Mahjoub Spared Torture in Egypt for Now:
Temporary Stay Granted in Deportation of Egyptian Refugee Held Four Years Without Charge at Toronto's Metro West Detention Centre
TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 8, 2004 -- A chartered jet was scheduled to fly Mohammad Mahjoub out of Canada this afternoon and return him to Egypt and a future of prison, torture, and cruel and unusual punishment., But that flight was cancelled shortly after 1 pm when a stay was granted, temporarily preventing this illegal deportation.
A group of relieved supporters, including Mahjoub's wife Mona El-Fouli and members of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, noted that although Mahjoub is "safe" for now, he returns this evening to his solitary confinement cell at Metro West Detention Centre to continue an indefinite period of incarceration which has been marked by endless humiliation and abuse.
That ill-treatment was the focus of yesterday's hearing, part of a constitutional challenge to his lengthy detention. Today's positive decision on deportation was a bit of an ironic trade-off that spared Mahjoub the torture of Egypt for the torture of Canada, where being held over 4 years without being shown a shred of evidence why is torture enough. Add to that an attempted sexual assault upon Mahjoub, numerous death threats from guards, lack of access to medical care to deal with high blood pressure and hepatitis C, rampant racism and anti-Muslim slurs, and one begins to see that Mahjoub has few choices available to him as his case slowly makes its way through the courts.
Today's hearing began with a brief bit of testimony from Deirdre Gilker, the Operations Manager for Removals at the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre (GTEC), a deportation factory that splits apart families on a regular basis to meet its deportation quotas. Gilker stated quietly that GTEC is prepared to remove Mahjoub from Canada, that a valid travel document is available, and that the deportation is imminent.
She would not say when and where Mahjoub would depart from, as this was a "security" concern. She also neglected to mention that her boss, the immigration department, had concluded in a risk assessment that Mahjoub would likely face torture upon his return to Egypt. No, her job is cut and dried: receive a piece of paper with Mahjoub's name on it, ensure he is "removal ready" (much like a slab of rotten meat being prepared for the dumpster), and then dispense with him. No consequences, no moral afterthought, just another day on an assembly line of misery.
Mahjoub's attorney Barb Jackman asks Gilker if he will be sent out on a commercial airliner. Gilker says she cannot comment for security reasons. Jackman counters that "we all know it won't be a commercial airline -- they won't take these cases," and wonders why Gilker finds it so difficult to deny this.
Immigration Dept. lawyer Donald MacIntosh jumps up in the first of numerous over-the-top outbursts today with the point that Mahjoub is a dangerous guy, as testified to over a year ago when some 60-70 SWAT team members from Metro Police and the RCMP walked the hallways of the court with sub-machineguns during a bail hearing. (Of course, no such security is on hand today, but this escapes Mr. MacIntosh, who seems to forget such displays, though, rare, are only required once to leave a certain impression in the public's and the judge's mind.)
His objection is sustained by Judge Eleanor Dawson, and the arguments for a stay begin. Jackman points out that both sides agree Mahjoub is at risk if returned to Egypt, and that the assurance he will not be harmed comes from a general in the Egyptian security force GIS, implicated in many human rights abuses. "What they have is an assurance from a torturer that he won't torture," Jackman notes.
She says that since numerous important issues raised by the Mahjoub file are still before the courts, removing him now would rob him of the potential justice that he seeks by having these issues dealt with. Indeed, if he were returned to Egypt, it is unlikely a government known for major human rights violations would allow him to return to Canada for future court dates which, if victorious, would result in Mahjoub being allowed to stay in Canada.
Jackman also quotes from expert testimony and an Amnesty International document which clearly show the grave risk to Mahjoub if returned.
MacIntosh rises and, with little reference to relevant case law, instead goes on what is becoming increasingly common in these proceedings: a raving rant that makes him sound like George W. Bush on mega-doses of steroids. MacIntosh claims "separation of families [by deportation] does not lead to irreparable harm" and cautions the judge against allowing the best interests of the children to trump other considerations. He then repeatedly attacks Mahjoub, calling him a liar, perjurer, a sneaky, devious, dangerous man who seems to have tricked the "well-intentioned" Amnesty International and who, by calling himself a devout Muslim, insults the majority of the world's Muslims.
After all, he points out, Mahjoub is [allegedly] tied to groups that are "seeking weapons of mass destruction." Oh oh, he's used the WMD word. Last time we heard that, WMD were being denied as an issue even by the Bush administration, whose own intelligence failures on the issue are well-known. Like a similar outburst at the hearing of Mahmoud Jaballah a few weeks back, this is an embarrassing torrent of empty rhetoric which, as Barb Jackman points out, seems to be issued more for the benefit of the press than for the benefit of the court.
Jackman points out that there has never been any conclusive evidence that Mahjoub is any of these things, for the test in a security certificate is "the lowest standard of proof in the courts. The test is whether the facts are POSSIBLY true, not even PROBABLY true."
"The best experts on intelligence went to war and thousands of lives have been lost in Iraq on evidence that wasn't true," she reminds the court.
Jackman points out there are numerous alternative courses for the government to follow, including releasing Mahjoub on strict bail conditions. Better yet, "if he's such a terrorist, charge him under the anti-terrorism legislation and show him the evidence. But they haven't done that because they [the government] don't have a case to prove."
After a half hour break, Justice Dawson returns with her decision. There are, she says, three issues that need to be addressed in the application: is this a serious issue, would irreparable harm result from Mahjoub being deported, and whether the balance of convenience shows he would suffer greater harm in being deported than the inconvenience to the minister of Immigration in granting the stay.
Dawson says she is satisfied on all three counts, quoting liberally from the Amnesty International and expert human rights opinions which have been offered. She says a denial of the stay would make his upcoming judicial review of the deportation decision "nugatory," so irreparable harm has been established.
"If it appears he will not stay in detention," she says, then he must be brought before the court on an urgent basis to review the stay decision.
It was the conclusion of an emotional two days that began Tuesday morning, with the continuation of Mahjoub's testimony about prison conditions. After having argued for a partially closed hearing for his own protection, he decided instead that he would speak out about those conditions, despite considerable risk to him at the prison.
"Mr. Mahjoub fully understands the risks he is taking. It would be his preference not to face those risks," his attorney John Norris begins, but Mahjoub is concerned that the truth get out.
He then goes on to detail some of the horrible incidents which have occurred at the jail. On March 7, 2001, upon returning from court, he was strip searched, during which he politely asked to keep his boxer shorts on, as Muslim men are not allowed to appear naked in front of anyone else.
"The guard exploded with anger, calling me names, being abusive toward me and my family, and Muslims in general," Mahjoub explains. "'You are supposed to be killed, not just you but all Muslims,'" Mahjoub quotes the guard as saying to him.
Mahjoub tried to describe to the guard what it was to be a Muslim, about not drinking or taking drugs.
"'I don't give a fuck about your fucking religion, this is not your fucking country,'" Mahjoub recalls the guard screaming at him. Mahjoub said he would charge the guard, after which the guard told him, "People like you should be killed. All Muslims should be burned." Mahjoub then says the guard pointed to a fellow inmate in the area and asked the inmate, "How can you live with this fucking piece of shit [Mahjoub]? I'm surprised you didn't do anything to him."
Mahjoub made a complaint about this and numerous other such incidents to the jail authorities, to the Ontario Ombudsman, and various human rights bodies, but little or no action appeared to have taken place in response.
Mahjoub freely gave names and badge numbers of officers involved in these incidents, again a very courageous move considering the possible retribution he might face back at the jail.
After September 11, 2001, Mahjoub said, "My life was turned into something like hell. My family also suffered."
On September 14, 2001, one of the female officers told him to collect his things and led him to solitary confinement, without telling him what was going on. When he kept inquiring, she became very angry with him, yelling out that he would be deported to the United States. He asked to contact his wife and lawyer, but that was refused.
After he eventually met with then security chief Nelson Cardoza, who reassured him that he would not be deported to the U.S., the guard was confronted with this information, and denied everything.
In segregation, he was given a "security gown," a sleeveless, loose T-shirt which doesn't cover the body properly and certainly provides no warmth. He learned that such gowns were given to people on suicide watch.
