Torture taking flight from Canada?

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Drivers trying to use Fasken Drive in northwest Toronto were in for a surprise on Monday, August 11 when they discovered that a sizable stretch of the road was shut down in both directions by police barricades, complete with lights flashing atop patrol cars and a large âeoeRoad Closedâe sign.

This was all in honour of a planned vigil by members of Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture at the offices of a company called Skyservice.

The vigil was called for after the company had ignored six months of correspondence seeking a meeting to discuss our concerns about their possible contracts to deport Canadaâe(TM)s secret trial detainees to torture in Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

Such flights are illegal. Indeed, the Convention Against Torture states unequivocally that âeoeNo State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.âe

But such illegality has not prevented the Government of Canada from proceeding with its deportation efforts in these five and, indeed, numerous other cases where there is a risk of torture.

As the seven of us admired the finely choreographed police performance, it was an opportunity to reflect on the day when our journey to Skyservice began.

On February 13, 2007, Eugenie Hébert, Manager for Investigations and Removals at Inland Enforcement at the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), testified in Federal Court about arrangements then being made to forcibly remove secret trial detainee Mahmoud Jaballah to Egypt, even though he would likely face a substantial likelihood of torture or worse upon his arrival there.

Charter to torture

âeoeWe will arrange for a charter to remove the individual, on a commercial flight or a charter,âe Ms. Hébert explained under oath.

âeoeIn the case of Mr. Jaballah it will be a charter. That will have to be done with a private company ... For the charter, we have used a company called Skyservice in the past. I have contacted them, and they say between 48 hours and a week they could organize the flight.âe

With the news, we sent numerous letters to the company expressing our concerns and requesting a meeting, but all went unanswered. A surprise visit to their Etobicoke offices on May 1 was met by a nervous company representative who claimed we had the wrong company (see a video of that demonstration led by high school students).

We found that response strange, especially since on June 14, 2007, the Globe and Mail quoted Sandy Buik of Skyservice as saying such deportations are âeoeabsolutely the nature of some of the work that we do,âe and added that CBSA had engaged their services eight times since September 2005.

Generally, the term âeoeabsolutelyâe sounds like the kind of language that inspires a kind of unquestionable certainty, one that can be easily confirmed in a listing of government contracts worth over $10,000 for the CBSA. Indeed, Skyservice has often transported âeoenon-public servants.âe If CBSA is composed of public servants, would this refer, then, to refugees who are being deported? Typical 2008 Skyservice contracts have charged the government figures such as $195,415 and $182,453.

Public pressure works âe¦ sort of

It was because of the wall of silence that had greeted our increasingly urgent one-way correspondence that we called for a public vigil.

But then something happened. While calling for the vigil, we also asked people to write letters to the companyâe(TM)s executives urging that they meet with Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture. This seemed to work, since less than 48 hours after our appeal went out, the number of letters flooding Skyservice inboxes seemed sufficient to force their first official response.

On August 1, we received a phone call from the companyâe(TM)s Vice President of Legal Services and General Counsel, who pleasantly explained that due to a major reorganization of the company, Skyservice was no longer what its website made it out to be. In fact, she said, âeoeSkyservice Airlinesâe was a wholly separate entity from âeoeSkyservice Investments Inc.âe and âeoeSkyservice Business Aviation,âe and that it was the last entity (which shares a name, a website, and an email system, with the latter two relationships supposed to wither away eventually) that took on the deportation flights. Why this was not explained to us on our May 1 visit is unclear.

The counsel also wrote us a letter that ended by stating âeoewe trust that you will cancel or relocate the âe~public vigilâe(TM) currently intended to be held at our offices at 31 Fasken Drive.âe

While we did not want to protest at the wrong location, we did feel a responsibility to pick up individuals who may have decided to get there on their own steam. But before doing that, five of us set out from downtown Toronto for the offices of Skyservice Business Aviation, located in the heart of the airport grounds.

