Canadian Khalid Awan remains stranded after years at U.S. 'Gitmo in the Heartland'

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While Omar Khadr returned from Guantanamo Bay this fall, another abandoned Canadian will shortly mark 11 years behind bars, much of that time in an Indiana hellhole known as Little Guantanamo and Gitmo in the Heartland. The case involves classic hallmarks of a national security system riven with physical and psychological torture: death threats, forced confessions leading to apparently trumped-up allegations, lengthy periods of solitary confinement, indefinite detention and the complicity of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Khalid Awan is a Canadian citizen, a Muslim originally from Pakistan who was working as an immigration consultant in New York City in the fall of 2001. Like tens of thousands of Muslims detained after 9/11, he too was targeted by officials whose racial profiling resulted in his extraordinary and violent takedown arrest and detention in October 2001. This was designed to compel his appearance as a "material witness" at the grand jury investigating Osama bin Laden's involvement in the attacks (a simple subpoena would have done the trick). Since that day, Awan has been imprisoned under an escalating series of allegations and charges that can only be described as outrageous.

Never charged in connection with 9/11, Awan was preparing for his release from detention in November 2001 when he was re-arrested, this time for alleged credit card fraud tied to his immigration business. Awan says it's ridiculous, considering no former client or bank made a claim against him. His fate is similar to that of many post-9/11 detainees, who often suddenly faced immigration and/or misdemeanour charges prior to release, as authorities sought to justify the original, unwarranted, illegal detention without charge. Such charges were useful because they conveniently fell under the umbrella of "anti-terrorism" statistics, making it look like the government was "securing the homeland."

Traumatized by disappearance

Already traumatized by having been disappeared from the streets of New York City, Awan took the advice of a lawyer who said that, as a Muslim in those fearful days, he was unlikely to get a fair shake from a jury, and would do better to plead guilty. Awan says he entered a plea bargain, which guaranteed no future money laundering charges would be brought against him, in exchange for upwards of two years behind bars, but that agreement was not honoured, and instead, he received five years.

As he prepared for his 2006 release, Awan was transferred from the federal penitentiary to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he expected that he would sign paperwork for deportation back to Canada. He then discovered that a Montreal police officer, seconded by the RCMP, had contacted Awan's sister and brother-in-law wanting to know the location of Awan's wife. No explanation was provided, though the Montrealers did tell the officer Awan's wife was in Pakistan. Learning the RCMP was interested in her, Awan's wife called a number of times and left messages on the officer's answering machine, but never heard back. The reason for this sudden interest from the Mounties would soon become clear, when Awan was shortly hauled in to a lengthy interrogation with the FBI and a federal prosecutor, who threatened him with the arrest of his sisters in Montreal and his wife in Pakistan if he did not co-operate and act as a spy for the U.S. both in Canada and Pakistan.

Awan was frightened, wondering how they knew where his relatives lived. They plied him with questions about topics for which he had no answer, and then threatened him with death by lethal injection, stating they only need make a phone call and Awan would be plastered across the media as a "big terrorist."

Coerced 'confession'

"I was intimidated and pushed to the edge during this interrogation, I was determined to provide anything these U.S. officials wanted to make them happy, even if the questions made no sense, because I wanted to stop the harassment of my family," he later wrote. Awan further feared being branded a terrorist and put to death either in the U.S. or via deportation to India, whose government "would view me as an enemy, and [they] told me 'you know better than I do what they can do with you.'" At Awan's subsequent trial, an FBI agent frankly admitted that when they asked Awan to work for them as a spy in Pakistan and Canada, the "gist" of what the U.S. prosecutor had said to Awan was: "These are terrorism charges…You face serious penalties for these charges anywhere from jail to possibly even the death penalty."

As the interrogations of Awan continued, the Canadian officer called both of Awan's sisters in Montreal and demanded they come to his office for investigation. Awan felt this was meant to put further pressure on him to spy for the Americans. Awan told his family not to meet with the Mounties without a lawyer present and to insist on getting the RCMP's requests in writing; as normally happens when targets request the presence of legal counsel, the RCMP stopped calling. Nevertheless, the RCMP's actions made real to Awan the FBI threats that failure to co-operate could result in harm coming to his family members. As one of Awan's lawyers pointed out, FBI agent "Ross told Awan that Awan's family in Canada was facing potential repercussions that Awan should take into account when deciding whether to accept the government's proposal."

(Awan was also aware of revelations from the Arar Inquiry about the extensive U.S.-Canada co-operation on information sharing, rendition and other forms of repression which have thrown countless people into the national security detention net.)

Because Awan never agreed to be a spy, he feels he was subsequently charged based on the self-incriminating statements he had made under coercion and threat of death. He'd never been given an opportunity to review the statements that were written up by the FBI, and the government never made an effort to introduce corroborative evidence for those statements. Instead, the government indicted him for allegedly conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist entity, and money laundering to support terrorism during the years 1999-2005. Awan says this was a case of double jeopardy, since there was no new evidence presented for the years prior to his detention, and the charge violated the terms of his original plea bargain. He was also penniless while in prison.

Enter Orwell

More bizarre, it was Awan, as a Muslim, who was accused of transferring a modest amount of money (some $4,000) to the Sikh nationalist group Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), which seeks an independent country from India, and KCF's leader in Pakistan, Panjwar Singh. And for a final Orwellian touch: neither Singh nor the KCF were listed as terrorist entities by the U.S. government. After a judge threw out two of the three charges in pre-trial, the government simply issued a new indictment against Awan that rehashed the previous one.

