RCMP clears itself in 'terror cell' sweep

Oct. 6, 2004. 06:18 AM

Sajjad Ahmad (second from left) and Mohammad Asif (third) prepare to discuss their arrest on a Pakistani talk show.

It started with the May 2003 arrest of two men for alleged immigration violations. By August it exploded on the front pages, with 19 men in custody and reports of a possible Al Qaeda sleeper cell in Toronto.


Within a month, it dissolved into two dozen routine cases of immigration fraud.


Now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police say they have no reason to apologize for Project Thread, the investigation that led to the arrest of a group of predominantly Pakistani students last year and put the spotlight on Canada's post-Sept. 11 immigration laws and handling of national security.


An internal RCMP review, obtained by the Toronto Star, absolves the force of any wrongdoing and says it conducted a "sound and logical investigation."


Officers with the joint RCMP and immigration task force pursued a legitimate fraud case and were not motivated by racism, writes RCMP Inspector Steve Martin in a letter summarizing the review.


"All of the arrests were lawfully made for offences under the (Immigration and Refugee Protection Act) and were either pre-authorized by warrant or subsequently supported by the courts," Martin wrote.


But it wasn't the immigration violations that the 23 accused men say ruined their lives, but the stigma of being accused of terrorist activities. (Supporters of the detained men say there were 24 arrested, not 23.)


Evidence presented at the detention review hearings for the men pointed to suspicious activity, such as the case of a student pilot whose flight path would take him over the Pickering nuclear plant, unexplained apartment fires where some of the suspects lived, and some suspects' apparent interest in prominent Toronto buildings such as the CN Tower.


Seven of the accused remain in Canada; most have applied for refugee status, arguing the terrorist label makes it dangerous for them to return home.


Lawyer Amina Sherazee, who represents three of the men, said she was not surprised by the findings of the RCMP report.


"It's the RCMP investigating themselves; they're not going to admit to any wrongdoing and they're not going to open themselves up to any liability with respect to wrongful prosecution and to give any credence to what the Project Thread detainees have said all along, that this is racial profiling."


Inspector Martin said in an interview that while the RCMP may have obtained some of the evidence gathered about the suspects, immigration officials were the ones who prepared a summary of the findings, which were presented at the public immigration hearings of the men and later obtained by the media.


Project Thread was the result of a six-month probe of a bogus Scarborough school called Ottawa Business College, which was handing out false acceptance letters, transcripts or diplomas for a fee without requiring foreign students to attend classes.


Students were detained, but the school's owner was not charged with fraud.
'You have people without status easily being prosecuted.'


Lawyer Amina Sherazee


"The evidence was presented to crown attorneys from the Canadian Department of Justice (DOJ) with a view to laying criminal charges against the College under both the IRPA and the Criminal Code of Canada," writes Martin.


"At the recommendation of the DOJ, no criminal charges were laid."


Justice spokesperson Patrick Charette said yesterday that he couldn't comment on the case specifically, but generally the prospect of obtaining a conviction or deciding if pursuing the case is within the public interest are two of the factors crown attorneys will consider.


In a sworn declaration, submitted at the detention review hearings for the men, the school's director, Luther Samuel, admits he provided fraudulent documents to students.


"I acknowledge that, specifically with regard to male applicants from Pakistan and India, I was aware that the individuals accepted to the Ottawa Business College would not attend any classes or receive any instruction from the institution in Canada," Samuel states.


Sherazee said she believes charges weren't laid in an effort to avoid a conflict of interest.


She alleges that had the director of the Ottawa Business College been prosecuted and convicted, the students would become victims of fraud, rather than perpetrators.


This points, she claims, to a two-tier justice system for immigrants and citizens.


"You have, in fact, a Canadian citizen here who seems to be above the law because he was not being prosecuted under criminal law, whereas you have people without status easily being prosecuted under immigration law."


It's a concern shared by the retired Toronto Catholic priest whose letter to the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP sparked the internal RCMP review.


"It seems to me they were punishing the little dealer but leaving the big pusher untouched," said the 70-year-old priest, who asked that his name not be used.


It's the first time the Toronto resident has ever complained about the RCMP's actions, but he said yesterday in an interview that he was moved to do so after reading media reports chronicling the case and the effect the allegations had on the detained men.


"I've always fought for the underdog," he said yesterday. "I just didn't understand how they could leave these men twisting in the wind after they dropped the security allegations."


How the RCMP investigates its own actions was an issue that was raised in Ottawa yesterday, with the invitation to the public from Justice Dennis O'Conner, head of the public inquiry into the deportation and detention of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, to submit suggestions as to whether the RCMP needs a new review mechanism for their investigations into national security and, if so, what it should look like.


Part of the mandate of the inquiry, which is probing how Canadian officials may have been involved with Arar's detention at a New York airport on Sept. 26, 2002, and subsequent deportation to Syria, is to examine how the RCMP's activities are monitore