Chilling at the Avitat

We decided we would simply walk into the building without signs or placards and request a meeting with Russell Payson, the president of the company. Nervous reception workers sensed something was up when people not wearing business suits and carrying fancy leather briefcases entered the elegant âeoeAvitat,âe a fancy name for the corporate hub where business travellers await their boarding call.

One tried to imagine what it might be like in this pleasant waiting area should the day eventually come that Canadaâe(TM)s courts order the secret trial detainees deported to torture (an issue that has yet to be decided in the Canadian courts, though the security certificate process that marks the first step of judicially-stamped rendition to torture is slated to begin anew this fall for all five individuals).

Would the detainee be offered coffee or tea, or would he be the odd-looking one in the corner with an orange jumpsuit and hood over his head, generating nervous chatter amongst the bankers on their way to an important discussion on raising credit card interest rates?

We were told this fine August 11 that Mr. Paysonâe(TM)s appointments secretary was off until Labour Day (at least the company appears to have a decent vacation policy) and that the president himself was in an all-day meeting, but we took a card with the hope that maybe this time we could bag that prized meeting.

We returned to the old Skyservice location on Fasken Drive, only to find the road blockade set up in our honour. Two individuals who had travelled to join our vigil were standing on a curb, having been told they could not sit on the grass because it was âeoeprivate property.âe They had been told that the road would be closed for three hours.

As we picked up our two friends, explaining the corporate confusion over which was the right Skyservice, a man who had been hiding in the bushes suddenly jumped out and started taking our pictures. By the time we figured out what was going on, he jumped back behind the trees. We were disappointed that the undercover photo man disappeared so fast that we did not have time to smile for our file, and were ever so grateful that he ducked out again to take a few more snaps, this time catching our friendly waves and smiles.

Airport Authority: No policy on renditions

We then headed to our final destination, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), described as a âeoeprivate, not-for-profit corporation responsible for airports in the Greater Toronto area, including operation, construction and maintenance.âe As part of their corporate vision, they plan to âeoedevelop and adopt a corporate social responsibility program,âe so we figured a vigil at their headquarters would be an appropriate close to the dayâe(TM)s journey.

While another undercover officer eventually showed up across the street and hid behind the bushes at the excess snow dumping site, we pulled out our orange jumpsuits and black hoods and banners and set up shop on the lonely sidewalk.

Eventually, three of us went inside and asked if we could speak to someone to determine whether the GTAA had any policies with respect to the grounds of the airport being used to commit a criminal offence (complicity in torture via allowing a deportation flight to take off from the grounds).

After explaining our concerns to three separate security managers, we finally spoke to someone in corporate affairs who certainly knew Canadian aviationâe(TM)s worst kept secret âe" that indeed, he confirmed, Skyservice Business Aviation does deportation flights.

We asked whether, given the high profile nature of rendition flights, the news that Canada has hosted almost 100 known CIA flights, and that the issue is so well known that even Hollywood stars like Reese Witherspoon are starring in movies about the issue, the GTAA had a policy with respect to them.

The gentleman was honest if nothing else. No.

Had the GTAA discussed the ethics and legalities of the issue? Not to his knowledge.

Was the issue of deportation to torture on their future agenda? Not that he knew of.

In essence, anything goes at Canadaâe(TM)s largest airport if, in his words, it is âeoesafe and legal.âe

Given that the Canadian government has a very slippery definition of what is legal (especially when it comes to human rights violations), the statement was a concern, but the GTAA rep did say, however, that he would be interested in receiving material with respect to our concerns (a far sight better than our response thus far from Skyservice).

Next steps

While we prepare materials for the folks at the GTAA, we are now renewing our efforts to meet with Russell Payson, the President of Skyservice Business Aviation (not to be confused with Skyservice Airlines).

We would ask that those who support the idea of getting us a meeting with Skyservice Business Aviation contact Mr. Payson and politely ask that he meet with representatives of Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture. Perhaps express your concern that Skyservice would consider taking part in a deportation to torture flight.

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