Viewers tuning in to Wednesday evening’s rabble.ca videocast from Montreal could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled across a surreal version of the infamous PBS fund drives that annually dominate American airwaves.
Indeed, the perky pitches from energetic hosts, a phone bank of pledge takers, and a large map of Canada with pins marking the city of each donation would have seemed familiar to anyone who enjoys public television or radio.
But that is where the similarities ended. Those calling in to take part in a “sanctions-busting telethon” in support of Montreal’s Abousfian Abdelrazik were informed that, by donating, they could risk prosecution under Canadian law. Remarkably, over 100 people who did get through understood the caution, pledged thousands of dollars, and consented to having their names listed in a public act of defiance.
The telethon was part of a six-month campaign to remove Abdelrazik from the United Nations 1267 list, which imposes a travel ban and asset freeze on anyone unlucky enough to be named. Individuals can be placed on the list without notice or access to the “case” against them, and with no right to a hearing or an appeal.
Abdelrazik was placed there during a six-year ordeal of detention and torture in Sudan, one in which the Canadian government was found complicit by the federal court in 2009.
After repeated attempts to return home were foiled by the federal government, Abdelrazik entered the Canadian embassy in Khartoum in April 2008, and endured a 14-month exile there until hundreds of Canadians under the banner of “Project Flyhome” purchased an airline ticket for him, risking prosecution under Canada’s United Nations Al Qaeda and Taliban Regulations (which stipulate that no Canadian shall “provide or collect by any means, directly or indirectly, funds with the intention that the funds be used” by a listed person).
Ottawa’s refusal to issue a subsequent travel document triggered a federal court case that eventually resulted in an order compelling the government to bring Abdelrazik home. That decision also condemned the 1267 listing as “a denial of basic legal remedies and as untenable under the principles of international human rights. There is nothing in the listing or de-listing procedure that recognizes the principles of natural justice or that provides for basic procedural fairness.”
And although he returned home on June 27, 2009, Abdelrazik found himself in a prison without walls, still subject to the 1267 restrictions preventing him from travel, accessing any assets, holding a job, or receiving social assistance.
In an interview with rabble.ca during the telethon, Abdelrazik described his shock last July when, shortly after opening a bank account in Montreal, he was called in by a manager who informed him his assets had been frozen. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says, “The manager, he looked sad, but said there was nothing he could do.”
Since that time, Abdelrazik and his children have been condemned to legally enforced poverty, given the Canadian government’s failure to push the UN to remove him from the 1267 list and to stop enforcement of his own restrictions, which, notably, have never been reviewed by Parliament.
Faced with the same Kafkaesque conundrum that his supporters met in 2009, the telethon seemed the perfect vehicle to again publicly challenge the sanctions imposed on Abdelrazik. No doubt to Ottawa’s chagrin, the response to the telethon was immediate and enthusiastic.
Even before the event began, individuals from across the country — from Camrose and Vancouver to Meaford, Iqaluit, Rivière de Loup, and Halifax — had already pledged more than $1,350. As the telethon officially kicked off at 7 p.m., the phone lines were immediately flooded with calls from across the country, and remained busy until 9 p.m.
No one balked at the warning repeated scores of times throughout the evening about potential prosecution. In fact, many welcomed the challenge and, as one pledge taker noted, “One woman who is 87 said if the Mounties don’t like it, they can come and take her away. Then she put her 91-year-old husband on the line and he said they could take him too.”
Midway through the telethon, which also featured diverse entertainment by the likes of Norman Nawrocki, Al and Jess Blair, Ehab Lotayef, and Jou Jou Tourenne, viewers were informed that Abdelrazik has been granted an exemption that allows him to access a small portion of his funds for basic living expenses, a limited window of hope that he credits in part to the amount of grassroots support he has enjoyed since his return.
But the exemption is not enough. Addressing Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs minister Lawrence Cannon directly, Abdelrazik pleaded, through an Arabic-speaking interpreter: “I’m asking you at least for once to give priority to the human side. My kids, my family, have suffered for seven years. Please address the United Nations and ask that my name by taken off this inhuman list. I want to live like any other Canadian. I want a normal life.”
In a subsequent interview, Abdelrazik said the telethon “gives me hope and encouragement to go on. This support, it makes me happy and sad at the same time. They are all taking a risk for me.”
Always on Abdelrazik’s mind are his three children and step-child who, he says, are also victims of this process, since they do not have a normal life, and can sense that they “do not have a normal father.” He describes the pain he feels when he has to explain why they are the only family in Canada who cannot travel to the U.S. and visit Disneyworld.
Abdelrazik thanked his supporters, and noted, “I spent six years trying to come home. I can’t spend another six trying to get off this list. This list makes me insecure and isolates me from others; until I am free of it, I won’t feel like I am truly home.”
Individuals wishing to make Mr. Abdelrazik feel more at home can join the campaign by contacting Project Fly Home, and by donating directly. Write cheques to Abousfian Abdelrazik and mail them to CSCP Charlevoix, P.O. Box 65053, Montréal, Q.C., H3K 0K4