Saturday, October 11, 2008

Secrets and Lies

Report for Bail Hearing of Hassan Almrei

Toronto, October 5, 2008 -- In the middle of what we are often told is the signal moment of democracy – a federal election campaign – none of the national party leaders has found time to comment on the fact that during the past month, a series of secret rendition-to-torture hearings have been occurring at undisclosed locations in Ottawa. Neither the detainees affected, nor their lawyers, has been allowed to attend these hearings or contest the allegations that could wind them up in Syrian, Egyptian, Algerian, and Moroccan torture chambers.

All this is possible because of security certificate legislation that was passed earlier this year with the Tories and Liberals voting hand in hand. The purpose of these hearings is to forcibly remove those subject to certificates from Canada, and in the five cases currently pending, all face torture if deported.

As a symbolic sop to those who are concerned about civil rights in Canada, the legislation does allow the detainee a show hearing that is held in public, yet the core of the matter -- if indeed such a “core” does exist, and that’s doubtful at best -- will be heard in secret.

This past week in Toronto, detainee Hassan Almrei, who on October 19 will mark seven years of indefinite detention without charge, began the public portion of his bail hearing, his fourth effort to get out from behind bars at the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre (aka Gitmo North), where he remains the last of the secret trial detainees to be in a physical jail. The other four are suffering, along with their families, under a pernicious regime of house arrest that is having devastating consequences, especially on their wives, parents, and children.

Almrei, who spent his first four years and three months in solitary confinement, again finds himself in the most expensive solitary confinement cell in Canada, a $3.2 million facility with a staff of 21, often described as a maximum security jail inside a maximum security jail.

In the open portion of the secret hearing this past week, two witnesses for the government addressed both the ongoing efforts to deport Hassan as well as the unsubstantiated reasons why he should not be transferred to house arrest. In many respects, the hearings were depressing not only for their patent injustice, but also for the repetitive nature of the story that repeatedly gets told in such settings, despite the passage of time and the fact that the certificate process was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2007. Notably, the “replacement” model was condemned as unconstitutional by leading law associations across the land, but passed by both the House and Senate with no serious review.

Hassan’s hearing came on the heels of a constitutional challenge (see a report on the challenge at It begins with a chilling report from the Federal Court judge who says, with no particular sense of horror, that the court has begun secret hearings in Ottawa in the absence of Mr. Almrei, and that the secret hearings would continue next week.

The government’s first witness is Marc Towaij, the Acting Director of Enforcement in the National Security Division of the Canadian Border Services Agency. A man who has worked as an “immigration escort” for deportees and as a “senior removals officer”, Towaij had been asked to assist in preparations to “remove” Mr. Almrei to torture in Syria in 2003. This was around the same time an internal government document (later released at the Arar Inquiry) was being written, conceding that the Canadian government did not have enough information against Almrei to lay a criminal charge against him. The memo, written for then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham, was more concerned with the media fallout from such a deportation than the risk to Almrei himself. The conclusion: this could affect our ability to deport other detainees. it may give Canada a black eye on the world stage, so develop media lines.

Towaij testifies about the lengthy process that would follow a finding that a certificate is reasonable, discussing how a danger opinion is formulated (no need to go through the lengthy process here; suffice it to say that in all of these cases, the conclusion is always the same: deportation regardless of the substantial risk of torture, a conclusion based on secret information).

Like his government colleagues in such hearings, Towaij speaks in that bizarre language of looking out for the rights of the individual he seeks to deport to torture. These cases are a priority and must move quickly, he says, for after all, “Mr. Almrei is detained.”

Towaij says such cases require a charter aircraft (but fails to mention that the go-to company in this case is Skyservice Business Aviation (for background on this area of complicity in torture, see

Under cross examination, Towaij is asked whether he had any concerns -- especially following the return to Canada of Maher Arar, who spoke publicly about his year of torture in a Syrian hellhole -- that Mr. Almrei might face a similar risk of torture. He is asked this because, on his deportation papers, Almrei was listed at the time as a “terrorist suspect,” a tag that surely would have wound him up in a torture chamber.

“That is our standard procedure for a removal order,” Towaij explains.

“Are there no exceptions” when it comes to concerns that such standard procedure might place someone at risk of torture, he’s asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Towaij replies.

Did Towaij check with someone else to see whether this standard procedure might place Almrei at risk? Were any precautions taken?

“No,” comes the terse reply.

Was Towaij familiar with Maher Arar’s torture in Syria? He says he was.

“As a removals officer shouldn’t you consider whether your actions place [Hassan] at risk?” he’s asked again.

“My requirement is to enforce the order,” Towaij states blankly, causing what’s known as “the Nuremberg ripple” in the viewing gallery (at Nuremberg, Nazi officers tried to use the “just following orders” defence for their participation in torture, among other atrocities).

“That was our practice. No, I was not concerned. My job was not to worry about risk.”

And so it goes, one of the reasons there will be another Caravan to End Canadian Involvement in Torture this October (for more info see

The next day, the government presents a CSIS witness who is only identified as “Sukhvindar,” who says he cannot provide his full name for national security reasons. A former military intelligence officer (pardon the oxymoron), he has been at CSIS since 1991, where he is now a chief of intelligence. He claims that “Sunni Muslim extremism represents a continuing threat to our national security”, and says that Hassan Almrei “adheres to a violent philosophy that relies on the use of force.”

