Exclusive: After being held without charge for five years, terrorism suspect Mahmoud Jaballah speaks out from the special, high-security facility built just for him and two others near Kingston
Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star, January 06, 2007
In neat handwriting that fills three pages are Mahmoud Jaballah’s complaints about daily life inside this $3.2 million portable surrounded by barbed wire that was built for him and two other Toronto terrorism suspects.
He fidgets with the paper on the desk in front of him while he speaks quickly during an interview this week inside the holding centre west of Kingston, dubbed “Guantanamo North” by its critics. A guard sits beside him, staring straight ahead.
“There’s no privacy here,” says Jaballah, giving a nod to the guard with the unwavering deadpan stare.
But beyond his list of grievances about the daily conditions of his detention on the grounds of the Millhaven federal penitentiary looms the larger issue of the detention itself.
Jaballah and two other detainees held here stand accused by Canada’s spy service of belonging to organizations with connections to Al Qaeda – claims they deny. They have been held for more than five years. None have been charged criminally but remain detained here in legal limbo.
The government has ordered them deported to their birth countries of Egypt and Syria, but the men say they will be tortured if they return and, so far, the lower courts here have agreed it’s not an option.
They were moved last April to this holding centre in response to previous complaints about their detention in a Toronto jail. The permanency of this costly facility also sent the signal that the government doesn’t expect their release anytime soon.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule as early as next week on the constitutionality of the immigration legislation that put these men behind bars. One argument before the court questions the lawfulness of a process that allows the government to provide secret evidence to the federal court justice reviewing the case – keeping the detainee from viewing or attempting to refute the private allegations.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will add to international case law now building from high courts in the U.K., Australia and U.S., as the West grapples with restrictions on civil rights in the name of national security.
“It will be a significant watershed in where we’re going in Canada and what type of legal system we’re going to have,” says long-time civil rights lawyer Paul Copeland, who argued before the Supreme Court that Parliament should be forced to re-draft the legislation.
“Canada is one of the leaders generally on justice issues so it’s critically important not only to Canada, but the world is watching, too.”
There are five cases pending against Muslim men ordered deported due to national security certificates – a provision of the immigration act that has been in effect for more than a decade but has come under heavy criticism only since 9/11. The two other men from Ottawa and Montreal have been granted bail under strict conditions.
Another case against Sri Lankan refugee Manickavasagam Suresh, alleged to be a fundraiser for the Tamil Tigers, has been ongoing for more than a decade. But the case appears inactive since the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that Suresh could not be deported due to the risk he faced back home. For now, Suresh is required to report to a government official once a week, but is otherwise free to live without restrictions in his home north of Toronto.
Those who support national security certificates argue that evidence must in certain cases be presented in secret to protect sources. Sometimes, in the murky world of terrorism and espionage, criminal trials are not an option for security threats, government lawyers have argued in support of the legislation.
They point to last month’s deportation of an alleged Russian spy on a national security certificate as proof that the immigration legislation is effective. The unnamed man agreed to return to Russia after he was detained and accused of spying in Canada for the last 10 years, and was quickly flown out of the country.
But Jaballah says that’s not an option for him and although he’s also allowed to leave Canada for a third country, it’s unlikely any country would accept someone accused of terrorist connections.
“If I didn’t have any problem in my country I would not stay here in the jail for one minute. I would take my kids and I’d leave. Why would I keep myself here in jail for five years?” he says as he again tugs at his list of complaints.
Known officially as the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, the new detention centre where Jaballah is held with Hassan Almrei and Mohamed Mahjoub is a two-hour drive from Toronto and sits on an expansive property overlooking Lake Ontario.
Visitors must pass through a series of gates to get to the facility, similar to the procedure at its neighbouring maximum-security penitentiary.
The holding centre consists of one portable, housing a common area and six cells equipped with televisions. Outside is a strip of asphalt with a picnic bench that the detainees use when allowed outdoors, and a ramp that leads to another building with a gym, medical room and visiting area stocked with board games and Lego.
The facility allows him to visit with his family without a Plexiglas partition. Every couple of weeks his wife, Husnah al-Mashtouli, and children come to sit with him. It was in this room he recently met his eldest daughter’s new baby, his first grandchild. His second youngest son, 10-year-old Ali, says this is the only vacation he wants to take.
“Without my dad we do not go on any vacations. My dad plays with us and he helps us with lots of stuff and it’s like something’s missing in the family, which is him,” says Ali during an interview with his family in their Scarborough home as the family’s pet budgies chirp noisily in the background.
But Jaballah complains that while the accommodations are now better than those in Toronto’s West Detention Centre, there are restrictions here, and he claims he has had problems with some of the guards. This is what troubles him the most these days, he says, as he begins to read out his list again.
It’s not the first time that claims about the conditions of their detention have been fought publicly. Almrei even waged a lengthy federal court case three years ago to win the right to wear a pair of shoes during the winter at the Toronto detention centre.
Jaballah says he is now on a hunger strike with the two other detainees that has lasted more than a month in an effort to bring attention to their complaints.
The Canada Border Services Agency (the government department responsible for their detention) disputes their claim, saying since they still consume more than just water, they are instead on a “voluntary fast.” The agency also disputes many of the individual allegations made by the detainees.
Jaballah says he’ll continue protesting until the conditions of his detention change or he is released.
But the upcoming Supreme Court decision won’t lead to Jaballah going home this month. Even if the court rules the process that brought him here is unconstitutional, the government contends that Jaballah still poses a security risk if released.
The federal court judge that reviewed the certificate and the secret evidence found it “reasonable” to conclude that Jaballah was connected with the Egyptian Al Jihad and was a “communications link” for the 1998 bombing attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed more than 200.
A Canadian Security Intelligence Service agent, identified in court only as J.P., testified earlier in his bail hearing that Jaballah would be a threat to national security even if he were under constant supervision. CSIS alleges Jaballah believes he is on a “God-ordained mission” to commit terrorist acts and “there is no reason to believe he would abandon the cause.”
Jaballah will go back to court in February to continue a bail hearing and try to convince a federal court justice he would not pose a risk if released. His lawyer, Barbara Jackman, says she’ll argue that after five years in jail, and with the precedent now of two other terrorism suspects released on bail without incident, Jaballah should be granted release with conditions.
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