The spectacle of torture haunts the “war on terror.” From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay to “black sites” and prisons all over the world, thousands of men and women (but mostly men) have been imprisoned and made subject to horrific forms of physical and psychological violence. Beatings, rapes, threats of rape, electric shocks, waterboarding, forced feeding, forced nudity – these are some of the barbarisms performed in the name of saving civilization from the threat of terrorism.
Canada’s participation in this global network of torture is less visible than the United States’. Our involvement has been less direct. Our hands appear cleaner, our consciences less tainted. And yet, Canada has also been complicit in torture in the years since 9/11, under both Liberal and Conservative governments. We have also breached law and principle for the sake of “national security”: a “security” that seemingly continues to elude us, despite the sacrifices of rights and freedoms made at its altar.
Canada’s position on torture is currently on trial in the case of Mohamed Harkat.
Harkat arrived in Canada in 1995 as a refugee from Algeria. Seeking security, he was instead labelled a security threat, and detained without trial under Canada’s security certificate regime in 2002. Accused of being a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda, Mohamed Harkat was incarcerated for four years and then held under extremely restrictive bail conditions – all on the strength of secret evidence that he was not allowed to see.
Now, Harkat is facing deportation to possible torture in Algeria. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the security certificate against him, paving the way for the government’s deportation efforts. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who wrote the decision, acknowledged that Harkat “potentially faces deportation to a country where he may be at risk for torture or death, although the constitutionality of his deportation in such circumstances is not before us in the present appeal.”
This assessment is corroborated by human rights groups. Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, observed that deporting Harkat would expose him to risk of serious mistreatment. Indeed, Algeria is notorious for torturing prisoners, particularly those suspected of involvement in terrorism.
International law condemns torture in the strongest possible terms. The ban on torture is absolute: no reason or excuse can justify the use of any form of torture. Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture forbids deporting or transferring individuals to states where they may be tortured. Relying on pledges not to torture from states known to torture is also prohibited – as foolish as delivering a mouse into the jaws of a lion that has promised not to eat it.
International law notwithstanding, the Conservative government initiated deportation proceedings against Mohamed Harkat during this last election, proceedings that the recently elected Liberal government have not halted so far.
Disturbingly, this is not the first instance of Canadian government complicity in torture in the “war on terror.” For example, the O’Connor and Iacobucci inquiries revealed the role that Canadian government officials played in the secret detention and torture of four innocent Canadian citizens – Maher Arar, Ahmad El-Maati, Abdullah Almalki, and Muayyed Nureddin – in Syria (and also in Egypt, in the case of El-Maati).
The ghastly details of Syrian and Egyptian torture chambers have long been public knowledge, documented in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But instead of protecting its citizens from abuse at the hands of these torturous regimes, our government took advantage of the situation: Canadian intelligence agencies sent information for the Syrians and Egyptians to use in their interrogations.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture castigated the Canadian government for its complicity in the torture of Arar, El-Maati, Almalki and Nureddin. But while Maher Arar has received compensation for his ordeal, Canada’s other torture victims continue to fight lengthy legal battles for recompense.
More recently, we have learned through media reports that Salim Alaradi, a Canadian citizen of Libyan descent who has been incarcerated for more than 17 months in the United Arab Emirates without charges, has been tortured. His lawyer Paul Champ told the media that the Canadian government knew Alaradi was tortured, but did not tell the family until he became involved in the case as lawyer. Is it a privacy issue as the government claims, or yet another deafening silence when it comes to denouncing torture?
These shameful episodes did not only occur under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, infamous for its willingness to discard the basic human rights of certain humans, but also during the post-9/11 reign of the Liberal Party.
The Liberals and their “sunny ways” are back again. Will they finally banish the dark shadow of Canadian complicity in torture?
– Dr. Monia Mazigh is an author, academic, and human rights activist, and is national coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and programming coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre