Canadians can act pretty superior sometimes. We like to think of ourselves as a tolerant society which, unlike our neighbours to the south, is pretty liberal minded when it comes to social issues. Look at us we say, we’ve legalized same sex marriages and we’ve made marijuana available for medical use. We pat ourselves on the back so much sometimes it’s a wonder we don’t have dislocated shoulders.
It’s this attitude that fuels our criticism of George Bush and his ways of conducting business. Invading a foreign country, conspiring with Christian conservatives, authorizing the torture of individuals detained by his government–and the list goes on.
In our just society that sort of thing would never happen.
Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you folks, but it seems like our lily-white credentials are not so pure after all. Oh, we would never dirty our own hands with anything as sordid as torture; why should we when we can get a foreign power to do it for us?
In the space of the last couple of years, at least three Canadian citizens have been detained in Syria and tortured and imprisoned for over a year at what appears to be the behest of the Canadian government.
Unlike his friend Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki has been largely ignored by the media and the government. Until today, I had never even heard of him let alone known about his ordeal.
His story sounds like it was lifted out of the files of the old East German secret service, the Stasi, with mysterious visits at odd times of nights by agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. At first, they approached him under the guise of asking him whether or not expatriate Syrians would be concerned about Syria using its embassy to spy on them.
In an interview that stretched over four hours, the female Arabic speaking agent managed to get Mr. Almalki to talk extensively about himself and whom he knew. In the course of the interview, he happened to mention that he had at one time worked with a Canadian of Pakistani decent, one Ahmed Said Khadr. Mr Khadr, who was killed in a shoot out with Pakistani security forces in 2002, had extensive links with al-Qaeda.
Mr Almalki and his wife had worked for U.N. sponsored relief projects helping resettle Afghanis who ended up in refugee camps on the Pakistan border during the Afghan – Soviet War. Mr. Khadr ran the charitable organization he was working for. He claims to have had no affection for Mr. Khadr, as he was very arrogant and treated people harshly. The idea of Khadr subjecting himself to the will of anyone, even bin Laden, because of this arrogance, seemed far-fetched to Mr. Almalki.
When his wife was expecting their first child, they returned to Canada because they wanted their children born in Canada, which they consider their home.
What’s interesting is the date of the first interview with the CSIS agent: 1998, three years before the events that brought the name of bin Laden to international prominence. It was at the second of these interviews where the tactics changed. Although still friendly, the questions became more pointed. He was asked for any information he knew about Mr. Khadr and his relationship with bin Laden. It was at this point he provided them with his assessment of Mr. Khadr’s character and told them that how he had been using money from the charity to buy items for his own personal use.
On his return from Afghanistan Mr. Almalki set up business exporting small electronic parts, supplying a manufacturer in Pakistan that built two-way radios for the Pakistani army. None of the goods he shipped was on any of the Western lists of proscribed technology.
He was disconcerted to discover that Canada Customs agents were opening every single crate his company received. At the same time, friends and members of Ottawa’s Muslim community were telling him that agents of CSIS who were investigating him were approaching them. One agent had gone so far as to ask one friend if he thought it possible to break into Mr. Almalki’s house to search for bomb-making equipment.
Even more interesting is the fact that in 2000, he was again questioned by agents, this time in regards to a companion on a business trip to Hong Kong. Their reason for wanting to know about him: he had a commercial pilot’s license. This, you must remember, is before the attacks on the World Trade Center had even taken place. It sort of makes you wonder who knew what when, doesn’t it?
Of course, after September 11th, things just went from bad to worse. Like all Muslims across North America, he and his wife became worried about any backlash that might occur. He stopped using his credit cards due to the looks he was getting from clerks because of his first name. In addition, his wife, who wears traditional Muslim garb, was too afraid to leave the house for days after the attacks.
About a week after 9-11, their front door rang at 8:30 p.m., and it was another CSIS agent. The agent apologized for the late hour of the visit, but he needed to ask him about his pilot friend. They began to believe they were being followed everywhere they went. His wife thought that she was being trailed even when she took her children to the library.
