Security certificates: Is it the end?

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The week of September 21 was an important one. Well, it is true that it is a special week when Muslims celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr and were happy congratulating and visiting each other. But for two other Muslim families, one in Ottawa and another in Montreal, this week had a special meaning.

I am speaking about Sophie Lamarche and her husband Mohamed Harkat who live in Ottawa, and about Adil Charkaoui and his family who live in Montreal. For Harkat and Charkaoui this week meant an extraordinary change in their lives.

For the first time Harkat was able to take his 10 year-old niece for a walk without any approval from the CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) agents and for the first time Charkaoui was able to remove his GPS ankle bracelet that monitored his movements for many years.

Those light bail conditions for Harkat and the removal of security certificate for Charkaoui did not happen suddenly. They came after about seven long years of detention, extremely harsh bail conditions and of course sorrow and hardship for the detainees and their families.

In December 2002, Mohamed Harkat, an Algerian refugee who worked in pizza delivery, was arrested in front of his house. Two Canadians Ministers signed a security certificate against him. He was designated as a threat to the security of Canada and proceedings were initiated against him to remove him to his homeland.

Since then, his wife Sophie Harkat never let him down. She spoke to the media and organized events to defend her husband. But how to defend him when all the ‘evidence' was kept secret. Nevertheless, she never doubted the innocence of her husband and spoke out about it relentlessly.

Even Mr. Harkat's lawyers couldn't do much; they had to fight the darkness. Meanwhile, Mohamed Harkat was kept in the Ottawa detention centre and in 2006 was transferred to what human rights activists called ‘Guantanamo North' -- a small maximum-security prison in Kingston that was especially built for suspected terrorists.  During those years, Canadians became aware of the unfair and unjust process of the security certificates. Supporters, human rights activists and journalists spoke about them. Protests and marches were organized to denounce the unfair treatment of these detainees. Some of the detainees participated in hunger strikes and demanded improvement to their detention conditions.

In June 2006, after many battles in the courts and a strong campaign led by his wife Sophie Lamarche, Harkat was released from prison under a $100,000 bail. Strict conditions were imposed on him like for example the ones that stipulate that all his visitors were required to get pre-approval from CBSA agents. And, cameras were installed in front of his house to control his activities and intrude on his privacy.

This situation remained the same until September 22, where Justice Noel decided to grant Mr. Harkat lighter conditions. The certificate is still in place and Mr. Harkat still has to wear the GPS bracelet around his ankle but this decision showed for the first time that real cracks exist in the case against him. This also gave Mr. Harkat, his lawyers and supporters new legal ammunitions to ask for the abolition of the actual certificate.

For Adil Charkaoui, the story isn't much different. He is a permanent resident originally from Morocco. He was detained under a security certificate from May 2003 to February 2005. The government accused him of being a sleeper agent of an al-Qaeda cell. He was the first detainee to legally challenge the constitutionality of the security certificate system.

In February 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that security certificates were indeed unconstitutional. This decision came after a lengthy public campaign by human rights activists who long opposed the security certificate as a discriminatory and unjust measure.

However, rather than abolishing the security certificate legislation and replacing it by a transparent and fair system, the government introduced a new legislation of " security certificate light" where special advocates were given the power to examine the secret evidence in the possession of the government with one caveat: the lawyers couldn't share this evidence with the accused. It seems that the 2007 Supreme Court decision regarding the unconstitutionality of the security certificate announced its death. What we are seeing these days is its agony.  However, the road is still difficult for the accused and for their supporters.  

It still requires that public opinion follows closely these latest developments and keeps asking for transparency and fairness for all citizens. Recently, Canada's most senior judge Chief Justice 
Beverley McLachlin, in a speech to Ottawa Women's Canadian Club, warned about the dangers of sacrificing civil and charter rights in the fight against terrorism: "The fear and anger that terrorism produces may cause leaders to make war on targets that may or may not be connected with the terrorist incident ... Or perhaps it may lead governments to curtail civil liberties and seek recourse in tactics they might otherwise deplore ... that may not, in the clearer light of retrospect, be necessary or defensible."

It is our duty as citizens to make sure that civil rights are protected even in these difficult times.  When we stand up for the rights of Harkat, Charkaoui and others, we stand up for the meaning of our own citizenship. Sophie Lamarche shouldn't feel alone in her quest for justice nor should Charkaoui nor should the three other security certificate detainees --  Hassan Almrei, Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohammad Mahjoub -- all of whom were released under strict bail conditions. Mahjoub, for instance, asked the judge to put him back in jail after the conditions of his bail became simply unbearable for his wife and his young kids.

The recent encouraging developments in the case of Mr. Harkat and Mr. Charkaoui are excellent incentives for all human rights activists to keep standing up for justice and to keep on the path of perseverance.



Monia Mazigh is a human rights activist. She is the author of Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband Maher Arar. She lives in Ottawa. A version of this article will appear in The Muslim Link.

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