Torture: A Canadian value?

MONTREAL—Each year in June the UN marks the International Day in Support of Torture Victims. However, numerous UN member states continue to practice torture -- in many cases, openly. Political contradictions here abound, nuzzled between the horror of torture as a politically administered reality and the apparent international consensus in opposition to torture.

Canada is one country where political links to torture in recent years are unmistakable.

From the haunting testimonials from Canadian Omar Khadr who remains at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, to the widely documented torture of Canadian Maher Arar in a Syrian prison, torture is key in Canada’s political relationship to the world since 9/11.

"Today, a very specific narrative on torture is circulating in Canada," outlined Sherene Razack, professor at University of Toronto and celebrated author of multiple books on race issues in the law.

"The narrative that torture works and that it is necessary is gaining prominence more than it ever has before -- claims that have really gone unchallenged in the popular media, which is really very dangerous for our society," told this reporter by phone.

Abousfian Abdelrazik is a Canadian who can speak directly to Canada’s take on torture.

Abdelrazik was imprisoned in Sudan, where he was tortured. He is now at the epicentre of a grassroots campaign that recently pressed the government to repatriate Abdelrazik from Sudan, a citizenship right denied by successive Canadian governments.

According to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, "every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada." These rights were denied to Abdelrazik. In June, after six years in exile, he returned to Montreal when a key ruling from a federal court judge forced the government to respect Abdelrazik’s right of return to Canada.

"I traveled to Sudan to visit my sick mother; without telling me, agents from CSIS recommended to Sudan that I should be arrested," explained Abdelrazik. "I was thrown in prison because Canada asked, imprisoned [and] beaten. I was tortured."

Beyond the false intelligence from Canada leading to Abdelrazik’s imprisonment and torture in Sudan, the direct role that the Canadian government played in Abdelrazik’s torture is the most arresting factor in his case.

"The Canadian government knows that Sudan tortures prisoners but it did not help me," outlined Abdelrazik. "Instead, the Canadian government sent CSIS agents to interrogate me in the prison."

Today, Abdelrazik is demanding redress from the Canadian government.

"I want those people who play a role in this matter to face justice, not because I seek revenge," Abdelrazik explained to the press shortly after returning to Montreal. "I want this not to happen to any Canadian."

Abdelrazik is now struggling for a full restoration of his citizenship rights in Canada. Due to claims that Abdelrazik maintains associations to Al-Quada, radical allegations which have never been proven in court, Abdelrazik remains on the United Nations' terrorist watch-list. This prohibits him from holding a bank account or accepting any kind of financial assistance, including employment wages in Canada.

Denying Abdelrazik a passport was a clear breach of Canada’s Citizenship Act, and serious criticism has been leveled against successive Canadian governments for it.

Abdelrazik's case is one example of how the Canadian state is turning its security arsenal against citizens. Another is the government's "security certificate" program, currently directed towards five permanent residents of Ontario and Quebec.

In 2003 Canadian security forces seized Adil Charkaoui in a highly publicized arrest, issuing a security certificate against him. This sparked a popular campaign across Canada to abolish the legislation, which allows the indefinite detention and eventual deportation of terror suspects without a public presentation of any evidence.

After more than four years in prison, without ever knowing the charges against him, Charkaoui was released on severe conditions, including wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet.

In 2006 Charkaoui launched a successful challenge to the security certificate, condemned by the UN Committee against Torture and in the Supreme Court of Canada, which deemed the legislation unconstitutional. In response, the Conservative government revamped the legislation in 2007, introducing a "special advocate" into the certificate process, maintaining the fundamental structure of the legislation, which was reinstated in 2008.

Today, Charkaoui remains under threat of deportation to Morocco, a country where he could face torture. Canada’s attempts to deport Charkaoui to Morocco are in violation of Canada’s commitments under the UN Convention against Torture.

Canada’s security certificate legislation is another key to understanding Canada’s relationship to torture in recent years.

"In Canada, when the security label is applied to people, their humanity is automatically degraded and torture becomes a possibility," explained Mary Foster, an activist with the Peoples Commission Network, a community coalition opposing Canadian immigration and security policies which undermine human rights. "The trends towards normalizing torture works towards dehumanizing our society, pushing people to think more about their own individual security and not about our collective security."

Canada has also come under harsh criticism for its treatment of Afghan detainees, many of whom were tortured.

In 2008, after torture testimonials were collected from multiple prisoners, Amnesty International launched a lawsuit against the Canadian government which would permanently halt the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan prisons.

"In Afghan prisons torture is rampant and systematic, [and] in our view it's very likely that a good number of those who are transferred from Canadian custody into the Afghan prison system will end up being tortured," explained Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International's section in Canada, in 2008. "If the risk of torture is a real one, which Amnesty believes it is, it's incumbent upon Canada and it's actually a matter of international legal obligation not to hand the prisoners over."

Amnesty’s case on Afghan torture is now pending at the Military Police Complaints Commission, which launched a series of public hearings on the issue last month.

The hearings are centered on whether Canada knowingly transferred prisoners to torturers in Afghanistan.

In Ottawa, the Conservative government is attempting to secure a court injunction to halt public hearings scheduled to continue this fall.

Other tales of torture, told by Canadians Maher Arar and Abdullah Almalki, who were tortured in Syrian prisons, are accompanied by silence from Canadian officials.

"As a nation we need to face up to the reality of our complicity in torture," stated Alex Neve of Amnesty International, whom this reporter reached by telephone.

Canada is a signatory to the 1984 UN Convention against Torture. Even so, the actions of Canadian governments contradict the anti-torture convention.

"Torture itself, as well as stories about torture, are actually meant to teach us something," said Razack. "Stories meant to teach us who belongs to the national community and who doesn’t, so you get massive numbers of people who think that Muslims do not belong to the national community and are not deserving of their fundamental rights—and that really is the damage of torture."

Stefan Christoff is a journalist and community organizer. This article was originally published in The Dominion and is republished here with permission.


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