In a sign of how politically opportunistic this case has been, Awan was then asked to be a co-operative government witness against two members of the KCF (for which he no doubt would have gotten off lightly), but he declined, and so the government went to those same KCF members instead, who happily agreed to testify against Awan. Awan's lawyers pointed out that even if one believed that Awan had transferred the monies, the KCF members' testimony failed to "establish that Awan had anything but a lawful intent to pass money along to a personal friend for lawful activities."

In addition to the statements he made while being threatened with death, Awan's case had as a backdrop a series of secretly recorded conversations with a jailhouse snitch who was promised thousands in cash, status for the snitch and his family, and a reduced sentence for numerous crimes. In the manner of classic FBI-style sting operations that have marked the bureau's anti-terrorism set-up operations, the snitch tried in 2003 to get Awan to make statements implicating him in KCF activities, but Awan only admitted he knew KCF leader Panjwar Singh. The snitch actually got Panjwar on the phone from Pakistan on several occasions and urged Awan to get on the line, but, according to legal briefs, "nowhere in the recordings did Awan state that he provided funds or resources to Panjwar or the KCF." The only thing the tapes revealed was that Awan boasted that he know of Mr. Singh because, when he lived in Pakistan, Awan, then a civil servant, felt it best to have powerful acquaintances in the event he would ever need to call on them. Indeed, as the judge concluded, Awan's motivation appeared "to have been to drop names and associate with people in power, people with reputations," and not anything to do with politics. Dropping powerful names in jail can also bring about the kind of status that ensures a sense of safety.

No evidence from government

"At trial," Awan's lawyers wrote, "the government did not offer any bank records, wire receipts, or any other forensic evidence to establish that Awan ever sent funds to Panjwar or the KCF." His lawyers add this was a case of "selective and vindictive prosecution," noting the government waited almost until the last possible minute under the statute of limitations to charge Awan, rather than doing so years earlier.

In the end result, the judge refused to believe the American government would threaten Awan and vengefully charge him for failure to become a spy, and, based on the illegally obtained self-incriminating statements, sentenced him to 14 years in prison. Yet the judge conceded that Awan was not involved in terrorism, noting "there is simply not sufficient evidence for me to conclude that Awan had, or for that matter, continues to have an intent to battle with the Governments of India or Pakistan to influence their conduct in any respect." The court was provided with a comparison to the sentences meted out to American white supremacist terrorists who have plotted acts of violence including blowing up a federal building, assassination plots, killing a sheriff's deputy, possessing deadly toxins like ricin, and other serious acts of violence that netted jail terms on average of 3-6 years.

Post-conviction, much of Awan's time was spent in Little Guantanamo in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the infamous Communication Management Unit (CMU, the polite phrase for a total surveillance and control environment), where Muslims rounded up in the "war on terror" have been incarcerated under brutal and isolated conditions. Awan recalls being in cells that originally held death row inmates that were freezing in winter, boiling in summer, and constantly leaked. Held in solitary confinement for close to a year, he was denied medical treatment and basic dignities like access to his eyeglasses.

Nonetheless, he pursued his case, complaining that the RCMP co-operated with the FBI in harassing his family and creating the conditions whereby the FBI could coerce him into self-incriminating statements. This was met with indifference by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. Despite the acknowledgement that the officer was acting on an FBI request made to the RCMP National Security Operations Branch in Ottawa, the Commission found that the officer's actions were within the mandate of the organization and that this was all "standard procedure." (This is the same kind of rationale that was used to defend many of the actions of Mounties in the torture of Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin.) Readers of this column are familiar with the fact that standard procedure by the RCMP and CSIS generally fails to respect human rights.

RCMP inappropriately gathered and shared information

On a personal note, Mr. Awan has corresponded for over four years with me as a writer and advocate, but our attempts to set up email communication were stymied, and letters were rarely received. Mr. Awan filed a complaint with the RCMP, alleging the Mounties had interfered with our communication in an effort to prevent advocacy on his behalf. The Mounties concluded they had done no wrong, but the RCMP's Complaints Commission disagreed, finding that the RCMP "Staff Sergeant Peter Lea inappropriately collected the information about Mr. Behrens for the sole purpose of providing it to the US Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP)," and called on the Mounties to clarify their information collection and sharing policies, especially with respect to International Liaison Officers.

Awan discovered through a FBOP memo that the RCMP had advised U.S. authorities that "Behrens was on probation for a violation of the law and was prohibited from corresponding with known felons." At the time, I was on probation for a minor nonviolent trespassing incident at Burlington, Ontario's L-3/Wescam, a longtime producer of key components for drone warfare, but no other conditions were placed upon me. It appears the RCMP inappropriately sought a copy of the probation order and shared both the order and their exaggerated interpretation with U.S. officials. While such practices not surprisingly continue long after the RCMP was whacked on the wrist by the Arar Inquiry, one cannot help but wonder about the extent to which the RCMP wants to cover up its less than appropriate role in the ongoing imprisonment of Mr. Awan.

Khalid Awan has been subject to several prison transfers over the past year, and continues his efforts to receive a transfer to Canada with the assistance of the Centre for Constitutional Rights. His spirit remains unbowed, and he hopes that by publicizing his case, justice will eventually be done and he will again walk the streets a free man.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates 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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