`Toronto 18' suspect has good point
January 31, 2008

Zakaria Amara called up the other day from the Don Jail. He's one of the alleged leaders of an alleged terrorist ring known colloquially as the Toronto 18. He's been in solitary confinement for the last 19 months awaiting trial and says that's beginning to drive him crazy. But what drives the 22-year-old Canadian even crazier is that the deck seems so stacked against him.

Which is why, for the first time since his arrest in June 2006, he decided to talk to a reporter.

"I don't want sympathy," he says. "I don't want a get-out-of-jail card. I just want to be treated fairly."

Amara has a point. Who knows if he is guilty of the charges against him, all of which are linked to an alleged plot to behead the prime minister? What we do know, however, is that since Parliament rushed through its anti-terror laws in late 2001, the state has given itself a distinct edge.

That would be just fine if everyone the Crown ever charged were absolutely guilty. But for those who are innocent, or at the very least not as guilty as the government insists, the new laws are hardly fair.

In particular, they give the government the right, on so-called national security grounds, to withhold information that might exonerate defendants. The government insists this is necessary to protect the country. But in instances where the courts have ordered the Crown to release such information, most notably the public inquiry into the torture and imprisonment of Maher Arar, it has been clear that the state's real motive was to avoid embarrassment.

In the case of the Toronto 18, this problem is compounded by the role of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It was CSIS that first began to investigate Amara and other young Muslims. And it was CSIS that first introduced two undercover informants – each of whom would end up being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars – into the group.

Were these CSIS (later RCMP) agents simply passive informants? Or did they cross the line and provoke illegal acts? It would be useful to know. However the government, citing national security, is actively fighting disclosure of the CSIS links.

All of this gets Amara down. He doesn't understand why he's being treated to a lesser level of justice. He also doesn't understand why the Crown keeps him and two others in solitary confinement. He can clearly telephone anyone he likes. He regularly associates with his fellows during their court appearances. How would national security be compromised if the three were allowed to talk to one another in jail?

He also insists that he is not a bogeyman.

Born to a Cypriot mother and a Palestinian father, he was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. His parents were resolutely secular. Eventually, Amara says, he gravitated to Islam for theological reasons: Like many Christians, he found the concept of the Trinity (which holds that God has three separate personas) difficult to swallow. But he believed in God. So Islam made sense.

"I'm just an objective person," says Amara. "I'm not as black and white as many people think. I'm not an extremist – and that word `extremist' is an extremely relative word. I'm not a hard liner. I read."

Citing Plato's Republic to make his point, he says he fears that Canada is following the United States into tyranny. "People take their rights for granted," he says.

His aim? "All I want is a fair trial ... I'm not asking for back flips; I'm not asking for miracles. Just treat me like everybody else.

"If I'm guilty I'm going to have to pay for it. But what if I'm innocent?"

Thomas Walkom's column appears Thursday and Sunday.