Canada's secret trials, immigration policy under fire on Human Rights Day

| December 10, 2012
Vigil in Vancouver. (Photo: David P. Ball)

Change the conversation, support today.

Organizers in at least eight cities across the country are rallying support for Canadian Muslims rounded up in the so-called War on Terror -- particularly the ongoing punishment without trial of three men under security certificates.

The events, which kicked off last night with a candlelight vigil in Vancouver, include what is billed as a "family-friendly noise demonstration" in front of Montreal's Laval Immigration Prevention Centre today, as well as events in Toronto, Calgary, Saskatoon, Ottawa, and Halifax. 

The actions coincide with the unveiling, 64 years ago, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 -- a document frequently cited by the Canadian government as it criticizes other regimes' behaviour around the world, such as Iran or Syria.

But Dec. 10 is not only International Human Rights Day. It is also the day that Mohamed Harkat was arrested on alleged terrorism-related charges ten years ago, when he was imprisoned for nearly four years, one of which in solitary confinement. 

Last week, fellow security certificate detainee Mohammed Mahjoub -- who heads to court tomorrow (Dec. 11) for a review of his security certificate conditions -- demanded an independent inquiry into abuses under Canada's secret trials regime.

"I am a political prisoner here in Canada," Mahjoub said in a statement. "My case is political; it is not a legal one."

"Never in these twelve years have I been charged with any crime. Never has the secret information used to destroy my reputation been disclosed to me. Never have I been given the dignity of a fair and open trial... My hands are far, far cleaner than the hands of the Canadian and Egyptian officials involved in my case. I have never terrorized any person in my life. Today I am calling for an independent inquiry into my case, aimed at holding the individuals, agencies and structures responsible for all these abuses accountable for their actions."

Mahjoub was locked in jail for eight years following his arrest in 2000, nearly three of which he was in solidarity confinement, until his subsequent house arrest for four-and-a-half years that continues today. Canada also maintains certificates for Harkat and Mahmoud Jaballah.

The protests also draw attention to the federal government's new immigration and refugee crackdown, which kicks into effect on Dec. 15 -- allowing for automatic, indefinite detention of so-called "irregular" asylum-seekers, making deportations to certain countries easier, and reducing appeal rights.

"We deliberately wanted to put security certificates back in the context of immigration issues," Mary Foster, with the Justice for Mahjoub Network, told "It is important to address the issue of immigration detention because thousands of people are being detained every year, without any charge, trial and for indefinite periods -- in the cases of security certificate detainees, for more than a decade."

"In other words, the liberty of immigrants is being treated as worthless, and with a great deal less respect than that of many other people in the country -- it is a complete violation of the principle of equality. It is important to understand the role that security certificates play in justifying immigration detention. By playing up the idea that immigrants are dangerous, and need to be controlled for public safety, the government is able to gain support for their anti-immigrant policies, and silence outcry against injustices towards immigrants."

In Vancouver, a small circle gathered in the darkness with candles outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, reading poetry, singing and speaking about post-9/11 racial profiling and Islamophobia in Canada.

"We're against security certificates as a form of racial profiling," vigil organizer Imtiaz Popat, with the group Siraat, told "Although the security certificates existed before 9/11, they have been used against Muslims specifically."

"The State -- whether it be the United States, Canada or any state -- is using the War on Terror as an excuse to take away our human rights. It's not just Muslims -- all our civil liberties are being taken away in the name of the War on Terror. These are excuses to take away our rights."

Also attending the rally was José Figueroa, a Salvadoran refugee to Vancouver who has faced deportation for several years, and continues to fight for his and other refugee rights through the We Are All José campaign.

"We are here to support this vigil for people suffering the injustices here in Canada,” he told "This was called to support refugees and immigrants facing bogus allegations of terrorism.

"Myself, I'm here to fight for the rights of my family, who are Canadians. We need to unite the community on these issues."

Figueroa said that the use of secret evidence against people issued security certificates is particularly troubling, and represents a significant abuse of human rights. 

"That's the main problem: the secret evidence that is being used," he added. "Nobody knows what it is. What kind of information does the Canadian government have? They need to be more specific, and be open with the Canadian people."

According to a top lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who spoke in Vancouver several months ago, the very notion of a "global war on terror" is at the root of what critics see as abuses of civil liberties and human rights.

"The global war against terrorism [is] a very dangerous idea," ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said. "It's a dangerous proposition that we are involved in this war that has no temporal boundary, no geographic boundary, and is really against an enemy that is really difficult to identify. 

"To say that we're in a global war against terrorism or a global war against Al-Qaeda is really to propose something quite drastic and radical – it's to propose that we're in a forever-war and in a everywhere-war."

Canada's little-known secret trials program is one outcome of this battle, whose battlefield is more and more undefined. But the certificates' personal impact on the 28 individuals they have targeted is devastating, Popat said.

"It's a travesty of human rights how they've been treated, and many others have been treated," the Siraat spokesperson argued, pointing to current Egyptian protests against the new constitution as an example of Western government's "hypocrisy."

"When [Egyptian president] Mohamed Morsi gives himself these so-called powers, they scream foul," Popat added. "Yet, when the United States and Canada do the same thing and take away our civil liberties, that's fine -- that's okay. There's double standards there."

"There are many contradictions that not just this government, but other Canadian governments, have had in terms of human rights violations -- starting with the treatment of Aboriginal people here in this country."

For ACLU's Jaffer, any curtailment of enshrined legal rights affects everyone, not only the minority groups singled out, such as Muslims -- and human rights must be vigorously defended.

"I wasn't around during the McCarthy era, but there are certainly at least loose parallels to what happened then... Once you accept the notion that we're at war all over world, it's very easy to accept the idea we can detain people picked up anywhere in the world -- detained militarily without charge or trial, indefinitely -- until the war is over."

Protecting and increasing human rights -- whether in Canada or abroad -- is an important task, Popat concludes. And it is important to fight not only for civil liberties, but Aboriginal rights, housing, an end to poverty, and other rights enshrined in the UN declaration -- even if they are rarely upheld.

"Human rights are a lofty goal," admits Popat. "But they're a threshold." 

"The UN Declaration of Human Rights is a good document. It's not perfect, but the fact is, we don't have human rights; they are something we strive for."


David P. Ball is a writer and photojournalist in Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish land. You can read interviews and more of his work at the Left Coast Post blog here on His website is On Twitter: @davidpball



We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.