Branded as terrorist threat, men languish in Toronto jail
Jul. 17, 2004. 12:20 AM
There are faint traces of other visits in Booth 13 at the Toronto West Detention Centre.
Fingerprints, some so small they must be from a child, smudge the Plexiglas that separates visitor from inmate. In the corner, just above the sticker that reads "bullet resisting glazing material," is an outline, in red lipstick, of a kiss.
A fan hums as it pumps cold air into the sterile room. The pounding echo of doors slamming and locking is constant.
Mahmoud Jaballah is escorted into the visitors' room and sits on a small stool, pauses and then picks up the phone. Dark half-moons cradle his eyes. Small beads of sweat build over his upper lip and quickly reappear every time he wipes them away.
It's the first time Jaballah has given a face-to-face interview with a reporter since being incarcerated nearly three years ago for alleged ties to terrorism. The quick answers, heavy sighs and monotone delivery, though, make it clear that this is not the first time he's told his story.
"I try to be a nice person," he says quietly into the receiver. "I got a job, principal of a school. I didn't do anything."
Canada's spy agency believes otherwise and the evidence it gave the government, mostly in private, was enough to convince the federal immigration minister and solicitor-general to sign a national security certificate, one of only 27 issued in the past decade.
With powers granted under the Immigration Act, the government's signing of a certificate is the first step in deporting a non-citizen on the grounds that they pose a security risk. The certificate must be upheld by a Federal Court of Canada judge.
Currently there are five detained men whom the federal government wants deported because of their alleged ties to terrorist organizations. Along with Jaballah, two refugees — Syrian-born Hassan Almrei and Egyptian Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub — are at the Toronto West Detention Centre.
Mahjoub's detention in solitary confinement appears the most severe.
His former lawyer said he was sexually harassed by guards. A court recently heard Mahjoub has contracted hepatitis C since his incarceration, and Jaballah said he can recall at least one time when he heard the normally sedate Mahjoub wildly screaming at the guards, warning them not to touch him while he was naked and demanding to talk with a captain.
No official complaint has been logged with the detention centre, though, the head of security noted during the recent court hearing.
All of the men have so far been denied bail as the courts grapple with various legal aspects facing the deportations and detentions, hearings that can take years to wind through Federal Court.
Those who criticize the process, Amnesty International among them, say prolonged detentions without charges being laid are an abuse of human rights. They also condemn the practice of providing evidence to a judge without the accused and his lawyer being present.
"If they have done something, ... charge them with an offence under the Criminal Code, allow them to see the evidence, allow them to answer that evidence in an open, fair trial," argues Matthew Behrens, one of the founders of the group The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada.
"Give them the same rights that someone who has picked up a gun and killed six people would have if that person went to court. He would have the right to full disclosure and he's actually committed a horrible crime. These guys haven't been accused of committing a crime."
Others argue that with an immigration system often accused of being lax, the security certificate process is one aspect of the law that has teeth.
The men may not be accused of specific crimes, but the very nature of security cases is about rooting out terrorists before atrocities are committed, says Martin Rudner, director of Carleton University's Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security in Ottawa. If American security agents had acted upon the seemingly innocuous connections between the airplane hijackers before Sept. 11, 2001, Rudner says, perhaps the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon could have been thwarted.
"The security certificate process allows the intelligence community to disclose to a Federal Court judge what their evidence is and the judge — as a judge of the Federal Court, not a member of the security intelligence community — can weigh the validity of the evidence," Rudner says.
"The evidence is not disclosed in a way which compromises the security of Canada, and a person who the judge decides is a threat to Canada and not a Canadian citizen, and is here under threatening circumstances, that person is deported."
The Supreme Court of Canada has already waded into the constitutionality of the hearings, ruling in 2002 that Canada can only deport non-citizens to countries where they face torture in "exceptional" cases involving national security, as long as they're given a fair chance to argue their case.
But that ruling has yet to be tested and "exceptional" defined.
"It's only through litigation of additional cases where we can come to understand what that means," says lawyer John Norris, who represents the Toronto detainees.
"Canada ought not to take lightly the surrendering of someone who would be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment or death."
Norris believes the Supreme Court ruling is meant to apply to notorious war criminals or someone who has committed a crime where "overwhelming evidence" is presented — not the allegations his client faces.
In a complicated legal battle that began in 1999, Jaballah now finds himself again this week back at the beginning, after the Federal Court ordered a new hearing to challenge the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's assertions.
It could take months, if not years, to conclude.
If one can be judged solely by the company one keeps, Jaballah appears to be guilty.
He attended an Egyptian university where authorities say members of Al Jihad were recruited. (Al Jihad is the outlawed Egyptian group that claimed responsibility for the 1981 assassination of the country's president, Anwar Sadat, and that would later join forces with Al Qaeda.)
Jaballah himself was fingered as an Al Jihad member by Egyptian authorities, which led to his frequent detention in Cairo, but each time he was eventually released after being defended in court by a lawyer named Tharwat Salah Shehata.
Shehata later went to Afghanistan and ran Osama bin Laden's civilian branch of Al Qaeda, authorities state.
Then there's Jaballah's work with the International Islamic Relief Organization in Pakistan, where he went before coming to Canada in 1996. Questions are now being raised as to whether that charity was used to finance bin Laden's operations.
In Canada and Pakistan, Jaballah also knew Egyptian-born Canadian Ahmed Said Khadr, who was killed in an October fight with Pakistani authorities and whose son admitted in a documentary earlier this year that he belonged to an "Al Qaeda family." Jaballah also knew Kassem Daher, now detained in Lebanon on suspected terrorism charges.
But Jaballah's lawyer argued that each assertion could be countered, in large part because Jaballah knew these men at a time when there were no allegations of terrorism against them. Much of the information CSIS relied upon, his lawyer also disputed, came from Egypt, known for its human rights abuses and questionable security investigations.