It was shortly after this that he got together with an old friend for lunch. Maher Arar’s family had come to Canada at the same time as Mr. Almalki’s, and they had known each other since then. Mr. Arar was excited because his wife was expecting their first child. It’s obvious that Mr. Almalki was under suspicion at the time, because that was the first time that Mr. Arar came to the attention of Canadian security forces.
The harassment finally got to be too much for the family, and they decided to take a break and go to Malaysia and visit his wife’s family. While there he found out that his grandmother back in Syria was ill so he went to visit her, leaving his wife and family in Malaysia.
While he had been in Malaysia, he had been called in for questioning by security forces there, which claimed they were doing so at the request of the Canadian government. So he probably wasn’t too surprised that when he stepped off the plane in Syria he was immediately detained and taken into custody.
The Syrians claimed to be acting on information they had received from a foreign embassy. Repeatedly, they questioned him about why the Canadians, Americans, and British were so interested in him, and asked him about his pilot friend and another person he had never heard of.
For 482 days, he was forced to live in a tiny windowless cell, which they only removed him from for questioning and torture. Why would the Syrian government arrest a person who had left there at the age of 16? How did they know information about Mr. Almalki known only to Canadian Intelligence agents? Why have there never been any charges laid against him?
The Canadian government has opened an inquiry into why Mr. Arar was left to languish in a Syrian prison being tortured, and into the specific circumstances of his being deported by the Americans to Syria instead of being sent back to Canada where he was a citizen. At the inquiry, the R.C.M.P. has repeatedly mentioned Mr. Almalki as being the primary target of their investigation.
Through circumstances and because of his religion, Canadian security forces had fingered Mr. Almalki as a potential terrorist. When after extensive investigation they had not been able to find any evidence against him, they enlisted the services of a foreign country to torture him. Even though Mr. Almalki admits that he told his torturers anything he thought they wanted to hear: he was an al-Qaeda operative etc., he has never been arrested or questioned since his release from Syrian prison.
If circumstances can lead our security forces to accuse a man of heinous crimes that result in his torture and imprisonment, then they can also be used to accuse those same forces and our government of complicity in that torture. It is despicable that on one hand our government will condemn countries like Syria for utilizing torture as a means to extract information from prisoners, but on the other, it has no qualms about submitting its own citizens to that sort of treatment when it suits their needs.
What kind of hypocrites do we have running our country anyway? How many other people are still languishing in jail cells in the Middle East whom we haven’t heard about? How many more Canadians are keeping silent out of fear of retaliation?
The Globe and Mail article linked to above notes one other gentleman who had similar experiences. When will these two men (and any others like them) receive justice for the crimes our government perpetrated against them?
We claim we are a civilized country that frowns upon the use of force. We sign treaties condemning torture and get all indignant about other countries’ human rights abuses when all the time we are arranging for our own citizens to be treated in a disgusting and dehumanizing manner in other parts of the world.
What other reason would we have for asking the Syrian government to arrest somebody when he arrives in their country and interrogate him? “We didn’t think they would torture him.” I hope nobody has the nerve to even think about saying that. What do you think they do in Syria with people they haul in for questioning? Ask them questions over tea and cookies?
To have asked the Syrian government to detain Mr. Almalki for extradition purposes is one thing, but to have him arrested, that’s something else altogether. When a person is traveling abroad, one expects a certain amount of protection and aid from his or her place of citizenship. I don’t think being held captive and tortured for over 400 days falls into that category.
As a citizen of this country, I’m ashamed of my government. For all of our claims of moral superiority and integrity, we are even worse than countries that openly practice torture. We sneak around in the dark world of spies and get other people to do our dirty work so that our squeaky-clean image remains for the entire world to see.
People were quick to blame the United States for sending Mr. Arar back to Syria for questioning and torture. But now hearing about the case of Mr. Almalki and the other man mentioned in the article, Ahmad El-Maati, I have to wonder if the Americans were just acting upon our suggestion. Why else would they send a Canadian citizen to a third party country unless it was requested of them?
We have a lot to answer for in the cases of these three men, and any others who this may have happened to. Never again should anyone believe that Canada is the knight in shinning armour living next door to the big bad Americans. We may not have their resources, but when we put our minds to it, we can treat people as badly as the next country. That’s not something to be proud of.