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It's a fresh spring day in Toronto, and Mohammad Mahjoub is experiencing something for the first time in over a year: the simple pleasure of small talk.
Since March 2010, Mahjoub, a security certificate detainee, was forbidden to speak to anyone he encountered in the few hours he was allowed outside. That one condition has now been lifted, but it's a small comfort against the daily deprivation he continues to endure, under the harshest house arrest conditions in Canadian history.
And the kicker? He hasn't been charged with a crime.
In 1995, Mahjoub fled political persecution in Egypt, where he had been tortured and imprisoned without trial. He was granted refugee status by Canada in 1996, and settled in Toronto, where he married Mona el Fouli and later had two sons, Ibrahim and Yusuf.
In June 2000, Mahjoub was arrested on a security certificate, a controversial measure of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that was used to indefinitely detain five Muslim men, without charges or trial, on secret evidence. They became known as the Secret Trial Five.
A 2007 Supreme Court ruling abolished the process, calling it unconstitutional. Eight months later, the Conservatives created Bill C-3, re-introducing security certificates with few substantial changes. Bill C-3 also failed to address what many view as a fundamental issue with the process: that matters of national security have no place being legislated in immigration policy, but should instead be dealt with under the Criminal Code. But the bill passed, and no time flat, secret trials were back in business.
For over a decade, Mahjoub has attempted to contest the certificate, fearing torture or worse if he is deported to Egypt. Throughout the process, he has denounced the conditions of his detention, resorting to a 76-day hunger strike in 2005 and losing 110 pounds before he was hospitalized. In 2006, he and three other members of the Secret Trial Five were transferred to a specially constructed, multi-million dollar facility in Kingston dubbed "Guantanamo North." Mahjoub went on another hunger strike, this time lasting for 93 days before the Federal Court ordered him released in Feb. 2007.
But the conditions of his release were so severe that he described his home as a prison, and his family as reluctant guards. "His family were forced to act as his sureties," says his lawyer, Yavar Hameed. "When they reported information to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), that information was not taken at face value. The CBSA would try to find ways to find them in violation... It was a very adversarial process with Canada Border Services, making it impossible for anyone to lead a normal life."
In March 2009, Mahjoub asked to be returned to Guantanamo North, rather than continuing to subject his family to the constant surveillance and pressure from the CBSA and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). In early 2010, following yet another hunger strike, he was again released on house arrest. This time, he opted to protect his family from his conditions by moving into a small basement apartment on St. Clair West in Toronto.
"There is no liberty by any means under these severe conditions," Mahjoub said in a recent recording. "It has massive mental, physical and psychological impact on me and my family... I don't know what to do after 11 years."
One of his infrequent visitors is Murray Lumley, who first became aware of Mahjoub's case through a small group called Toronto Action for Social Change. He attended rallies at CSIS headquarters and wrote letters to his MP and government ministers, and eventually became one of Mahjoub's court-approved "supervisors." Lumley helps accompany him when he needs something outside of his authorized area, such as a lawyer visit or a new fax machine. "I would like people to know what an honourable man Mohammad is," he says.
Despite a recent detention review that relaxed his conditions slightly, Mahjoub is still held under surveillance that is completely unprecedented in the judicial system in Canada. He wears a GPS tracking bracelet at all times. A camera outside his door monitors his every move, and he is only permitted to leave the house for four hours a day, and only within a few blocks of his apartment. CSIS monitors every phone call -- in fact, they were caught listening to protected solicitor-client phone calls between Mahjoub and his lawyer, contrary to a court order.
He has limited contact with his wife and young sons, which Lumley says has been very difficult. "It is quite amazing to me that they have been so resilient in the face of such abuse -- that seems to go on and on... While they do complain of the length of time taken from their lives, they still live with some hope that this may one day end."
If it all sounds a bit Orwellian... it is, says Hameed, who specializes in immigration and refugee law work as well as national security cases. He has been representing Mahjoub since last August, and is deeply familiar with the security certificate process, having assisted Adil Charkaoui's legal team with their Supreme Court appeals. Charkaoui won his case against a security certificate in 2009.
A series of public hearings to determine the "reasonableness" of the certificate against Mahjoub are expected to continue until mid-July, when the in camera part of the process begins. Hameed's job is complicated by the fact that he is only given access to a small portion of the evidence against his client for reasons of "national security." "There's an understanding of what the basic allegation is, but what we don't know... is the source of the information," he explains. "It's kind of like a puzzle trying to put it together."
He knows, for instance that Mahjoub is accused of being a high-ranking member of the Vanguards of Conquest, a militant Islamic group that seeks to overthrow the Egyptian government. What's missing is the source of the "intelligence" that led to the accusation. Much of the secret evidence being used against security certificate detainees is believed to have been obtained using torture by foreign agencies. Last summer, in a significant court victory, the Federal Court ruled that part of the evidence against Mahjoub was probably obtained using torture, and could not be accepted.
"Based on the evidence we see publicly, there is a flimsy case against Mr. Mahjoub. It's supported by innuendo; it's weak," Hameed says. Some of the "sources" in the case include Internet articles from foreign news services. "We're not actually talking about things that have been investigated... The kind of information that passes for evidence in the public case is what we call hearsay."
Hameed is also skeptical of any claims that Mahjoub poses a potential future threat to Canadian security. "The argument is that [Mahjoub's] liberty, the fact of his liberty, would act as sort of a beacon of radicalization for persons who would be interested in supporting terrorist or Islamic extremist views," Hameed scoffs. "We were quite shocked to learn that that's what the case is against him, going forward. The absurdity of this process... That is so offensive to the character of what it means to live in a free and democratic society."
You can sign a petition calling for an end to security certificates at www.justiceforharkat.com.
Sara Falconer is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.
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