Taking liberties: Three years after finding Canadian complicity in torture, silence lingers in Ottawa

Three years after a secretive federal inquiry found that numerous agencies of the Canadian government were complicit in his torture, Ottawa's Abdullah Almalki held a press conference on Parliament Hill on Oct. 25, where he released shocking documents to prove the alleged case against him was completely unfounded and based on racism.

Almalki, who was detained, interrogated, and tortured for 22 months in a Syrian dungeon, has sought answers to many questions since his return to Canada. Why was he targeted? How could agencies of his own government fabricate a case against him and then send questions to his Syrian torturers? He had hoped to participate in the Iacobucci Inquiry struck in 2007 to investigate both his case and those of Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, also tortured with Canadian complicity, but all three were completely shut out of the process, along with their lawyers, the public, and the media.

The Iacobucci report, released in Oct. 2008, found, among other conclusions, that "several of the Canadian officials involved in the decision to send questions for Mr. Almalki were aware that doing so created a serious risk that Mr. Almalki would be tortured." It also found "Some of the RCMP members involved in the decision to send questions for Mr. Almalki displayed a dismissive attitude towards the issue of human rights and the possibility of torture."

The report cleared the three men of the serious allegations that had been created about them by CSIS and the RCMP, noting that in the case of Almalki, a description of him as an "imminent threat: to national security was not only "inflammatory, inaccurate, and lacking investigative foundation," it was in fact meant to describe someone else.

But the damning findings of the Iacobucci inquiry did not provide a sufficient enough explanation both for what happened and why it occurred, and certainly failed to lay proper blame and seek accountability.

Since that time, Almalki has sifted through many pages of documents he received under freedom of access to information, and was shocked to discover what he found.

"Ten years ago, I never thought that one day I would be standing and speaking publicly about racism," Almalki says. "I think I had the grace of not experiencing racism in my life before."

The occasion for his comments was the Oct. 25 release of RCMP internal documents from 2001. About three weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the RCMP sent a dangerous, inflammatory memo to Syria and the intelligence agencies of numerous other countries suggesting Almalki was an "imminent threat" to the public safety and security of Canada. Yet that same day, the RCMP's own assessment showed he was not a threat at all.

"O Div. task force are presently finding it difficult to establish anything on him other than the fact that he is an Arab running around," the document reads.

"It is not only heartbreaking and extremely disappointing to see that the biggest police force in Canada is racist," Almalki says. "It is rather disgusting and outrageous when you see that this would lead to making up and fabricating accusations about a person that resulted in torture and illegal detention.

"Racism blinds people, impairs their judgment, shrinks their cognitive abilities, and diminishes moral values. Racism stinks and stings."

A few weeks prior to 9/11, another RCMP assessment of Almalki concluded, "It does not appear to me that there is any offence being committed at this time that would warrant an investigation."

This confirmed earlier reports that read "Almalki does not seem to have committed any criminal offence ... yet," upon which it appeared that their investigation was closed. Two months before 9/11, the RCMP assessment of Almalki was "He has not been found to be committing any criminal activities in Canada."

Subsequent to these memos being written, Almalki was picked up in Syria when he flew there to visit an ailing relative. The RCMP's inflammatory description of him as an "imminent threat" doomed him to torture in Syria. Questions drafted in Canada were then sent to the Syrians, despite the knowledge that doing so would expose Almalki to the substantial likelihood of being tortured. Indeed, the O'Connor Inquiry (focused on the role of Canadian officials in the detention and torture of Maher Arar) uncovered one interdepartmental memo that stated that it had been "pointed out to the RCMP that such questioning may involve torture. The RCMP are aware of this but have nonetheless decided to send their request."

Almalki was never visited by Canadian consular officials and, upon his release, was kicked out of the Canadian embassy in Damascus when he sought assistance getting home.

Similar findings of Canadian complicity in the torture of El Maati and Nureddin were put before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security of the House of Commons, which in June 2009, called for an immediate apology for all thee men, along with compensation "for the suffering they endured and the difficulties they encountered."

The committee also called on the federal government to "do everything necessary to correct misinformation that may exist in records administered by national security agencies in Canada or abroad with respect to" the three men and their family members. It also demanded "the Government of Canada issue a clear ministerial directive against torture and the use of information obtained from torture for all departments and agencies responsible for national security. The ministerial directive must clearly state that the exchange of information with countries is prohibited when there is a credible risk that it could lead, or contribute, to the use of torture."

Perhaps it is understandable that human rights campaigners view the current political scene in Ottawa with a certain air of resignation, given that members of Parliament actually had to remind the government of its obligation, both domestically and internationally, never to be involved in torture.

On Dec. 3, 2009, that report and its recommendations were endorsed by the majority of the House of Commons, but the Harper government still refuses to act on that majority vote.

To remind the public and government of these unresolved cases, from Oct. 24-26, Almalki and Nureddin joined members of the group Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture as they travelled throughout Ottawa to mark sites of complicity in torture. Agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the Justice Department, all mentioned in the torture inquiries, saw crime scene tape go up around their premises, along with evidence tags and hooded, orange-jumpsuit-wearing detainees. Corporate targets included Starbucks, which refuses to take a position on the illegality of the Guantanamo Bay torture centre (where Canadian Omar Khadr continues to languish), while it brews thousands of coffees for the soldiers and interrogators who work behind the wire.

Unable to attend the Ottawa demonstrations in person, Ahmad El Maati sent a written statement, which was read out along with key findings of the Iacobucci Inquiry, over a period of three hours in front of the Prime Minister's Office on Oct. 26.

"For most people, it is impossible to imagine what torture is like," El Maati wrote. "I have experienced physical and psychological torture in the most brutal ways. I never imagined as a Canadian citizen that agencies of my Canadian government would be involved in making up false accusations against me. I never dreamed as a Canadian citizen that agencies of my government would threaten me, my family, and my friends. And I certainly never expected to be tortured with the involvement of my government. Yet this is exactly what happened."

Noting the three years of silence that followed the Iacobucci inquiry, El Maati noted: "no one has been charged, no one from any of these government agencies has had to look me in the eye and defend what they did that led to my torture."

Along with Nureddin and Almalki, El Maati is suing the Canadian government, but that process drags on at a snail's pace, as the Justice Dept. continues to throw every conceivable roadblock in the way of achieving a just settlement. El Maati sees this as a "war of attrition. The government has refused to look at its responsibility in our cases and do the right thing. And so I am back in a torture chamber of the Canadian government's making. It is made up of thousands of pages of arguments, deceptions, and lies about me and the others. Most of them we still cannot see because they are kept from us for so-called reasons of national security. I believe, as does Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and so many others, that secrecy is being used not for national security, but to cover up scandalous behaviour.

"This prison that I am in, you cannot see it, but I can feel it, and every day the government does not act on the findings of the Iacobucci report is another day of torturing me, of saying: 'We do not believe you, what happened is not really true, we are not to blame. When does this ever end?'"

The RCMP memos, along with other key documents, are available at abdullahalmalki.com.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

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