Apologies for torture seem to be the hardest words

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Imagine that you live in a city where you must drive past the offices of individuals whose decisions and actions led to your torture. These individuals -- they might be called "violence workers" or "desk torturers" -- are celebrated as honourable people who acted in the "best of faith" even though they knowingly created false descriptions of you as an "imminent threat" to state security, landing you in an abominable dungeon.

These individuals, we are told, made "mistakes" when they knowingly passed along questions to your captors, despite cautions that sending such inquiries would inevitably result in further acts of violence committed upon your mind, body and spirit.

Despite clear evidence that they are complicit in your torture, none of them is ever held to account. Instead, they receive promotions, act as media consultants, and fearlessly await a thick pension at the end of their bloodstained careers. The immunity they enjoy in your case is the same immunity they are entitled to should they set someone else up for torture. After all, legislation on the books -- as well as their well-tailored self-image as do-gooders on the global stage -- grants them a free pass for whatever they do.

What sounds like a nightmare out of the Argentine junta or the Chilean dictatorship is in fact daily life for Abdullah Almalki, an Ottawa engineer who was wrongfully named a security risk, tortured for 22 months in a Syrian hellhole with the involvement of a variety of Canadian officials and government agencies, and forced to fight for an apology and accountability for well over a decade. (Also fighting for justice in related cases were Toronto's Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin, both tortured by proxy in Syria and, in Abou-Elmaati's case, Egypt too).

As he drives through Ottawa, Almalki cannot help but experience the surreal geography of complicity in torture as he passes the agencies responsible for his ordeal, including the RCMP, CSIS, Global Affairs, and the Justice Department. They were the subject of a long-running lawsuit whose settlement was announced two weeks ago.

A Friday five o'clock apology of sorts

What the Trudeau Liberals felt was a worthy apology for the damage that Liberal governments past and present had done to Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin was issued on Friday, March 17 at 4:58 p.m. on a government website. There was no press conference, no moment of silence in the House of Commons, no release of tears from a prime minister never shy to shed them. Just a bland statement that went up as the media went home for the weekend, delivered in the same insulting way any abuser might end a relationship with a text message or Facebook announcement.

"On behalf of the Government of Canada, we wish to apologize to Mr. Almalki, Mr. Abou-Elmaati and Mr. Nureddin, and their families, for any role Canadian officials may have played in relation to their detention and mistreatment abroad and any resulting harm," says a statement issued by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. In an age when language is so degraded as to be meaningless, it is nonetheless important to examine the choices used here. "May" is a term that makes the role of Canadian officials sound speculative, despite the very clear findings of complicity in the O'Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries into the torture of Almalki, Abou-Elmaati, Nureddin, and Maher Arar, also of Ottawa. Would it not have better served the ends of justice and accountability to actually name the names and the specific criminal activities for which the apology had been issued?

In addition, the government avoids using the word "torture" in the same sentence as those who suffered torture. The anodyne "mistreatment" is yet another linguistic distancing from Canadian responsibility for such a horrific crime. This is typical of how the Canadian government and media have long treated these cases, always looking to employ anything other than torture. Indeed, in the Commissioner's Statement for the inquiry that cleared Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin of any suspicion, former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci never once mentions torture. Instead, he chose this important introduction to a catalogue of abuses to say how "unfortunate" it is that "in the struggle against terrorism, that mistakes of various kinds will be made," thereby falsely associating the three men with state security threats while insisting we be "very grateful to the many men and women" who "exercise their best judgment" in such matters.

But the record clearly shows that what happened to these men was not an unfortunate mistake. It was the logical outcome of a structural pattern of surveillance, racist profiling, harassment, and targetting for torture by proxy in overseas prisons.

While the Goodale/Freeland statement goes on to declare that Canada "strongly condemns abuse and torture of any kind and is committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to respect and protect human rights," it neglects to mention how it can actually fulfill that lofty commitment when it refuses to renounce the Harper-era torture memos (which allow for exactly the kind of information-sharing that led to the torture of Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin in the first place). Nor does the statement explain how it dovetails with the torture-enabling Anti-terrorism Act of 2015 (a.k.a. C-51), which survives intact almost two years after it was passed.

Almalki's important caution

One cannot help but feel a certain sense of relief that an apology and compensation had been agreed to (terms of which are confidential), especially given these men and their families have fought such a long battle for recognition of the injustice done to them by the Canadian government. The three gentlemen whose lives were ruined by agencies of the Canadian government have shown nothing but dignity and grace in responding to this latest chapter in their long-running ordeal.

