They are pacing the price for ‘Security’

Posted by admin on Jul 4th, 2004

Vancouver Sun, 3 July 2004
Neal Hall

Vancouver resident Mohamed Khan was returning from London in May when government airport officials checked his baggage and took him to a room for questioning, which lasted more than an hour. “I was the only one out of 300 passengers to be thoroughly interrogated,” said Khan. “I was the only person taken to the side.” He feels the incident was the result of his name, which suggests he is Muslim.

Previously, he said, he had been questioned about his reasons for going to Germany and the U.S., asked about where he stayed while overseas and if he was bringing more than $10,000 cash into Canada.

“I’ve been travelling since 1959,” said Khan, a 71-year-old retired travel agent who calls himself a globetrotter. “I’m addicted to travelling.”

But he is offended by the frequent questioning he has experienced at Vancouver’s airport, especially since the U.S. terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He points out that he was born a British subject in Tanzania, his parents were born in India, he came to Canada in 1987 and became a Canadian citizen in 1991.

He has written letters of complaint about his treatment to Air Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency and Anne McLellan, the federal minister of pub-lic safety and emergency preparedness, who is in charge of border security.

“It is racism and profiling based on a person whose name appears to be Muslim,” Khan said of his past experiences. He’s not alone in that sentiment.

Earlier this month, a Muslim cleric from Texas arrived at Vancouver’s airport for a visit with his son and grandson, who live in Vancouver. Mohammed Zaki Alswij was wearing his religious robes when he arrived with his wife and 18-year-old daughter.

He believes his robes may have played a role in Canadian immigration officials seeing him as a potential danger and refusing him entry into the country.

“I asked, ‘What is the reason [for being denied entry]?’ They said, ‘We cannot tell you,’ ” Alswij recalled in an interview from his home in Houston.

He was detained for more than 50 hours at Vancouver’s airport before he was allowed to voluntarily return home. Although he had visited Canada in the late 1980s to lecture at universities, he was told by officials at the airport that he was considered a security threat.

He believes the reason he was targeted is because he was an identifiable Muslim.

Nancy Bray of Citizenship and Immigration Canada said privacy laws prevent her from discussing individual cases.

But she denied immigration officials are involved in racial profiling, defined as targeting someone because of their racial origins.

Bray said people can be denied entry for lack of proper identification or having a criminal record, which could be a danger to public safety.

People also can be detained, she added, for three reasons: if officials are uncertain of a person’s true identity, if there is a risk that the person won’t appear for an immigration hearing, or if there are criminal or security concerns.

Alswij, 53, said he had no criminal record and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The imam, or priest, is also a Shiite scholar who has lectured on Islam at universities worldwide.

He said he fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein almost 30 years ago. He moved to Texas in 1987 after surviving what he believes was an assassination attempt ordered by Saddam.

While Alswij understands the need for tighter security after the U.S. terrorist attacks, he said he never had problems travelling until he arrived at Vancouver airport June 5.

He recalled that Canadian officials, seeing in his passport that he had visited Iraq after the fall of Saddam, wanted to know why he had gone there.

The priest told authorities he had visited his parents in Basra and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite leader.

While al-Sistani doesn’t oppose the U.S. occupation, he speaks for the interests of 15 million Shiites who were brutally repressed by Saddam and
make up about 60 per cent of Iraq’s population.

Alswij maintains he is a religious person but is not political. Still, he says, Canadian authorities told him he could be a threat to Canada while refusing to be more specific.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Zool Suleman said Alswij’s experience illustrates that the process of being denied entry to Canada isn’t transparent enough.

“I think there are some legitimate privacy concerns,” the lawyer said, “but we’re left with the sense that this fellow feels he was wrongly barred from entering.”

Suleman said it appears Alswij wasn’t stopped because of random checks, but because his robes identified him as a Muslim.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 have led to a significant rise in Arab and Muslim people being detained and closely scrutinized at Canada-U.S. borders, the lawyer said.

“I think they are being racially profiled,” Suleman said, adding that the government tends to hide behind privacy legislation when asked about specific cases.

One of the results of the heightened security awareness, he added, is that the acceptance rate for refugees has dropped — from about 48 per cent in the mid-1990s to below 40 per cent since the attacks in New York and Washington almost three years ago.

He also pointed out that last December saw the creation of the Canada Border Services Agency, which replaced Canada customs and is “like Homeland Security [in the U.S.].” A large part of the CBSA is security, intelligence and immigration enforcement, he added.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is so concerned about second-hand reports of Canadians within the Muslim community being targeted at the border that it has began to document problems.

“We call it the Muslim Voices project,” explained Murray Mollard, executive director of the BCCLA. “We want to ensure Muslim Canadians and landed immigrants are treated fairly and equally in the eyes of the law.

“Even foreigners have a right to expect some kind of transparency [when questioned at a Canadian border entry point], to be able to respond to allegations.”

