Mohammad Mahjoub was arrested in the year 2000. In the years that followed, he undertook numerous hunger strikes. One, in 2005, lasted 76 days. He lost 110 pounds and had to be hospitalized. Another the next year lasted 93 days. He was transferred to the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, known as “Guantanamo North”; released from detention and put under house arrest; sent back to detention, at his request, because of the effect surveillance had on his family during his house arrest; and then returned again to house arrest, this time living alone.
His ordeal was the result of being subject to a security certificate, which allows the government to detain and deport those with or without legal status, using secret evidence, and without having to issue a warrant, so long as they are deemed a threat to national security.
In part because a federal court judge acknowledged there was no proof that he was a danger, Mahjoub has, in recent years, been able to travel without a GPS bracelet, has access to internet and a cell phone, and does not require a supervisor when traveling outside his city, Toronto.
Mahjoub is one of five Arab and South Asian men who have been imprisoned on security certificates, without charge, and under suspicion of terrorism for a total of roughly thirty years combined. There is no avenue to appeal the court’s decision. Their accusers don’t have to prove that they are an actual threat to national security. They only have to convince a judge that issuing a security certificate against someone who “may” pose a threat is something they believed was reasonable. The normal standard of being proved correct is unnecessary.
Evidence of any kind is largely kept hidden on the grounds that it would threaten national security. The defendant, the accused terrorist, does not know what he or she is being accused of and therefore cannot develop a good defense. Special advocates can see some, though not all, information, but they aren’t allowed to investigate sources. “In the cases of the men against whom security certificates were issued,” writes Harsha Walia in Undoing Border Imperialism, “secret evidence and vague allegations — including hearsay — were admissible but never revealed to them in an open court of law.”
“[T]he legal provisions of the security certificate,” writes Colleen Bell in The Freedom of Security: Governing Canada in the Age of Counter-Terrorism, “override respect for the rights of accused persons and deny them the same legal protection that is afforded to citizens under criminal law. Effectively a suspension of law by law, the security certificate program enacts a form of sovereign power that subverts standard juridical procedures of argument and evidence and affords security and executive officials significant power, independent of establishing culpability, to initiate detainment and to heavily influence the outcome of the secret trial. Detainees are effectively excluded from the ‘normal’ political order.”
Security certificates are not new, however, having existed in multiple forms for almost 40 years. In them, we find precursors to Bill C-51. And in Bill C-51 we find a tool which, in turn, strengthens those security certificates.
Bill C-51 will give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) even greater power to withhold information about people detained on security certificates. And now, if a judge orders a disclosure of information to the special advocate, the government can make an appeal. The sliver of space left for some transparency is being shut by this bill.
This is by design and it’s the procedural part of a broader ideological war. These measures are defended on the basis that these are exceptional times and that we are threatened by exceptional entities. This is the state’s War on Terror practiced domestically. For our own safety, we’ll have to set aside normal standards to protect our way of life, the state tells us in so many words.
And that way of life is depicted as being under threat by non-citizens or newcomers.
The most recent security certificate detainees are Arab and South Asian. They were deemed threats to our security. Bill C-51 explicitly targets migrants. They are deemed threats to our security. The long-standing assumption that migrants are potentially bringing attitudes and customs projected onto the Global South into this country is being used to pre-emptively deny people’s legal rights, detain them, and deport them.
Racist characterizations have justified these measures. And, in establishing them as norms, we should be concerned about what institution this state is constructing. “Immigrants are the canaries in the political coal mine,” writes Christian Parenti in Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, “and immigration is the vehicle by which the logic of the ‘state of emergency’ is smuggled into everyday life, law, and politics.’”
What the state can get away with when it comes to migrants, a class of people helpfully marginalized and neglected by the general populace, is what it intends to do with everyone.
So today, on this national day of action against Bill C-51, we must refuse to take the bait. We must reject the racism inherent in this system. We must stand in solidarity with the victims of secret trials and indefinite immigrant detention. We must see the struggles of those without legal status, of those deemed terrorists, of those hidden away in centres used for immigration detention, as our own — because they are. Perhaps not today, but eventually.
On this national day of action, let’s remember that there was a movement to abolish security certificates throughout this country and that it achieved much, with none of the five men detained on security certificates deported, with no new certificates being issued since, with the Supreme Court of Canada having to admit in 2007 that it was in violation of principles of justice, and with two of the detainees having the case against them quashed in 2009.
So, today, let’s recognize that, with continued mass mobilization, it is an inevitability that bill C-51 will not only be challenged but will be crushed.