Gitmo North’s last Security Certificate prisoner still in limbo

Posted by admin on Sep 9th, 2007 – Canada – Gitmo North’s last prisoner in limbo after 6 years
September 05, 2007, Michelle Shephard

BATH, Ont.–Hassan Almrei strolls from his cell wearing a pressed cream shirt, dress pants and polished black shoes. If not for the barbed wire behind him, the 33-year-old Syrian could be on his way to a corporate board meeting, not an interview with a journalist as the remaining detainee in a prison dubbed “Guantanamo North.”  Almrei has fought a series of public and legal battles to get to this point. Over the six years of his detention he has stopped eating, sometimes for weeks at a time, to pressure the government to grant him privileges like wearing a watch, or stopping the daily strip searches.

“I don’t think I should have to go through nine or 10 hunger strikes while I’m in prison to know what time it is, to have shoes on my feet,” he said during an interview with the Toronto Star inside the prison.

Last summer, he was able to make his first phone call to relatives in Saudi Arabia. “I haven’t been able to call them for years. I had to go on a hunger strike just to call my mom and tell her, `Look, I’m alive’. ”

There are no other prisoners in the $3.2 million specially designed prison on the grounds of Millhaven’s maximum-security penitentiary near Kingston – only Almrei, who was arrested one month after the 9/11 attacks for alleged connections to Al Qaeda. He has never been charged with a criminal offence. Four other suspects were released on stringent conditions.

A bail decision is pending any day now for Almrei, who came to Canada from Saudi Arabia in 1999 as a landed immigrant and ran an unsuccessful pita restaurant in Yorkville before his arrest.

But he faces one obstacle in his release that the other suspects didn’t have. Almrei is not married, nor does he have any family in Canada. That means despite support he has received from a number of high-profile Canadians, and his willingness to wear a GPS monitoring bracelet, he can’t offer the security of a 24-hour-a-day supervisor.

When the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre opened last year, Almrei’s supporters called it Guantanamo North. But Almrei himself is quick to note the differences between his confinement and the imprisonment of 355 terrorism suspects at the U.S. base in southeastern Cuba. “It’s a million times different than Guantanamo Bay, of course it is, and you know what, I’m lucky to be detained in this country. I’m not denying that. (But) they’re not talking about the colour of the clothes, it’s the principle. The principle of Guantanamo Bay.”

And like the legal quagmire that is Guantanamo, there is no foreseeable end to Almrei’s case.

Six months ago, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the immigration law that keeps him behind bars. National security certificates had been used in rare cases to deport non-citizens deemed a risk to Canada. But the court ruled the law was unconstitutional because it allows the government to rely on secret evidence from Canada’s spy service, without giving defendants a chance to refute the allegations. Parliament was given a year to amend the law before it’s declared invalid.

If Almrei’s most recent attempt to get bail is denied, he’ll remain in prison until Parliament enacts a new law – and he could again face deportation under the new system.

Hanging over the proceedings is the unresolved question as to whether Canada will knowingly deport non-citizens to face torture in their home countries. All five of the men – from Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria – say they will be tortured or killed if returned, and in some instances the Canadian government has agreed that’s likely.

A 2002 Supreme Court decision ruled deportations could occur only in “exceptional circumstances,” but did not elaborate. That question is expected to again go before the Supreme Court, which means months, if not years more before the issue is decided.

“After six years in prison without being charged with any single crime, I think the Canadian people, the Canadian public, should come to the conclusion themselves … that after all these years, they cannot come (up) with one single … real crime to show the public this is dangerous to the public,” Almrei said. “I think the public should say enough is enough, that’s it.”

In a July bail hearing, a spy with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said the government believes Almrei supports Al Qaeda’s ideology and there is classified evidence that proves it. “The Service’s position is we are not willing to take a chance with this person being out unsupervised and free to resume his activities, given that we have no evidence that he has shed his prior beliefs,” the agent testified.

While disillusioned by the federal government, Almrei said he has only grown to love his adopted country more during his incarceration.

“Even though I’m in jail now, people may think I have some anger, or sorry I came to this country, (but) even if I knew before I came this is what would happen to me, I still would have come to this country. Why? After all these years behind bars I came to know many, many Canadian people, which I really have respect and admiration for them. I feel it’s worth it.”

Almrei checks his new watch. The 90 minutes are done. He saunters back to his cell for another day behind bars.

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