BCCLA members are working with various groups on the project, including the B.C. Muslim Association, the Islamic Society of B.C., the Islamic Information Centre, the Muslim Youth Centre, the Pakistani-Canada Association and Muslim Women in Da’Wah.

The association, which already has started visiting local mosques and Islamic centres in Greater Vancouver to conduct information sessions, is encouraging members of the community to come forward to discuss concerns about mistreatment at borders and the impact of the post-Sept. 11 world on their lives.

Mollard said one of the BCCLA’s concerns is that it may be difficult for Muslim Canadians to come forward.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said people who are questioned by border authorities, immigration officials or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) often don’t want to complain about their treatment because they don’t want to draw further attention to themselves.

She said CSIS agents have questioned people at work, resulting in them being fired.

“It’s created a situation where many Arabs and Muslims are questioning whether Canada is living up to its reputation of respecting people’s rights,” Dench said.

“They only have to look at what happened to Maher Arar. Having lunch with the wrong person could lead to torture.”

Arar, 34, was detained by U.S. officials on suspicion of terrorism during a September 2002 stopover in New York as he returned from a family vacation in Tunisia, where his wife was born.

Arar’s presence in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, had raised concerns.

The U.S. deported the Canadian citizen to his birthplace of Syria, where he was imprisoned for several months before being released. Arar says he was repeatedly tortured into giving false confessions while in Syrian custody. He denies any involvement in terrorism.

The federal government has begun a public inquiry into the Arar case, including looking at Arar’s claim that while in U.S. custody he was shown a copy of his apartment lease, which was co-signed by a man with suspected links to terrorist activity — links that Arar says he knew nothing about.

“It suggests someone was spying on him or somebody from the [Canadian] government was sharing information,” Dench said.

Arar wants people to recognize he was wrongly suspected and hopes the stain tarnishing his reputation will be removed by the inquiry, she added.

“Once the word terrorism or security risk is raised, you can never recover your virginity,” Dench pointed out.

The U.S. likes to point to Canada’s refugee claims system, suggesting it is faulty and poses a security risk to the U.S., but the reality is that sophisticated criminals and terrorists don’t use the refugee claims system to enter Canada, she said.

“You have to be fingerprinted and interviewed,” Dench explained of the refugee claims process. CSIS also runs the names of refugee claimants through computer files right at the start to see if there are any criminal convictions, associations or terrorist links. “We’re not opposed to that,” she said.

But very few names ring CSIS alarm bells, she added, noting that in 2001, out of more than 30,000 refugee claims in Canada, only one was found to be ineligible after security checks.

Some refugees are still being unfairly targeted and investigated for security reasons, she said. “The Muslim and Arab communities are concerned about being racially profiled,” Dench said. Linking immigration with terrorism has a very damaging effect on immigrants, making them feel that they are always under suspicion, she added.

“We need a strong commitment from government that there is a problem with racial profiling and address it,” Dench said. “There needs to be accountability.”

She pointed out that there don’t appear to be any consequences for government officials who suspect people of having terrorist links — suspicions that late prove to be unjustified.


There is another sore point in the post Sept. 11 world for refugee claimants from Algeria: many are now facing deportation after a moratorium on deportations was lifted.

“Up until 2002, there was a moratorium on Algerians because it was considered an unsafe place,” said Harsha Walia, who recently took part in a protest against Algerian deportations outside the Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices in Vancouver.

Algerians are being sent back with the specified reason that it is no longer a danger to return people there. But, as Walia pointed out, an estimated 120,000 people have been killed and more than one million have disappeared during the bloody civil war there during the last decade.

“Amnesty International called the lifting of the moratorium premature,” Walia added.

She said most Algerian refugees, who speak French, live in Quebec, which allows Algerians to apply to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds. But other provinces don’t have their own immigration department, as Quebec does.

The lifting of the moratorium, Walia said, potentially affects more than 500 Algerians seeking refugee status in Canada.

Generally, it is more difficult for refugees to successfully seek asylum in Canada and to become permanent Canadian residents.

Following the terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001, Canada moved quickly to enact the Anti-Terrorism Act on Dec. 24, 2001. the act introduced sweeping new powers to detain and investigate suspects.

Last April, a number of prominent national organizations representing refugees, Muslims and Arabs had a round-table discussion with Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan.

They asked for a thorough review of Canada’s existing security legislation to ensure it conforms with democratic values and the rule of law, including constitutional rights and protections.

Among those who took part in the discussion were Dench, Riad Saloojee of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, Audrey Jamal of the Canadian Arab Federation and Adam Esse of the Coalition of Muslim Organizations.

One of their top concerns is the issue of security certificates, which the groups say violate fair trial standards and Canada’s international human rights obligations.

Under the ant-terrorism security certificate process, individuals are held for extended periods of time without charge, are denied a fair opportunity to see the evidence against them, are unable to mount a meaningful challenge to the lawfulness of their detention and face deportation from Canada and possible risk of persecution in their country of birth.

