Is Canada becoming Colombia, where crimes are committed with impunity and the rule of law is meaningless? Toronto civil liberties lawyer Rocco Galati said on December 4 he would no longer take cases involving “suspected terrorists” after receiving a death threat and being refused police protection.
“We now live in Colombia,” he said, “because the rule of law is meaningless. It means that lawyers cannot represent anyone even in what you profess to be a democracy here in Canada.”
For making that parallel, and for suggesting that U.S. or Canadian intelligence agencies were behind the threat, Galati was accused by The Globe and Mail of “taking his own hyperbole a little too seriously.” The parallel, however, should not be dismissed so casually.
Galati has been an uncompromising advocate of civil liberties, taking difficult cases like that of Abdurahman Khadr, recently released from the U.S. Guantanamo prison camp after being arrested in Afghanistan as an “illegal combatant” over a year ago. Galati also defended individuals detained under special “terror” legislation, including “security certificates.”
“Security certificates” work as follows: if Canada’s secret service, CSIS, decides that someone is a “security threat,” that someone can be arrested and held without bail, denied access to the evidence against them, and deported — all without any judicial check.
Over the course of one of these cases, that of Mahmoud Jaballah, Galati showed a CSIS Middle East “expert” to be incompetent, on the witness stand. The whole exchange was published in Saturday Night magazine. In it, Galati asked the “expert” whether Iran was an Arabic country. The answer: “I would say it is Arabic, but I’m not an expert in Iranian affairs.” Galati asked if the “expert” could name the countries of the North African coast, or the population of Egypt, and the “expert” could not.
The case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian who was deported by the United States to Syria, is even more damning. Arar was held for almost a year in nightmarish conditions. The evidence suggests that Canadian intelligence, which still has not clearly explained its role in the case, helped bring about the year-long torture of an innocent person.
But what does any of this have to do with Colombia? Surely a comparison between Canada and a country with an ongoing civil war, an internally displaced population of over three million, several thousand conflict-related deaths and several hundred political assassinations every year, is inappropriate?
Perhaps not, if Galati’s parallel is taken as a warning. What makes Colombia so deadly is the steady erosion of human rights and social protections in the name of “national security.” In Colombia, human rights lawyers and others receive threats eerily similar to the one Galati received. Unlike in Canada, these threats are carried out, regularly and brutally, by paramilitary death squads. These groups have support from a government, a military, and even part of society that views their horrific work as keeping the country “safe”from “terrorism.” The fact that most of their victims are social leaders, union organizers, journalists and lawyers like Galati is erased because “national security” is threatened. The paramilitaries have counted on the collusion of parts of the Colombian government, military and security apparatus, and simply could not murder with impunity if this were not the case.
Very often this collusion takes the form of a failure to act. Colombia used to have a plan to protect union leaders, one of whom is murdered every few days in that country, by allowing them to have bodyguards. In the summer of this year, that plan was changed to effectively deny state protection to many unionists who needed it. Waves of assassinations followed, with the latest assassination of education unionist Jose de Jesus Rojas Castaneda in Barrancabermeja just days ago on December 3.
The truth is that Colombians are no more predisposed to violence than Canadians are. The violence is the result of an assault on a population’s rights, liberties and genuine security by both private killers and out-of-control government agencies which are accountable to no one because they claim “national security” is at stake. The state’s refusal to protect journalists who say the “wrong things” and lawyers who defend the “wrong people” are the opening shots in that assault. Canada has plenty of time to avoid that road, but only if it takes Galati’s warning seriously.