Canadians' Culture of Tolerance Is Tested by Cases Against Arabs

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 17, 2003; Page A34

TORONTO -- Hassan Almrei, a Syrian who immigrated to Canada on a fake passport, sat in a glass cage in a courtroom, watching lawyers in flowing black robes argue his case.

A tall man thinned by a hunger strike, Almrei, 29, listened intently as prosecutors accused him of having links to terrorists and demanded he be deported to Syria, where he was born. His attorney, Barbara Jackman, argued it would be inhumane to send the man to a country known for torture.

From time to time, Jackman leaned through the window of the cage to talk with her client. Almrei, who had failed as a small restaurant owner in Toronto, admitted in an affidavit that he had lied to government agents about his activities, but denied he was a terrorist.

The cases of Almrei and other Canadian immigrants of Arab descent underscore the tensions in a larger debate in Canada about how to deal with immigrants accused of involvement in terrorism. Canadians pride themselves on ideals of tolerance, inclusion and the belief that immigrants should have the same rights as Canadian citizens. At the same time, the country is wrestling with how to protect national security and answer critics who contend that the country's liberal immigration policies make Canada easy prey for terrorists.

"Two years after September 11, there is a failure to come up with a policy on terrorism here, at home, and globally," said Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto. "There is a great deal of divisiveness in Canada about how Canada wants to pursue the war on global terrorism."

In the past few months, Canada has been forced to deal with a series of cases including that of Maher Arar, a Canadian Syrian arrested in the United States, accused of having links to terrorists, then taken by U.S. agents to Syria where he says he was tortured. Arar's secret deportation to Syria incensed many Canadians, who said the United States had not respected Arar's Canadian citizenship.

Jean Chretien, then the prime minister, angrily criticized the United States for deporting Arar, and critics demanded details about Canada's intelligence relationship with the Bush administration. Many Canadians were also angry that U.S. officials appeared unapologetic about how they handled the Arar case. Arar, who denies the accusations, has filed a lawsuit against Jordan and Syria for torture. He also plans to sue the United States for violating his rights.

"The response in Canada was 'How dare they?' " said John Thompson, director of the MacKenzie Institute, which studies organized violence and political instability.

The Arar case also has cast a shadow over other recent cases against Canadians of Arab descent accused of terrorism. Soon after Arar was freed by Syrian authorities, another Canadian citizen, Abdul Rahman Khadr, 20, said U.S. authorities sent him against his will to Afghanistan after he was freed from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he had been detained for alleged links to al Qaeda. Khadr said he had told U.S. authorities he wanted to return to Canada upon his release.

Canada's Foreign Ministry said Khadr had requested to be sent to Afghanistan, where he was captured in November 2001. Khadr's brother, Omar, 17, is still being held at Guantanamo Bay, accused of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a shootout in Afghanistan. Their Egyptian-born Canadian father, Ahmed Khadr, is alleged to be a leader of al Qaeda wanted by the United States.

Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Center for Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, said attorneys in each of the cases accuse the Canadian government of failing to protect its citizens. "In the case of Khadr and Almrei, the legal representation uses the Arar case to say there is a huge problem with how the Canadian government is operating," Rudner said. "In the Khadr case, once again the Canadian government seemed unable or unwilling to assist Khadr, and the United States simply plopped him back in Afghanistan and left him to his own devices to find his way back to Canada. I don't think that is the case. But questions were raised about Canada's ability to protect its citizens."

Another Syrian-born Canadian, Abdullah Almalki, is being held in a Syrian prison. His relatives have demanded that Canada push harder for Almalki's release. Canadian Muslims are also urging the Canadian authorities to seek the release of Ahmad Abou El-Maati, an Egyptian Canadian who was arrested in Syria soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and accused of ties to terror groups. Syria turned El-Maati over to Egyptian authorities two months after he was arrested.

Canada portrays itself as a socially liberal society. It is nation of immigrants, legal and illegal, who are seen as essential to its growth. Immigrants and those who work to legalize their status play a major role in shaping Canadian politics. Since the 1960s, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau opened Canada's doors to more immigrants of color, millions have immigrated to Canada, changing the face of its society. Recent government statistics show that immigrants from West and Central Asia and the Middle East grew from 13,360 in 1961 to 162,220 in 2001. The number of immigrants from Southeast Asia grew from 14,095 in 1961 to 185,665 during that period.

Unlike in the United States, where many immigrants feel pressure to assimilate, Canada encourages people to maintain their cultural identities.

"It gives us great strength, but also exposes several vulnerabilities," said Rudner, who said terrorist groups have exploited Canada's tolerance.

Critics of Canada's immigration policies trace the problems to a 1985 Canadian Supreme Court decision that they say allows criminals to exploit the system.

The court "said that anybody who reaches Canada is entitled to all the same rights and legal protection of Canadian citizens regardless of their status. That was a flare that went up that told people around the world we are an easy mark and we have had an uncontrollable refugee problem every since," said Thompson, of the MacKenzie Institute.

"Once someone gets into the country illegally, it's enormously hard to find them, and once we find them, it's enormously hard to get them out," Norman Inkster, former commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told a discussion group of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

As Canada grows more diverse and more cosmopolitan, Thompson says, it has imported more of the world's conflicts. The 1985 bombing of an Air India flight that killed 329 people was one of the most notorious acts of alleged international terrorism prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Air India bombing was allegedly planned in Canada by militant Sikh separatists who wanted to retaliate for an Indian government raid on the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Sikh faith's holiest shrine. Still, Thompson said, there is a certain naive belief among some Canadians outside intelligence and police circles that terrorism could never occur in Canada. "There has always been disillusions about security in Canada, that Canada is always deemed to be safe from the world's troubles, that violence could never occur here," Thompson said. "The feeling is we are peacekeepers, we are doing this out of altruism and the world loves us for it."

There is a sentiment among Canadians that even if accused terrorists are guilty, they deserve the same rights as any other Canadian until they are convicted. The argument is similar to one in the United States, where civil libertarians express concern that homeland security measures and the Patriot Act will erode the constitutional presumption of innocence. In addition, there is a pride here in trying to avoid stereotyping people based on their background.

"A lot of Canadians have difficulty understanding we are under threat," Thompson said. "Osama bin Laden mentioned Canada as a target this year."

On the seventh floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Toronto, the conflicts were evident. A Muslim community leader argued that Almrei should be freed on bail.

"In my opinion this word, al Qaeda, has been invented," said Aly Hindy, an imam at a mosque in Scarborough. "Young people, you ask them their religion and they say, 'I'm a Muslim, but I'm not a terrorist.' We have to distinguish between people fighting for freedom and people liberating their own country and people doing terrorism."

Almrei submitted an affidavit admitting that he underwent weapons training in Afghanistan, that he lied to Canadian agents who interrogated him, that he lied to gain refugee status in Canada and that he helped another man suspected of terrorism obtain a fake passport.

"Canada has a duty to ensure this country does not become a safe haven for terrorists," said Donald MacIntosh, a prosecutor. "Even if Mr. Almrei were to be at risk of torture, the extraordinary danger he poses to the security of Canada requires he not be allowed to remain in Canada."

Jackman, Almrei's attorney, said Canada was being hypocritical as it tries to deport Almrei to Syria while complaining that the United States deported Arar to Syria. "They torture first and ask questions later, or they ask questions while they're torturing," Jackman said.

A federal judge decided to delay the deportation, saying, "The undisputed evidence on general conditions in Syria shows that the human rights record of Syria is poor, and that detention and torture are not uncommon. It is unlikely that Syrian authorities would release him."

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