Jaballah has consistently denied any Al Jihad connection and blames the Canadian government for perpetuating the persecution that forced him to flee Egypt.
`Give them the same rights that someone who has picked up a gun and killed six people would have if that person went to court'
Matthew Behrens, a founder of the group The Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada
A Federal Court judge agreed there was a lack of evidence and, in what was only the second time in Canadian history, the security certificate was quashed some 11 months after it was signed in 1999.
Once released, Jaballah resumed life in Scarborough with his wife and six children, and continued as director of an Islamic school he founded.
Then in August, 2001, he was arrested, again, making history. He became the only Canadian immigrant to be issued two national security certificates, and this time CSIS claimed it had new information.
"I was surprised, why, why are you doing this again?" the 41-year-old says now when he recalls that day.
"I thought I was in a dream. When they took me ... I was pulling my hair out."
The new information included the fact that while preparing for his refugee hearing in Toronto, Jaballah sought help from the U.K.'s International Office for the Defence of Egyptian People (IODEP). That put him in contact with Adil Abd al Bari and Abu Abdallah, also known as Ibrahim Eidarous.
Those two men now sit in a British jail on conspiracy charges in connection to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, attacks masterminded by bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman Al Zawahiri. They're fighting their extradition to the United States.
There were also fingerprints sent by Interpol concerning an individual identified as Mahmoud Said — wanted in Egypt in relation to his membership to a terrorist organization — that were found to match Jaballah's.
A post office box in Toronto, which security agents say was used by Al Jihad, was also cited by CSIS, but no details were provided.
CSIS agents also noted that Jaballah's phone number was allegedly in the possession of Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub, who was detained on a national security certificate in June, 2000.
Every time Mahjoub leaves his solitary-confinement cell at the Toronto West Detention Centre for a court appearance, a team of heavily armed police officers travels with him. For one appearance last year, police arrived at the downtown courthouse eight hours ahead of Mahjoub to sweep the building for bombs.
There's another picture that has played out recently in a court hearing where his lawyers argue that his detention amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment." This scene involves a clearly shaken Mahjoub, sobbing, when asked to recount how repeated strip-searches affect a Muslim inmate. Or there's the short visit, permitted after four years and under guard, where Mahjoub was able to hug his two young Canadian-born sons.
Like Jaballah, Mahjoub is accused of belonging to Al Jihad, but his position is alleged to be more prestigious. He's an alleged high-ranking member of the Vanguards of Conquest, a radical wing of the Egyptian Al Jihad, according to court documents.
For allegedly holding that position, Mahjoub, 44, has been convicted in absentia in Egypt and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Mahjoub has also admitted to living in Sudan (after he fled Egypt and before he arrived in Canada), where he worked as a manager of 4,000 employees at Damazin Farm, a massive agricultural company run by Osama bin Laden himself.
Then there are phone records that show several calls in 1997 and 1998 between Mahjoub's home number and that of Essam Hafez Marzouk, now convicted of terrorism in Egypt.
And, like Jaballah, he knew suspected Canadian Al Qaeda financier Khadr and lived in Khadr's in-laws' Scarborough home when he arrived in Canada.
Mahjoub's defence, much like that of Jaballah's, is that the proof offered publicly was circumstantial.
Their lawyers also point out that the men cited were not connected to terrorism groups at the time of contact with Mahjoub and Jaballah. Most notable was bin Laden, who was not a foe of the U.S. at the time he worked in Sudan.
A Federal Court judge disagreed and upheld the certificate. Mahjoub's hearing to challenge the constitutionality of his detention resumes in September.
Unlike the allegations facing the other men, Syrian-born Hassan Almrei has conceded some of the claims CSIS has publicly made against him but argues they don't provide links to terrorism.
Almrei, 30, did leave his home in Saudi Arabia, where he lived with his family after they fled Syria to attend a camp in Afghanistan. It was run by Ibn Khettab, a Saudi who was later sent to Chechnya to lead a rebel unit, but Almrei did not participate in arms training at the camp and it was not Al Qaeda-related, he states.
Almrei also admits getting Nabil al-Marabh a false passport through an unidentified Montreal connection. Al-Marabh was initially accused of terrorism connections and detained in the U.S., but he was deported to Syria on an immigration violation after all terrorism allegations had been cleared.
A judge has upheld the validity of the security certificate signed against Almrei. But he has been granted a stay in that deportation order to argue that the torture he faces in Syria would outweigh the potential risk he poses to Canada.
Almrei, too, came recently to Booth 13 for an interview.
He's unapologetic about obtaining fraudulent passports. Since his father was a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, he says, it's not uncommon for refugees to obtain fake documents to travel. He had some old connections and he used them for a profit, Almrei says.
Charge him criminally for obtaining false passports, he states; don't accuse him of terrorism and hold him indefinitely.
As for his attendance at the camp, Almrei scoffs.
"Thousands of Muslim guys went to Afghanistan to fight," he says, noting that when he left, Saudi airlines were offering 75-per-cent discounts on flights to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviet occupation.
Despite being frustrated by not hearing all of the allegations he faces, Jaballah says he still looks forward to again challenging the government's claims and hopes he'll make history again — this time as the only person to have two security certificates quashed.
For now, he's surviving by following the unwritten code that dictates life in prison. He seems to have adapted better than Almrei and Mahjoub, who remain in segregation. Jaballah lives on the general range and is appointed as the inmate who hands out meals.
Before being escorted from Booth 13, he asks to give a message to the Canadian public.
"I am a father. I am an innocent man. I didn't do anything here or in my country," he says into the phone.
"It's your right to worry about security and care about your country, I understand. But this is my life, my innocence."