Canada's burning chambers: A secret Supreme Court hearing in October

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On October 11, as many Canadians focus on the best place to purchase a Thanksgiving turkey, the Supreme Court of Canada will be in session, but anyone wishing to attend that day's hearing will find the Court building empty, and the nine judges missing. Outside of a small handful of individuals, no one will know where the country's highest court will be sitting or what will be discussed. In a shameful concession to the "national security" agenda, Canada's Supreme Court will be holding a secret hearing in the same manner as judges in dictatorships from Pinochet's Chile and South African Apartheid to the burning chambers of the French Inquisition (so named because all daylight was blocked out, and only torches were used both to light the rooms and, eventually, to set afire those condemned as heretics).

The man whose case is not being heard in public that day is beyond tired of secret trials. Mohamed Harkat, arrested on International Human Rights Day in December 2002, has faced over a decade of secret hearings held by the Federal Court of Canada, from which he and his lawyers have been excluded. Despite the fact that the GPS tracking device that has been strapped to his body for seven years was removed this summer, Mr. Harkat remains subject to a "security certificate" process which applies only to refugees and permanent residents and, like the days of the burning chambers, presumes named individuals guilty, has a lower standard of proof than that afforded Canadian citizens, and dispenses with the standard rules of evidence, allowing judges to base their decisions on information "even if it is inadmissible in a court of law." Just as the evidence of tortured "witches" at Salem was used to condemn other suspected "witches," so it is in Canada, wherein the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) admitted in a recently released document that having to exclude information gleaned from torture would result in the collapse of its whole security certificate process.

The secret trials regimen was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2007 in the seminal Charkaoui decision, in which the court asked, plainly, how one meets a case one does not know. On October 11, Mr. Harkat will be no closer to knowing the case he has to meet. His partially public hearing will be held on October 10.

It says something about the degraded system of Canadian justice that the nine individuals who have the ultimate legal say when it comes to fundamental issues such as due process and rule of law will be sitting in secret session, adding to the growth of a parallel secret judicial system that is bound to grow and flourish along with other trends toward secrecy in Canadian government.

Trending toward secrecy

Indeed, the use of secrecy, especially under immigration legislation, has grown in leaps and bounds. During this fall's public portion of the secret hearing, the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) will point out that immigration tribunals are increasingly accepting secret information that cannot be contested by refugee claimants. Under Section 86 of the Orwellian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Immigration Minister may, using the exact same procedures of the security certificate, apply to introduce secret allegations. There have been over 100 such cases since 2008. As the CCR and ICLMG note out in their Supreme Court submission, "Canada and other states appear to be normalizing what was intended to be an exceptional procedure, expanding [secrecy's] use in other areas, including in criminal trials." As a result of this increasing acceptance, officials worried about embarrassment or criticism of their decisions are over-claiming national security. In addition, there is the "development of a [secret] body of jurisprudence available only to the court and the Minister…[but] not to public counsel; [and] the appearance of an inordinately close relationship between the Court and the state which serves to undermine confidence in the judiciary."

While it is no secret that judges are members of the elite and are usually deferential to power, the secret hearing process elevates their coziness with state agencies to obscene levels. Annual findings by relatively toothless "oversight" agencies like the Security Intelligence Review Committee and the (now abolished) office of the CSIS Inspector General conclude that CSIS is woefully inept when it comes to identifying real security threats, engages in racial profiling, trades in torture, exaggerates to make a case, withholds evidence that may prove someone's innocence, and commits huge errors of fact and judgment. Despite these findings, the courts (and the media) continue to defer to CSIS requests for secrecy and non-disclosure. Swept aside are appeals for openness by individuals whose lives are plagued by the constant itch of not knowing what is being used to deport them to torture or keep them under a permanent state of house arrest and intrusive state surveillance.

Apart from the odd grumbling of judges who "wrestle" with conducting secret hearings without the detainee or his lawyer present (former Federal Court Judge James Hugessen famously remarked that he and others involved in such proceedings feel like "a fig leaf"), almost all of them slog on anyhow in a morass of bureaucratic inertia whose banal nature would be a subject of great interest to Hannah Arendt.

Booting the Magna Carta

That Canadian judges are rejecting 800 years of legal tradition dating back to the Magna Carta is certainly not new. Two Supreme Court judges (Taschereau and Kellock) served state interests in the post-war Red Scare, presiding over a mid-1940s inquisition in Ottawa that was marked by a presumption of guilt; the indefinite, incommunicado detention without charge of individuals who were denied access to counsel; detainees threatened with being shot; and compelled testimony under threat of contempt. Notably, nine people declared guilty by the judges at the inquiry were later acquitted in court and two never went to trial. (Judges who engaged in similar practices in Germany during the Third Reich would eventually find themselves in the dock at Nuremberg.)

