Still In Search of Justice: The story of Security Certificate Detainee Mohammad Mahjoub
Mohammad Mahjoub first arrived in Canada in 1995, fleeing political persecution from the military regime in his native Egypt. He was granted refugee status in Canada the following year and settled in Toronto where he married Mona el Fouli and had two children, Ibrahim and Yusuf.
Abruptly, his life took a nightmare turn for the worse.
“I was on my way to work. Suddenly, I was about to cross the street when I found several vehicles around me and many police officers saying, 'Police! Police! Police!'” explains Mahjoub. “I was looking right and left, and then found out I was the target. I was arrested right away without knowing why.”
On June 26, 2000, Mahjoub was arrested on a 'security certificate', a legal mechanism housed under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that the Canadian government used to indefinitely detain five Muslim men without charge or trial on the basis of undisclosed 'secret' evidence. These men later became known as the 'Secret Trial Five'.
Mahjoub likely first became of interest to the Canadian government because he was one of the 107 people summarily convicted by an Egyptian military court in the high profile 'Returnees from Albania' trial. Mahjoub was sentenced in absentia to 15 years imprisonment in a trial that has been by now internationally condemned for relying on evidence obtained under torture.
Since the fall of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak last year, the case was reopened and many of Mahjoub's co-accused have since been released and cleared of any wrongdoing.
In Canada, however, Mahjoub has not been so fortunate. He spent the next seven and a half years in prison, much of it under solitary confinement. Until today, he has never been charged with any crime.
“The conditions of my detention were very harsh – because of my background, my skin colour, my religion, my beard, and so on.” contends Mahjoub. “After September 11, 2001, my whole life was turned upside down... I got very serious death threats from a Canadian official. One of the staff [at the detention centre] even asked a detainee to harm me. He used very ugly language towards me. He said, 'You are a fucking Muslim terrorist. People like you should be killed'”
Mahjoub claims he faced physical abuse, repeated death threats, and even a sexual assault attempt by prison staff at Metro West Detention Centre. In response, Mahjoub went on to stage several prolonged hunger strikes over the course of his imprisonment. On one occasion, he managed to survive for 76 days – losing 110 pounds in the process – drinking only water, orange juice, and occasional sips of broth before finally being hospitalized.
“I have to stand up for my dignity. For instance, the Canadian government refused to allow me to have medical treatment. They left me in segregation without access to medical treatment for my tooth infection for over 8 months, even though we had a dentist in the detention center...as a result, I lost five of my teeth” says Mahjoub. “I had to go on hunger strike again to get eye glasses, which I can't see or read anything without. I went on hunger strike several times for basic medical treatment,” he adds.
In 2006, Mahjoub was transferred to a new, multi-million dollar facility in Kingston, Ontario built specifically for security certificate detainees appropriately dubbed 'Guantanamo North'.
In February 2007, after a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada found security certificates to be unconstitutional. However, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to successfully reintroduce a slightly revised version of the law less than a year later. Mahjoub and the other security certificate detainees were back to square one.
After going on yet another hunger strike – incredibly, this time lasting 96 days – Mahjoub was ordered released on house arrest in February 2007.
The strict bail conditions attached to Mahjoub's release placed a heavy burden on his family who were required to physically monitor him at all times and even themselves placed under constant surveillance by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA).
Rather than subject his wife and sons to further torment and punishment, Mahjoub requested to be returned to prison at Guantanamo North in June 2009.
In November of that year, Mahjoub was again ordered transferred to house arrest – this time alone. His bail conditions, however, remained heavily restrictive.
“My apartment window had a sensor. Whenever I wanted to smell fresh air, I had to call my jailer to open the window. If I wanted to close the window, I had to call my jailer again. When I was in prison, I had more freedom!” argues Mahjoub.
“I wasn't even allowed to speak to people in the street. I still have a GPS bracelet on my foot 24/7. There was a two-way video camera inside my place, in addition to the security camera outside of my residence. My phone is tapped.” recounts Mahjoub. “Detention, in my opinion, is much better than here. They kill you slowly, step by step... It has many negative impacts on me mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
Canadian security certificate legislation essentially imposes a two-tiered justice system in which cases against non-citizens like Mahjoub are held to a lower standard of evidence than citizens facing regular criminal trials. In a process that can only be called 'Kafkaesque', the Federal Court recently ruled that the presumption of innocence in security certificate cases does not apply since no charges ever exist in the first place.
Mahjoub exists in a state of legal limbo: he faces either indefinite detention without charge or trial here in Canada, or possible deportation to Egypt despite any threat of torture or other human rights violations that may await him.
From the time of his arrest in 2000 until 2006, CSIS admitted to illegally listening in on confidential phone calls between Mahjoub and his lawyer. CSIS has also systematically destroyed or concealed key evidence in the case against him, only further adding to the long list of factors that make any sort of fair hearing for Mahjoub virtually impossible. In the summer of 2010, The Department of Justice managed to view, copy, and mix among their own files boxes of privileged documents belonging to Mahjoub and his defense.
Incredibly, the security certificate case against Mahjoub has not been halted.
Yet after 12 long years, against all odds, Mahjoub remains as steadfast as ever in his struggle for freedom, dignity, and justice.
“First of all, I am a Muslim. I believe in Allah, and this a test from Allah to me. I have to be patient. I have hope... I believe in justice – even if there is no justice in the first place in Canada when it comes to the security certificate cases.”
In February of this year, the Federal Court finally loosened some of the more invasive conditions of Mahjoub's house arrest order. For the first time since he was arrested in 2000, he has been allowed to travel alone anywhere in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). He is also able to travel across Canada as long as he is accompanied by a court-appointed supervisor.
As part of a broader campaign to bring wider attention to his case, Mahjoub and his support team recently endeavored on a multi-city Canadian speaking tour, including events in Ottawa, Montreal, Kingston, Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo, Toronto, and London.
“It was easier for me to fly from Toronto to Ottawa than to take a streetcar in front of my door!” Mahjoub states. “If I am a terrorist, as CSIS and the government of Canada claim, why wasn't my name on a 'no-fly list'?”
His message to other Canadians is simple: “I have been in detention for 12 years without charge or fair trial – or any trial up to this moment. Why? I didn't commit any crime and I didn't do anything wrong, whether here or abroad. If I committed a crime, charge me and put me on trial, or release me. It's very simple – even people who commit murder get a fair trial.”
June 26, 2012 will mark the12 year anniversary of Mahjoub's original arrest. On that day, Mahjoub's supporters will hold a public rally in front of CSIS Offices to demand his immediate and unconditional release.
They will also insist on an official government apology, reparations, and citizenship for all five men who have been victimized by Canada's security certificates regime. Three of the men – Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohamed Harkat – continue to be held on security certificate cases. Mahjoub is currently the longest serving security certificate detainee in Canada.
“I thank Canadians so much for what they have done for me, and I ask them to continue supporting me and the other two security certificate detainees.”
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For more information about Mohammed Mahjoub's story, his security certificate case, and how you can get involved with his support team, please visit: http://www.supportmahjoub.org/category/events/
Ali Mustafa is a freelance journalist, writer, and media activist. His writing can be found at: www.frombeyondthemargins.blogspot.com.
Tim Groves is an independent researcher and journalist in Toronto.