Indeed, Mr. Almalki issued a statement that declared:

"This is a victory for Canada and every Canadian who holds dear the Charter of Right and Freedoms, the rule of law, freedom, equality, and dignity. It is also a victory for those who abhor torture, arbitrary detention, bigotry and racism. This long-fought-for result will hopefully give hope to everyone who has been wronged. Hopefully, it will also boost their resilience, strengthen their resolve, allow them to have more patience and persistence, and help them to keep on keeping on, as a victory for justice is a victory for all of us."

But Almalki cautions that this long struggle cannot be wasted, hoping:

"[t]hat we as a country learn from such injustices and work to better our country by strengthening our human rights laws rather than weakening them. We must strengthen laws and institutions to preserve our liberties and freedoms, rather than compromising them. We must also hold government officials and government agencies accountable by demanding powerful, effective, real-time oversight of their activities, especially when human rights can so easily be abused in the name of national security."

Not even a week after the well-hidden apology was uploaded, however, the Trudeau government refused to strengthen a bill that created a national security committee of Parliamentarians, rendering it a toothless bit of window dressing with no power whatsoever to hold in check the abuses of agencies like CSIS, the RCMP, Global Affairs, Canadian Border Services Agency, Communications Security Establishment, and the Justice Department. The Liberals outright rejected amendments suggested by human rights groups, choosing instead to maintain their preferential option for the powerful and secretive.

Most significantly, the people responsible for these crimes go about their lives and their work, with one of them now perched as the Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP, Michel Cabana. With the recently announced resignation of Commissioner Bob Paulson, will Cabana, who directed much of the torture by proxy campaign, be next in line to lead Canada's national law enforcement agency?

No accountability

At a moment when the writings of Hannah Arendt are more crucial than ever (her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, has become almost as popular as 1984 and Brave New World in these troubled times), the landmark title Eichmann in Jerusalem is worth revisiting not only for its famous "banality of evil" reportage, but also for her overview of how quickly Nazis were "reintegrated" into German society, NATO, NASA, and other so-called Western institutions following the Second World War. "It is one thing to ferret out criminals and murderers from their hiding places, and it is another thing to find them prominent and flourishing in the public realm -- to encounter innumerable men in the federal and state administrations and, generally, in public office whose careers had bloomed under the Hitler regime," she wrote in 1963.

And so it is for Canada in 2017, in which a whole infrastructure of complicity in torture remains firmly in place. Even the one body that is supposed to provide critical review of the actions of spy agency CSIS -- the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) -- finds itself on the spectrum of complicity in torture by praising in its most recent annual report how CSIS was handling its tortured intelligence (rather than properly declaring the practice of sharing torture-gleaned information patently illegal).

Similar long-sought apologies reveal the irony that after long struggles, the words finally come easy, but no serious change in governmental behaviour accompanies the "sorry." Whether that's the apology for crimes committed against Indigenous children issued by a Harper government that continued those crimes (now carried out under the Trudeau regime) or the apology given to torture returnee Maher Arar in 2006, the words have held a hollow feel because we have yet to witness the kinds of systemic change needed to prevent such criminality from recurring.

It's also disturbing that in the context of apologies, Canadian perpetrators of serious state criminality tend to be treated with kid gloves and sympathy (witness the abominable antics of Senator Lynn Beyak, who insists on praising the brighter side of genocide in Canada's first rendition to torture campaign, the residential schools program).

Indeed, headlines leading up to and following the release of the O'Connor Inquiry, which documented Canadian complicity in Maher Arar's rendition to torture, treated the RCMP as the real victim. "RCMP bracing for Arar report," led a Toronto Star headline in 2006, as if the Mounties were pitiless squatters waiting for a hurricane. Later in that same article, reporter Michelle Shephard wrote that "the report's anticipated blow to the RCMP's credibility comes on the heels of the international acclaim for the police force" following the Toronto 18 arrests earlier that summer. Shephard did not define how the RCMP had any credibility whatsoever after almost a century of illegal, repressive activity conducted against Indigenous people, labour unions, peace groups, and others engaged in the exercise of basic democratic rights.

