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June 15, 2004

Torture and Terror Influence Canadian Election

by Jim Lobe

MONTREAL – One week from now, seven days before voters take part in one of the closest elections in recent Canadian history, a window will open onto a crime that appalled and captivated people throughout this country and worldwide.

But until the inquiry starts June 21 into the case of Maher Arar – a Canadian citizen nabbed by U.S. officials in a New York airport as he flew home from a vacation, then deported to Syria where he was allegedly tortured for months, all with the possible complicity of Canadian security agencies – it appears his story will remain largely silent. As will the questions the Arar case provokes about this country's security laws, its ties with Washington and its attitudes toward Muslims and other immigrants.

That the Arar Commission has lain buried in the Canadian psyche since it was announced in January is the result of a clever strategy by Prime Minister Paul Martin's government, says one observer.

"To make the announcement before the election (took) the sting out of this issue for the government. If the inquiry hadn't been held, then I think the Arar issue would have been a very high-priority topic of discussion," says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International's Canadian section.

In addition, the early days of the hearing will likely be devoted to general issues, making it improbable that any explosive headlines will hit the media during the campaign's final week, he added.

Neve said Amnesty would like the Commission, to be held in the capital Ottawa where Arar lives, to reveal exactly what happened to the Syrian-born Canadian citizen in the United States, in Jordan (where he landed on the flight from New York on Oct. 9, 2002) and in Syria.

It should also unveil the role that Canadian officials played during the 13 days he was detained in New York and while imprisoned in his homeland, he argues.

Evidence suggests security agencies here passed information to U.S. investigators and had access to what Arar told his Syrian interrogators, Neve added.

"What I think we need to know on this end is to what extent, first of all, did Canadian action or inaction or provision of information unleash the chain of events that led to Maher Arar ultimately ending up being detained for one year without charge or trial, subjected to torture, and essentially having the whole range of his human rights completely violated."

That the lid has remained tight on the Arar story, with its potential revelations of Canada's once-esteemed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) colluding with U.S. agents to ship a suspect in Washington's ever-expanding "war on terrorism" to a regime known to practice torture, will probably produce little joy for Martin's government now.

Since the prime minister called the election in May, his long-ruling Liberal Party has nose-dived in opinion polls and now trails the opposition Conservatives by a couple of percentage points. The best hope for the prime minister, who replaced his predecessor Jean Chretien only in December, now appears to be to form a minority government on the day after the Jun. 28 vote.

A spending scandal and the general arrogance that grows from wielding power for more than a decade appear to have alienated Canada's 22 million plus voters more deeply than the Martin team imagined when it decided to drop the election writ a year sooner than necessary.

One organization that is watching the Arar inquiry closely says it is not counseling its members to vote for a particular party, but is approaching the polls with a "left of center" perspective.

"We tell them 'you are the best judge in your locality to do your homework and see which party and which candidate you will vote for'. We published just recently something about the Conservative platform, and we think that it's actually dangerous for Canada, but this is our opinion because of our study," says Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

He believes the Arar incident carries both legal and social dimensions. "Because of our community's position in terms of 9/11, we've been found guilty by association in the court of public opinion, and there is a negative stereotype which has been fed by the media."

Having received official "intervener" status in the hearing, Elmasry says his group will "try to convince that inquiry that we're paying, as a community, a high social cost, in terms of discrimination – at the workplace, in universities and schools – and (that) social workers in the frontlines are reporting higher cases of loss of identity, especially among young Canadian Muslims."

"That means people would like to change their names from Mohamed and Fatimah to some kind of Anglo-Saxon names so they will not be identified as Muslims," he added.

Elmasry seems to believe the Commission is more likely to produce positive change than the election.

"Racial profiling and Bill C-36 (Canada's anti-terrorism law): we're hoping to make it an election issue. We have not succeeded so far in making it an election issue in the public square", although Muslim voters are concerned, he says.

Just four months after Sept. 11, 2001 and in the shadow of U.S. accusations that the Sept. 11 hijackers crossed into the United States from Canada, this country's Parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-36), which amended 19 existing laws and allowed authorities to suspend long-held judicial rights to combat vague threats.

Aside from that new law, Sept. 11 ushered in a climate that emboldened security agencies to make use of extraordinary powers that were already part of the legal system but seldom employed, according to experts.

In addition, prior to Parliament's shutdown for the election, the Liberals were close to adopting the Public Safety Act, which would increase sharing of personal data (including passenger information) between law enforcers, intelligence agencies, security authorities and governments, according to the group Kairos: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

"We are calling upon the Senate to postpone adoption of this Bill until a full review of existing legislation has taken place to ensure that it does not infringe further upon human rights, and after the results of the Maher Arar inquiry are made public," it said in a statement.

Those findings are not expected until late this year, by which time a tax-cutting Conservative government could have launched some of its reforms, a prospect that worries many Canadians and civil society groups.

While Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper repeats at every chance that he will not pursue a right-wing agenda, his admission that his government would review a law outlawing hate speech against gays, along with some candidates' ambiguous statements about abortion (now unrestricted) leave some voters wary.

Harper also supports closer ties to the administration of George W Bush, whose policies are disliked by a majority of Canadians (as does Martin – but more cautiously).

The Conservative leader continually harangued the Liberals after 9/11 that they should work more closely with Washington to tighten security in North America.

At the other end of the political spectrum is the New Democratic Party (NDP), rejuvenated by the energy of new leader Jack Layton, who claims that both Harper and Martin are too cozy with Bush.

One of Layton's star candidates is Monia Mazigh, wife of Maher Arar, who spearheaded the fight to have her husband released from Syria.

"I didn't choose to be a public figure, but when (the imprisonment) happened and when I came to be known, I think it is one of my personal duties, as a Canadian, to do something to help people around me," Mazigh told the media when she announced her candidacy.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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