Under the eyes of the state


OTTAWA — Globe and Mail


For the mostly housebound Harkats, even the most mundane excursion can test the limits of national security.

When they do venture out, agents tail them incessantly in government cars. Go through an amber light? Make a U-turn? The agents call in the possible infractions on walkie-talkies. When the couple, Mohamed and Sophie Harkat, went to see Bon Cop, Bad Cop at the movie theatre, officials turned up to sit behind them. They've even followed Mr. Harkat into washrooms.

"It's ridiculous," an exasperated Mr. Harkat said in an interview, sitting in their basement apartment at his mother-in-law's house in Ottawa. "They just want my life to be difficult. There is no danger in going to the bathroom to take a pee."

A 38-year-old Algerian immigrant, Mr. Harkat has never been charged with a crime. But he did spend nearly four years jailed under an extraordinary Canadian law that declares him a possible al-Qaeda agent. Then, last June, he was released on house arrest to live at his in-laws', after his French-Canadian wife vowed she would effectively serve as his warden.

But the Harkats, who are permitted up to 12 hours of outside time a week, are finding that normalcy eludes them. They live in a peculiar legal limbo, getting by on social assistance, costing the government untold thousands of dollars -- with no end in sight.

Mr. Harkat is one of five alleged immigrant Islamists deemed threats to public safety by federal security certificates.

On Thursday, after a seven-year detention, the government released Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub, an Egyptian who once ran a Sudanese farming operation for Osama bin Laden. Another Egyptian terrorism suspect, Mahmoud Jaballah, was freed yesterday.

In each case, judges who have seen classified intelligence have upheld the certificates. But they also won't violate the suspects' rights by deporting them or jailing them indefinitely.

This has left house arrest as the best bad option, a situation that appears to be spawning a legion of government minders tailing a handful of immigrants. The Harkats are fighting in court to get their controls relaxed.

Mr. Harkat, along with two of the other immigrants, also challenged the security certificates as a whole. In response, Canada's Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the certificates in February as being grossly unfair to terrorism suspects, giving Parliament a year-long grace period to come up with an acceptable substitute.

But in the meantime, Canada's top security official says release terms such as the Harkats' are not onerous, considering what's at stake.

"In general terms, I have little sympathy for people who come to this country, with records that . . . makes them dangerous to Canadians," Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said in an interview. The government, he said, will do everything it can "to make sure that Canadians are not harmed by individuals like that."

He added pointedly: "These people are free at any time to go back to their country of origin."

When a Globe and Mail reporter asked to visit the Harkats at their Ottawa apartment, Ms. Harkat requested his personal information: She has to first get all visitors cleared by the Canada Border Services Agency. Because this technically remains a deportation case, it is handled by border guards.

The outside of the Harkat home is monitored by two closed-circuit cameras affixed to the roofing. There are no cameras inside the house, but the phone line is tapped.

Once the journalist was granted approval and showed up at the door, Ms. Harkat asked that he check his cellphone at the threshold -- her husband is banned from using mobile phones. The phone was stashed in the mailbox, the same one where the couple receives letters only after they're opened by government officials, according to the Harkats.

"I think the whole thing is destroying my life," said Ms. Harkat, 32, before inviting her visitor downstairs to test the strength of the locks she has installed around the home's personal computers. She keeps the key with her at all times. Her husband is banned from using the Internet.

"The price of freedom in Canada for Moe," she said, "is that my Mom and I are his jailers, and this is the life we have."

It certainly isn't what she expected when she met Mr. Harkat in 1999. Back then, he clerked at the Petro Canada station near her house, and she talked to him when she came in to buy Diet Pepsis. "I noticed his big brown eyes right away," she said.

They married the next year in a Muslim ceremony (she never converted) -- about two years before Mr. Harkat was arrested.

While she once worked as an art-gallery fundraiser, Ms. Harkat is no longer employed; her husband's case absorbs nearly all her time. But she has reinvented herself as a human-rights crusader -- she is as outspoken as her husband is soft-spoken -- and she dominates the conversation as they sit side by side in their small basement kitchen.

"For 3˝years, we saw each other through a glass window -- no human contact whatsoever. Now we're living with my Mom. . . . We live under a regime where even my seven-year-old niece had to be approved to visit here."

Most of Mr. Harkat's days are highly predictable. "I just wake up in the morning, have a breakfast," he said. "Work out for two hours every day -- abs, shoulders, chest. The rest watching news." He is also drawn to Judge Judy, a TV show where mock trials last 15 minutes, start to finish.

Mr. Harkat once roamed rather freely. He has always maintained that, prior to coming to Canada, he was an Algerian engineering student involved in a non-violent Islamic political movement before government roundups forced him to flee to Pakistan in the early 1990s. He said he went to work for an Islamic charity in Peshawar, a border town that has long been a transit point for mujahedeen fighters and their supporters.

In 1995, he flew to Canada, travelling on a fake Saudi passport, and applied for refugee status. He found work in Ottawa delivering pizzas and working at the gas station before his 2002 arrest.

Federal Court judges who have seen the secret intelligence against Mr. Harkat have upheld the security certificate, ruling that he perjured himself. In her bail decision last year, Madam Justice Eleanor Dawson wrote: "On the basis of confidential information, it is clear beyond doubt that Mr. Harkat lied under oath in court in several important respects," including his denials of knowing and assisting Islamic extremists."

Now, government minders monitor Mr. Harkat's every move. He wears a GPS ankle bracelet, even in the shower. He is barred from communicating with people he met in prison. He avoids mosques because he can't associate with anyone who might believe in violent jihad.

Government agents don't enter the Harkat home but follow the couple whenever they leave it. Ms. Harkat remembers that, at first, the agents wore combat boots, bulletproof vests and matching blue windbreakers. Now they come in street clothes, but their surveillance remains intense.

Ms. Harkat says the constant crackle of their walkie-talkies is driving her crazy. When she and her husband go out, they are tailed by a green Impala, a purple minivan or a big beige Jeep.

"I don't hate any of the officers," Ms. Harkat said. But she prefers the ones who are more sympathetic, like the female guard who admitted, "I don't like following you like this," or ones who respectfully wait outside stores when they go shopping.

More annoying is "the most elderly guy" who follows them into grocery stores and pretends to be "squeezing melons," Ms. Harkat said. Then there's a young man in his 20s -- "in tip-top physical shape, a handsome guy" -- who does his duty to the hilt, even standing watch outside a men's room stall.

"They see my file and they think I'm Superman," Mr. Harkat said, adding that convicted murderers face far less supervision when they get out of jail.

Security-certificate laws have been on the books since the late 1970s. Parliament felt that Canada should be allowed to jail its most dangerous immigrants until they could be sent back to their homelands.

Over the past 15 years, about 30 cases have been pursued, most resulting in deportations. But after the recent Supreme Court decision, Parliament has begun tinkering with the law -- "making progress," Mr. Day said. Any new law must allow defendants to know the case against them and to mount a meaningful defence, the court ruled.

But meanwhile, suspects are increasingly being released from jails and into house arrest if cases stall, as the ones against alleged al-Qaeda suspects inevitably do. Crown lawyers, citing classified intelligence, have persuaded judges that the five men are threats who should be deported. But defence lawyers have argued persuasively that these same suspects would be tortured if kicked out -- a fundamental violation of human rights.

So, in 2005, Adil Charkaoui, a Moroccan Montrealer accused of taking paramilitary training in Afghanistan, was ordered released after two years of custody. Mr. Harkat was granted house arrest the next year. Now come the two Egyptians, Mr. Mahjoub and Mr. Jaballah, leaving only a Syrian suspect, Hassan Almrei, in a new multimillion-dollar jail in Kingston built specifically for these cases.

The essential conundrum remains: How far can Canada compromise individual rights in order to safeguard national security?

One thing seems certain to Wesley Wark, professor at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto: The security-certificate status quo cannot stand.

"When they were devised, the assumption was that they would be a relatively speedy tool for expulsion," Prof. Wark said. But "the situation we now have, that we move from detention to control orders and leave them for indefinite duration, I don't think that can survive very long."

Prof. Wark said fundamental change is required. "The whole regime, every time you patch it up, another problem seems to come along." Ultimately, he said, Canada might have to rely on conventional criminal trials, covert surveillance, or hammering out more ironclad anti-torture assurances with countries such as Egypt and Syria.

Martin Rudner, a counterterrorism professor at Carleton University, suggested the real problems lie in a country that values individual rights above collective ones. "Even if you're not a Canadian, once your toes touch Canadian soil you have a range of rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said. "The French put you on an airplane and you go home."

The Harkats aren't leaving, but the price is palpable.

Before Easter weekend, Ms. Harkat e-mailed federal officials an itinerary of proposed outings, as she is required to do. The couple would gas up at an Esso station, drink coffee at a Tim Hortons, shop at a Canadian Tire, catch a flick at the Bytowne cinema, eat at the Shwarma Palace, maybe go for a walk along Dow's Lake.

That was the plan. But the Canada Border Service Agency refused the request on the grounds that the shortened work week meant the agency did not have the required two days to process the application.

The Harkats stayed home.