On Dec 8, 2006, the Toronto Star editorialized that then prime minister Stephen Harper's job was to restore confidence "in the RCMP, an iconic national institution," as opposed to ensuring the Mounties would never again be engaged in torture complicity. The Globe and Mail similarly called the Arar saga one of the "great RCMP bungles," as if it were some unfortunate mistake instead of the result of a calculated, dangerous, racist game targeting individuals because of their faith and heritage.

When then-RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli issued an apology to Arar, it suffered from the same linguistic deficiency as the Trudeau government's 2017 apology. Zaccardelli simply said sorry "for whatever part the actions of the RCMP may have contributed to the terrible injustices that you experienced." There was no mention of torture, and the actions of the Mounties were treated as speculative. The Toronto Star's headline that day also showed a particularly disturbing institutional bias: "Top Mountie's Tough Day."

The House of Commons did no better when it passed a motion in 2006 that made it sound more like Arar had experienced poor service at a restaurant than Canadian complicity in torture: "It is the opinion of this House that apologies should be extended to Maher Arar for the treatment he received."

RCMP and CSIS as victims

During the Arar Inquiry, the sense of RCMP-as-victim was no doubt prevalent throughout the force, as witnessed by statements of former "anti-terrorism" Mountie Ben Soave (who himself chose to resign from the force one day after an internal report found that sexual harassment allegations against him were substantiated, and warranted disciplinary action). "The bottom line is we should be proud of our front-line officers," he explained in defence of those called to testify at the inquiry. "If we put their necks on the chopping block it's the wrong message to send." When RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli resigned (not because of complicity in torture, but rather because he appeared to lie about it before a Parliamentary committee), Soave moaned that the resignation was "a victory for terrorism, organized crime and the scum of the earth."

Liberal MP Wayne Easter similarly showed his sincere sympathies for the man who resigned as head of a torture-implicated RCMP, sighing, "I do feel badly for him. He's a career guy. He did this 24 hours a day."

Zaccardelli -- whose apology to Arar was mooted during a resignation speech in which the Commissioner said "there is not one moment, one decision or one circumstance of my career that I would change" -- went on to a comfortable position working for Interpol, while Soave runs a security firm "to help governments, corporations, law firms, and high net-worth individuals to effectively prevent and resolve issues."

CSIS has also played the victim game, with former agents complaining that any attempts by the courts to hold them within the boundaries of the law amount to a "judicial jihad."

Stay tuned: More torture on the way

The fact that the Canadian government was forced to go on the record and apologize for its reprehensible actions in these cases is significant and important. As Almalki declared, it is indeed a welcome victory that will hopefully boost the morale of others fighting similar battles. But the wording and delivery vehicle for the Trudeau government's March apology -- delivered shortly before very revealing court hearings were set to begin -- are clear indications that Ottawa is not willing to make much-needed changes in state security policy and institutions.

Equally disturbing is that young Muslims continue to report being subjected to intensive harassment and surveillance by Canada's state security agencies. How many of them will wind up in the shoes of Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin? These young people have to think twice before Googling certain terms, since certain red flag words may result in a home or office visit from CSIS spies. They have to wonder about new "friends" who suddenly cozy up to them from out of the blue and start asking their opinion of Palestine: are they just political thinkers or undercover agents? They have to watch how they speak in any venue, and are not allowed to express anger or frustration. Indeed, that would peg them as "radicalized," an appellation which could make them the focus of a CSIS "disruption" exercise under C-51 that allows Canada's spy agency to do anything to them short of bodily harm causing death or violations of sexual integrity.

Muslims who travel to or have family in certain parts of the world, must also be prepared to be pulled aside in airports at home and abroad, especially if they have refused to spy on their imam for CSIS or because they may have posted political mater on their Facebook pages. Others may never even get on a plane because the Canadian government's so-called Passenger Protect Program (the no-fly list) prevents them from doing so.

When Justin Trudeau, Canada's chief keynote speaker, told the nation's Muslims following the terrorist attack on a Quebec City mosque that "we will grieve with you, we will defend you, we will love you and we will stand with you," he was disingenuous at best. It was another false promise that, like his March 17 apology, rings all too hollow.

It is only when an abuser shows how he has changed his abusive ways that his apology may be enfleshed with true meaning. That has not yet happened, which means our work is not done. It remains our collective task to dismantle the institutions of violence and abuse in this country, and to show real solidarity with their targets. Until then, unfortunately, what happened to Almalki, Abou-Elmaati, Nureddin, and Arar (among others) will likely continue.

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.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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