Mahmoud Jaballah is a school teacher, a husband, a father of six and a grandfather of four. He was born in Egypt and came to Canada in 1996 with his wife and two oldest children to escape the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak.
On two different occasions, Mahmoud was imprisoned by Egyptian security forces, tortured and charged with membership in a banned political group. Devout Muslims were systematically targeted the Mubarak regime. In both instances, he was found innocent by Egypt’s courts and released.
Upon their arrival in Canada, the family immediately applied for refugee status and set out to begin their life anew, believing that Canada was a country where everyone could live freely and without fear.
In 1998, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agents came to see Mahmoud at his home on three different occasions. They demanded information about other Muslims and threatened him with arrest and deportation unless he reported on the activities of local mosques.
Ahmad, his oldest son and 12 years old at the time, recalls one of these meetings.
“I had to sit there and translate for my Dad….I had to witness the agent threaten my Dad that…if my Dad wouldn’t cooperate with CSIS and spy on his community… and…do what they tell him to do, then he would be arrested and sent back to…Egypt. And that was the most horrifying experience of my life because we as a family we came here for one specific reason: which is to live a peaceful life…My parents came here…to raise their children in a society where they wouldn’t have to experience what they experienced back home. And we came with the basic view in mind that this country respects everyone’s rights and does not judge people or discriminate against people based on their colour, race or religion. That’s why this very moment that I had to witness was the most horrifying moment of my life because it came to a point where I truly realized that the view I had of Canada isn’t really what it appears to be. … After that meeting, my Dad was indeed arrested.”
–excerpted from Ahmad Jaballah’s 2006 testimony to the People’s Commission hearings held in Montreal
Mahmoud was arrested on a security certificate in 1999. He spent seven months in jail before a judge quashed it for lack of evidence.
In August 2001, Mahmoud was arrested under a second security certificate just two days before a scheduled hearing that would have likely resulted in his acceptance as a refugee. (His wife and five of his six children were all accepted as refugees and are now Canadian citizens.)
Lawyers who were finally able to see the government’s secret case under the Special Advocate system introduced in 2008 say no new information was submitted to justify the new certificate, that the “evidence” is just a re-interpretation of the information that was provided for the first certificate.
The Special Advocates argue this is a violation of res judicata—a fundamental legal principle that prohibits a court from hearing for a second time a matter that has already been decided.
Mahmoud’s detention was very difficult for the young family. His wife Husnah had to raise six children on her own. “Missing my children, that is what hurt me the most,” Mahmoud says. “When they came to see me, I could only talk to them through thick glass.”
Mahmoud and several of the other security certificate detainees waged a lengthy hunger strike in 2005, bringing international attention to their plight. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Canada and interviewed the security certificate detainees.
Its 2005 report raised “grave concerns at the security certificate process. This procedure allows the Government to detain aliens for years on the suspicion that they pose a security threat, without raising criminal charges.”
In 2006, Mahmoud and three of the four other security certificate detainees (Mohamed Harkat, Mohammad Mahjoub and Hassan Almrei) were abruptly transferred to a six-bed prison built specifically for them. Called the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, it was located on the grounds of Millhaven Institution, a maximum security facility near Kingston, Ontario.
Human rights advocates objecting to the institutionalization of arbitrary detention called it Guantanamo North. It was quietly closed at the end of 2011.
Angered by the punitive rules and the indefinite nature of their detention, the men went on two hunger strikes to improve their conditions (including more visits and an end to strip searches), and to call the public’s attention to their situation.
In February 2007, the Federal Court found his security certificate “reasonable” — a very low legal threshold that effectively distorts the presumption of innocence into a presumption of guilt.
In the same judgement, the court also ruled that Mahmoud could not be deported to Egypt because of the likelihood of torture. The end result: indefinite detention without charge based on “evidence” he could never see.
In a unanimous ruling that same month, the Supreme Court struck down security certificate legislation as unconstitutional. It gave the government a year to draft new legislation before its ruling came into effect. Mahmoud and the others had to remain in prison or house arrest even though the legislation that was taking away their freedom was declared unconstitutional.
After six years of imprisonment, Mahmoud was released on bail in April 2007.
He was placed under a harsh form of house arrest and his entire family subjected to an invasive regime of surveillance.
The Jaballah household became a prison and his wife and oldest son became his prison guards.
In February 2008, the Canadian government passed new security certificate legislation that introduced something never before seen in Canadian law—Special Advocates appointed by the Minister of Immigration who are shown a summary of the government’s case in a closed court room. Bound to secrecy, they must not reveal to anyone the details of the case, including the person they are supposed to be advocating for.
Thus, secret evidence and secret trials remain an essential part of the security certificate process. Several expert organizations, including the Quebec Bar Association and the Canadian Bar Association, have told Parliament that they believe the new legislation remains unconstitutional. It is currently being challenged in the courts.
New certificates were immediately issued under the new law against Mahmoud, Mohammad Mahjoub, Hassan Almrei, Mohamed Harkat and Adil Charkaoui. Heart-breakingly, they had to begin the process of challenging the new security certificates all over again.
Although his conditions have been eased over the years, Mahmoud and his family continue to live under invasive conditions. As of today, the Federal Court has not ruled on the reasonability of his latest security certificate — almost five years after it was issued.