It was a packed house last month, on the evening of January 16, when the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) Muslim Students Association hosted one of the first opportunities for the family and lawyers of the “Toronto 18” to tell the general public their story.

The Toronto 18 is the name given to 18 men and boys who were arrested on June 2, 2006 and accused of terror-related activity. Out of the 18 men and boys, three boys have had their charges stayed; four men and four boys have been granted bail under strict conditions. Out of the remaining seven in prison, four are at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Brampton, while three remain in Toronto’s Don Jail in solitary confinement. Preliminary trials were abruptly cancelled in September 2007, and no trial date has been set as of yet.

At the forum on January 16, nearly 600 people heard the stories of the Toronto 18, for the first time, from the mouths of a sister and a spouse, Fatma Khaled and Nada Amara.

Khaled’s story, regarding her brother Saad, was graphic. She related the treatment of the inmates and the conditions in which they were kept. Khaled described cold cells, one inch mattresses, 24 hour lighting and wake up calls every 20 minutes. She described the treatment her brother received, from having a heavily armed guard watching him in the shower to being ordered by guards to run in shackles and handcuffs while looking at the ground.

Khaled described the first day in court, the day after her brother was arrested. She recalled seeing snipers on the rooftop of the court and surrounding buildings and heavily armed security guards inside the court. When the suspects entered they were handcuffed, their feet shackled. Furthermore, they were made to enter with their backs bent nearly 90 degrees to the ground, with their heads down.

Khaled ended her speech by recalling that her brother was 19-years-old when he was arrested. He was a student of business at UTM with no criminal record. Now he is 22-years-old. When she visits him, it is behind bulletproof glass. “Even convicted criminals have touch visits,” she exclaimed.

The next speaker was Nada Amara, the wife of Zakaria Amara, one of the men who is still in solitary confinement at the Don Jail. She told the audience the sentimental story of their last night together, playing Xbox with each other. Amara went into detail about the day of her husband’s arrest. The police stormed into the house, and shattered a glass door. Amara’s baby daughter was crying as the policeman grabbed her out of her mother’s arms. Her brother and sister, both minors, were handcuffed and sent to the garage.

Amara then conveyed the humiliation the families went through as a result of the constant media attention. She spoke of the media at the courts, the media in front of their home, the doorbell ringing every five minutes and the one reporter who jumped the backyard fence to come to the back door. All this media attention was outside their home, she explained, while the front door was smashed, with a mere piece of cardboard fixed in position as a replacement.

Two of the lawyers for the Toronto 18 also spoke at this groundbreaking forum. They outlined the difficulty in fighting this case, because in many ways the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” in regards to this case has been thrown out. The lawyers argued that before the publication ban on details of the case, the Crown was able to label the Toronto 18 guilty through the media, setting the stage of the trial.

Nevertheless, the lawyers expressed the hope of those in attendance that, in the end, the truth would prevail.