Dec. 1, 2003. 01:00 AM
Editorial: Anti-terror laws ripe for review

Are Canadians threatened by our tough, new anti-terror laws?

Just ask the 23 Pakistani and Indian immigrants who found themselves slapped in "preventive" detention last summer, as suspected Al Qaeda terrorists. They were said to have "cased" and overflown the Pickering nuclear plant, "scouted" the CN Tower, toyed with explosives and had ties with terrorist fundraising. It was a false alarm. All were cleared of terrorist links; they posed no threat. Yet all felt the law's heavy hand.

Paul Martin must tackle this issue when he becomes prime minister. Debate is percolating in the United States, where similar laws have eroded civil rights. And concern is rising here, fed by Ottawa's inept handling of the cases of Maher Arar, Abdul Rahman Khadr and Hassan Almrei.

There's no denying a terror threat exists. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service says 50 networks encompassing "almost all the world's terrorist groups" have sympathizers or operatives here. We're an open society, making us an attractive base. Hence the new laws, passed after 9/11.

But greater security carries a cost, warns Reid Morden. And he should know. He was Canada's top spymaster from 1987 to 1991.

"The Canadian government, in its race to catch up, went beyond the British and American legislation defining terrorist activities to include legal political, religious and ideological protests that intentionally disrupt essential services," the former CSIS chief points out in a thoughtful commentary posted recently on the agency's Web site.

And those laws, carelessly applied, could threaten civil liberties.

This warning should spur Martin to some needed housekeeping. Two years after 9/11, Canada's anti-terror laws are ripe for review.

"The definition of `terrorism' is so wide," Morden writes, "that it could easily include behaviour that doesn't remotely resemble terrorism."

Ottawa now has "virtually unreviewable power to act on the advice of CSIS or the police in branding activities and organizations as `terrorist.'"

Provisions for "preventative arrest and investigative hearings . . . override fundamental freedoms of religion, expression and association."

All this serves to "lengthen the long reach of the criminal law in a manner that is complex, unclear and unrestrained," Morden concludes.

Ultimately, Canada's Supreme Court will judge whether laws sacrifice too many rights, for too little security gain. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says the high court is "very conscious of the need to maintain liberty and to ensure that Canada remains a democratic and liberal and free country where freedoms are impinged as little as possible."

But Canada's prime minister has an obligation to defend civil rights, whatever the courts may rule. The new laws have clauses mandating parliamentary scrutiny after five years. Why wait? The Commons justice and human rights committee can hold hearings on the new laws' impact.

We should know by now of the laws' strengths and weaknesses. Any law made in haste risks being poor law. Anti-terror laws passed "racing to catch up" after the shock of 9/11 are especially worrisome.

Martin should order a review.

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