Almrei has always flatly denied any support for violence, but the basis for this opinion of his beliefs is wholly secret evidence that he cannot see. Sukhvindar, like previous CSIS agents who have testified against Almrei, has never met or interviewed Hassan, and bases his opinion solely on what he has read in the public record and, one can assume, an extreme case of racist profiling. (One courtroom observer says that the description wrongfully assigned to Almrei -- “adheres to a violent philosophy that relies on the use of force” -- sounds a lot like former Canadian warlord General Rick Hillier, who earlier this year abandoned his troops in Afghanistan for the prettier pastures of the private sector. Hillier is famous for noting that the job of the Canadian Forces is to be able to kill people.)

Sukhvindar repeats the unsubstantiated theory (popular in CSIS circles) that Almrei would be a threat because, even though under house arrest, surrounded by surveillance cameras, his phone tapped, and a GPS device attached to his ankle, Hassan would remain someone with the “pedigree” that would constitute the kind of star power that would influence others.

This fantasy world theory, dreamed up in the CSIS world of tunnel vision, has been applied to other detainees who were subsequently released (though CSIS continues to disagree with the soundness of such decisions!)

CSIS admits that Hassan is not a member of Al Qaeda nor does it believe he will engage in violence in Canada. But what the agent DOES believe is that Hassan has “the background, training, experience, willingness, and commitment” to help those who would do evil. CSIS is concerned he might counsel others on the nefarious art of terror support (something about which Almrei knows absolutely nothing), even though every visitor to his house arrest scene would have to be government approved, and only outings that are approved far in advance with approved individuals, an approved route, and agent surveillance would be allowed.

Playing the game of guilt by 18 degrees of separation, Sukhvindar says that Hassan once knew a man in Afghanistan who went on to fight in Chechnya (and was killed in 2002). The danger here is that Chechan rebels (who have never committed actions outside of Chechnya or Russia) might want to strike at Russian targets anywhere in the world, perhaps, he says with a suggestiveness that seems painfully and awkwardly planned, the Russian embassy in Ottawa. If you can’t follow that, welcome to the club.

He also says Hassan might engage in the use of clandestine methodologies, such as making three way calls (on his tapped phone).

Then again, he might take a cue from Maxwell Smart and use code words.

“Language is a key. You might say the coffee is good at Starbucks,” Sukhvindar says, which could be code for a jihadist call to action.

Sukhvindar is asked whether CSIS has a relationship with Syrian Military Intelligence, an agency with a horrific record of human rights abuses. He says he is not allowed to speak to that (national security), even though this was part of the public record at the Arar Inquiry. “I’m not aware of that section of the Arar Report,” he says. Sukhvindar also says he has visited the Middle East but cannot say where. This answer seems like a result of CSIS analysis of previous testimony, where agents who have admitted to travelling in certain parts of the world open themselves up to questions they’d rather not answer because it would prove politically embarrassing. For example, one agent testified he took training in Egypt, another country with a rather awful human rights record.

Sukhvindar does not speak or read Arabic, has never met Almrei, has only seen the public allegations, and does not even know whether CSIS ever interviewed Hassan.

He also says he has no understanding of the current situation in Syria and, like past CSIS witnesses, refuses to agree that torture is commonplace there, stating only that he is aware of such “accusations.”

Like all CSIS employees, Sukhvindar, though under oath, regularly withholds information that would provide a more complete picture on Hassan. The concept of the whole truth and nothing but the truth escapes him, and so he uses his platform to throw in scary-sounding allegations, without being questioned about him. His favourite, repeated twice, is that Hassan once had access to a “secure area” of a major Canadian airport.

“Did you know Mr. Almrei was employed at the airport?’ he is asked.

“No,” he replies. (Cleaners and many other airport staff work in “secure areas” at Pearson!!!)

Hastening back to the world of scare mongering, the CSIS man opines, “I could speculate for hours and hours about how [Almrei] could promote violent jihad.” Of course, he neglects to see the weak limb he has crawled out on: it would only be that, speculation, since he has failed to present anything other than low-rent spy theories that have no basis in fact.

Sukhvindar is asked whether any of those released on control orders in Canada have breached their conditions.

“I cannot answer that,” he says, implying they have but he cannot get into how.

“So if you knew a detainee was breaching the release conditions you wouldn’t bring it to the attention of the court?” he is asked.

“We don’t monitor them in that way.”

“Do you have any information on breaches that have occurred?”

“That would be getting into classified information.”

(Notably, none of those currently on control orders have been returned to jail, though in one instance last January, Ottawa’s Mohamed Harkat was pulled out of the shower by state agents a few days before a review of his conditions for rather ridiculous reasons that, again, had everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with “security”. After a few days in jail he was returned to house arrest).

And so it goes. As Sukhvindar leaves the court, his briefcase’s security key dangling on top (maybe there’s important information in there!), the judge announces he will retire for more secret hearings in the absence of Mr. Almrei and his lawyers.

Meanwhile, political party leaders and media pundits prepare for their “democracy is working in Canada” lines as election day approaches. Hassan will no doubt read about the returns from his solitary confinement cell at Canada’s Guantanamo North.

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