and then sells them to the Israeli army through the Israel Tractor Equipment (ETI) company. The bulldozers are subsequently militarized by Inrob Tech, an American company based in Israel. …. In addition to destroying land and homes, CAT equipment is also used to kill civilians who do not have time to evacuate their homes, since the demolition is often done at night and without advance notice. The Israeli army has, in fact, pursued the destruction of homes while being fully aware that some residents were still inside.
Since 1967, CAT bulldozers have destroyed more than 12,000 homes and businesses in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, affecting more than 50, 000 Palestinian who were left homeless. Of these, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed since 2003, evidence of the intensification of the destruction during the last decade.
“All this means that I urge you to boycott Caterpillar equipment, even if it just means not buying your kid that toy bulldozer or renting that lawn tractor,” she concluded. “Israel is using Caterpillar equipment to help it to take over Palestinian land. By selling equipment to the Israeli Forces, the Caterpillar corporation is directly involved in serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law perpetrated by Israel. The importance of these bulldozers in Israel’s military strategy is crucial. The commander of the Israeli army qualified Caterpillar equipment as ‘key weapons’ in maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
The group then headed to the RCMP. As the nine squad cars lined up and officers lined up, tour members realized there were far too many RCMP crimes to be list6ed, and so decided to go directly into the building and confront those inside. We’d been here before, demanding answers, but were given none. Perhaps this time it would be different?
As about 25 people crowded into the small lobby, two Mounties on their way out were caught in the middle, and had to listen to an explanation of the crimes of the RCMP as docu9mented by the O’Connor and Iacobucci judicial inquiries. The agents were questioned intensely about their responsibility and how they felt about the inquiries. How did they feel belonging to an organization implicated in torture? What would they do if they knew information they were gathering would result in someone being tortured?
As at the MP’s office, the glazed eye response was prominent. We were repeatedly told “no comment” when we asked questions. Could they find someone who would comment? They went inside to speak to a supervisor, but came out with the same response—there action had blood on its hands.
“If you were asked to follow someone based on nothing more than racial or religious profiling, which happened in all of these cases, would you refuse to do so?” we asked.
“I can’t comment on hypothetical situations,” came a reply.
“This isn’t a hypothetical, this is a daily occurrence, and your organization does this.”
The officers were given our contact information in the event they would like to become a whistleblower. We promised we would support anyone who had the courage to come forward with further evidence of malfeasance or secret files that have so far been denied to the men tortured with their complicity.
“You have a right to exercise your conscience and a responsibility to follow the law,” they were told as we left.
Given a shortage of time, the group had to skip two locations. One was L-3 Communications, the site which produced cruise missile guidance systems in the 1980s as well as other criminal weapons systems used against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose subsidiary, L-3 Titan, is implicated in torture. The other location was Tim Horton’s, where the group planned to read the eloquent testimony of cultural and language advisor Ahmadshah Malgarai, who testified at the House of Commons about the fact that high level officials in Canada’s War Dept. knew that detainees transferred out of Canadian hands would be tortured, and who said Canadian Warlord Rick Hillier had lied to the committee. Read his full testimony at http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=4426965&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=40&Ses=3
Throughout the tour, the group had discussed the human rights abuses inherent in new anti-refugee legislation proposed by Jason Kenney, Canada’s Deportation Minister. The final stop on the journey was a perfect place to reflect on what the new law will mean: more jail, more deportation, more misery, more complicity in torture. The refugee jail on Rexdale Blvd. is in fact expanding, an ominous sign of what’s to come.
THE REFUGEE JAIL
It is here that thousands of people are passed throughout the year, all detained without charge for indefinite periods of time, all frightened, despairing, hopeless. The energized response of those inside the jail, who waved frantically from their barred windows at the gathered crowd, some desperately trying to send messages to us on small bits of paper, was testimony to the desperation felt inside. Two rounds of barbed wire fence surrounded a small outdoor area where the children who are in the jail are sometimes, allegedly, allowed to go.
The crowd waved back to those inside and pledged solidarity and work towards ending the crime of refugee detention. They sang songs, formed human peace symbols, and called out to recognize the humanity of those who have been retraumatized with their detention.
A posse of private security kept close watch, and as the group made their way to the jail parking lot to express solidarity with those on the west side of the jail, the security manager threatened to start making arrests unless people moved.
“Are you telling us that we cannot be human and share a human moment with people inside the jail?” asked one participant.
The answer was no.
As the group packed up its banners and placards, it committed itself to further actions not only in the cases of torture survivors still seeking justice, but all those currently affected by repressive Canadian polices and the new legislation that will further add to Canada’s record of human rights abuses.