The groups also asked the minister to wait for the recommendations of the Arar inquiry before conducting a three-year review of the anti-terrorism act.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has charged that the current distrust and suspicion of Arab and Muslim people living in Canada is similar to how Japanese Canadians were treated during the Second World War, when many were interned for security reasons.

George Radwanski, Canada’s former privacy commissioner, expressed concern to the government last year about sharing information gathered by airlines, including meal choices, which might indicate a person’s religion because of kosher or halal preferences.

The privacy commissioner also opposed the government introducing a national identity card scheme as part of security tightening.

“It would have enormously damaging implications for privacy rights,” he warned. “It is totally foreign to our Canadian traditions and values. And it would cost anywhere between $3 billion and $5 billion . . . money that could be far better spent on purposes that help us rather than harm us.”

Radwanski argued that a national ID scheme would drastically infringe on the right of Canadians to anonymity, which is a key part of their fundamental right of privacy. As it stands now, agents of the state have no right to require Canadians to identify themselves in day-to-day activities unless they are being arrested or are driving.

And the creation of a “biometric national identity card” — possibly containing a fingerprint _ could open the door to relentless tracking of Canadians’ daily activities, transactions and whereabouts, the commissioner said.

He suggested the Canadian passport is already an effective document in allowing entry to the U.S. and preventing identity theft.

In the past few years, immigration critics point out, Canada has consistently fallen short of its immigration target: to increase immigration levels to approximately one per cent of the population, which would mean admitting about 300,000 immigrants a year.

Last year, Canada admitted 250,588. In 2000, it admitted 227,209. In 1999, the figure was 189,991 and in 1998, it was 174,162.

One of the reasons for tightened immigration and border security was revealed in a once-secret RCMP intelligence brief on terrorism, which warned that Canada could suffer terrorist attacks in the wake of any post 9/11 military action by the U.S.

The report urged Canada to strengthen its security. Failure to do so would result in Canada being “the weak link in the North American defence against terrorism,” said the RCMP brief, titled A Year of Change in the Fight Against Terrorist Activity in Canada.

The report, obtained by an Ottawa researcher under the Access to Information Act, also said: “Although there have been no direct connections made between Canada and the suicide hijackers, the links to the 1999 Ressam case are still brought up as an example of Canada’s role in the compromise of U.S. domestic security.”

The terrorist attacks of 2001 in the U.S. have been called a horrible failure of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Canada’s own intelligence failure was the case of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who sought asylum in Canada in 1999 and never showed up for his refugee hearing.

He wasn’t arrested in Canada, even though the French had warned authorities here about him. He was arrested by U.S. authorities as he tried to drive into Washington State from Canada with a trunkload of explosives on Dec. 14, 1999.

Ressam had stayed in Vancouver at the 2400 Motel on Kingsway, where he supposedly put together bomb components, before travelling to the U.S. aboard a ferry from Victoria. He was eventually tried, convicted and jailed in the U.S. for planning to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

He was a member of a Montreal cell of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which had strong ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.

An alleged accomplice of Ressam in the bombing plot was Samir Ait Mohamed, who is currently in custody in Vancouver facing an extradition hearing. Arrested in 2001, he is wanted in the U.S. on charges that he allegedly helped Ressam, who was trained by Osama bin Laden.

Mohamed is a former law student whose diabetes kept him from going to terrorist training camp. He left Algeria in 1989 and tried unsuccessfully to gain refugee status in England and Germany before entering Canada in 1997.

He was denied Canadian refugee status in 1998 but appealed and was granted a new hearing in 1999. He was originally arrested in Montreal for deportation and brought to Vancouver.

The U.S. charges against Mohamed accuse him of trying to obtain weapons for Ressam so Ressam could rob banks and raise money for the Los Angeles attack. He is also accused of conspiracy to commit credit card fraud.

An FBI affidavit, filed in U.S. court, has alleged Mohamed agreed “to get Ressam two hand-grenades and a machine-gun with a silencer.” Mohamed allegedly provided a nine-millimetre semi-automatic pistol with a silencer, knowing Ressam intended a terrorist attack.

Mohamed is also accused of working with another Algerian conspirator, Mokhtar Haouari, to obtain a credit card under an alias for Ressam’s use in connection with his planned terrorist acts.

Ressam became the key witness in a New York trial that resulted in Haouari’s conviction for his role in the bomb plot. Ressam told the court he and Mohamed talked about “blowing up a neighbourhood in Canada where there was an Israeli interest” — a reference to the Outremont area of Montreal, where he had lived and associated with Ressam.

A White House memo declassified last April described the Canadian terrorist cell’s 1999 plot to blow up the L.A. airport as Osama bin Laden’s “first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the U.S.”

The memo was delivered to U.S. President George W. Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, about a month before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.

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