More recently, significant portions of the inquiry into the torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (2004-06) were conducted in secret by Ontario Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor, while former Supreme Court Judge Frank Iacobucci shamefully presided over a completely secret inquiry into Canada's role in the torture of Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin. Not a single punctuation mark of a single document was ever released to the men, their lawyers, or the general public in what can only be described as one of Canadian history's great acts of judicial subservience to fear and the unsubstantiated claims of its paranoid spy service. The men are now engaged in protracted legal proceedings to seek accountability from the government, a process again cloaked in efforts to retain or redact as much as possible any potential disclosure that would document the government's complicity in torture.

Stateside, some judges have spoken out. One Detroit judge showed the kind of courage rare among his breed when he stared down orders from Washington to keep deportation hearings of individuals suspected of terrorism bound in secrecy. With five simple words, Judge Damon A. Keith earned himself a spot on the bright side of history when he began his ruling in the case of Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft by reminding all parties concerned that "democracies die behind closed doors."

Similarly, in 2005, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour of Seattle, in sentencing Ahmad Ressam to prison for his apparent role in a plot to bomb Los Angeles airport, made a cogent point often lost on his fellow judges when he opined: "We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution…We can deal with the threats to our national security without denying the accused fundamental constitutional protections."

However, having the odd judge pipe up is not at all comforting when the systemic trend is toward the burning chambers.  Following the eventual fall of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile in 1990, a truth and reconciliation commission asked how it was that judges who had previously upheld the rule of law reverted to rubberstamping the dictatorship's decisions and refusing to hear individual and family habeas corpus applications to determine where, exactly, their loved ones were being held and if in fact they were still alive.

Judges as political creatures

The commission found "legal oversight was glaringly insufficient with respect to the personal rights that were being violated by government agents to an unprecedented extent. The judiciary, which in view of the Constitution, the law, and the nature of its functions, was the government institution called to protect those rights, failed by not acting more forcefully. Moreover, they failed to do so even though from the beginning churches, lawyers, the victims' relatives, and international human rights agencies were furnishing the courts with information on actions by government officials that violated human rights. The country was surprised to see the courts take such a stance, for it was accustomed to regard the judiciary as a staunch defender of the rule of law."

In defiance of the contemporary record and all norms of logic, the president of Chile's Supreme Court, on March 1, 1975, boldly declared: "With regard to torture and other atrocities, I can state that here we have neither firing squads nor iron curtains, and any statement to the contrary is the product of a press that is trying to propagate ideas that could not and will not prosper in our country." He denied the existence of forced disappearances, and complained that the large number of habeas corpus actions that had been introduced prevented the courts from dealing with "urgent matters."

"Urgent matters" and "national security" remain the buzzwords around the growing secrecy trend in many Canadian government circles, from Parliament (where committees are spending at least 25 per cent of their time in secret session) and the denial of requests under the Access to Information Act, to the erasure of documents from government websites. At the same time, CSIS annual reports before 2000 are no longer online (one can now call directly to get copies and, no doubt, have your name placed in a database), and the Arar Commission of Inquiry hyperlink now goes to a financial services website.

Suzanne Legault, Canada's Information Commissioner, recently noted that although the Access to Information Act is celebrating 30 years, it is "tired and out-of-date. Worst of all, over that period our access to information rights have been slowly eroded by a variety of constraints, practices and amendments to the act." Incredibly, neither the House of Commons nor the Senate is subject to access to information requests.

"When we have access legislation that works properly, we have citizens who are better informed and, as a result, more fully engaged as participants in their democracy," Legault said.

While recommendations to update the Act will be brought before a less than welcoming Parliament this fall, there remains the issue of Canada's top judges meeting in their burning chamber. While one of the judges who presided over the Salem Witch Trials, Samuel Sewall, famously apologized for his role in condemning the innocents, it was too late for his victims. Canada's secret trial detainees, Canadian returnees from torture seeking accountability and justice, and the growing number of refugee claimants caught up in the Kafkaesque secret hearing process, cannot wait years for an apology that may never come. They need judges of character and conviction who will acknowledge the truism that democracies die behind closed doors, and demand an immediate halt to the abusive practices of bureaucracies that have become too easily seduced by the lure of secrecy and the catch-all claim of national security.

The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, in conjunction with Justice for Mohamed Harkat, is inviting people to attend the public hearing on October 10 in Ottawa, and to protest the secret hearing on the 11th both in Ottawa and in front of court buildings across the country.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Mike Alexander/flickr

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