"I was confused, I was not a violent man or attempted suicide. If they think these things will prevent a suicide they are mistaken. These things are meant to destroy the person."
He was kept between 21 and 24 days in solitary, five days of them in a cell with no lighting and a toilet that flushed only once a day.
He was taken back to general population but then again transferred to segregation in December, where he froze, asking for blankets which never came. Each time he asked why, "I was told 'because you are a prisoner. When you go home you can turn the heat up.'"
Mahjoub says "it was ridiculous, like a comedy," at which he breaks down, requiring time to collect himself. He recalls having no towel to wash and prepare for prayers (for Muslims, being clean before prayer is a key part of religious practice), no soap, no toothpaste, and he had to use his drinking glass to wash his body as well.
He recalls one particularly horrifying incident when, after being up all night consumed with worry, he finally fell asleep around 5 am, shortly after which a guard started banging on his door, screaming obscenities about him and his family, "threatening to kill me, to slaughter me. He even made the sign of his finger around his neck" to show what was in store for Mahjoub.
"The sound felt like an earthquake. I jumped out of bed, I was so frightened, I froze, unable to say anything."
"You are a fucking Muslim terrorist," the guard told him. "I will kill you, you are a motherfucker goof." Mahjoub names the guard and says he still works at the institution.
When Mahjoub made a complaint to another guard, he was told, "You must be dreaming."
As Mahjoub goes through this, I am reminded of what a palliative care nurse once said about her patients. "Look at the brow, look at the forehead, see if there's wrinkles there, and if there are, that's pain."
As Mahjoub gives his testimony, you can see the pain in his forehead. His eyes dart about as if he is seeking a safe place to curl up and make the painful memories go away. His brow is deeply furrowed at times, and he notes there is one incident so severe that he refuses to discuss it; the last time he talked about it in court he went through a month of emotional and psychological trauma. "I felt like a person who had lost his mind, gone crazy."
He details being sent back and forth to segregation without explanation. Although locked away for anywhere from 23 and a half to 24 full hours each day, he says he was strip searched about 3/4 of the time while held there.
He says one night, December 14, 2003, he was playing chess in his cell with two other prisoners when he collapsed on the floor in pain, experiencing double vision, dizziness, sweating, headache. The others begged guards to get him medical attention. The guards refused to allow a nurse to enter the cell and check his blood pressure, and demanded Mahjoub get up and walk out. He was in such pain that he could not move, so they ended up hauling him out of the cell and dragging him some 100 metres not to the health unit but to solitary confinement. The nurse asked guards to call 911 to take Mahjoub to the hospital, but they ignored this request. "You either walk with us or we'll drag you," the guards said, refusing his request for a wheelchair.
"My head was banging against the guards' feet. One of the guards said this is not the way to treat an inmate." While the guards joked that Mahjoub was in fact just upset at the capture of Saddam Hussein earlier that day, he wound up on the floor of his solitary cell, screaming in pain and receiving no treatment. He was given no mattress or blanket, and instead thrown a security gown that remained on the floor overnight.
One week later, tests confirmed he had Hepatitis C.
During cross examination, government lawyer Daniel Roussy attacks Mahjoub mercilessly. After Mahjoub reveals he was on a 39-day hunger strike, Roussy condemns him because it appears he has put some weight on since coming off the long-term denial of food.
"Would you not agree you have had good medical help?" Roussy asks him, counting the visits of a number of health professionals.
"No," Mahjoub responds, pulling out a photo of a prisoner being dragged at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and stating, "This is how I was dragged! How can you call this good medical treatment?"
Roussy insists a prison report says that the night Mahjoub was dragged to solitary he was "verbally abusive" and "refused" to get up.
Mahjoub responds that he did not refuse to get up, he simply could not rise. As for being verbally abusive, there is no report of disciplinary action or infractions, usually a result of verbal abuse towards guards. It appears, Mahjoub says, that someone has lied in the making of that report.
As he goes through the reports, those of us who have been working on the campaign begin to see an interesting pattern emerge, one that shows that public pressure works. On two separate dates, Mahjoub says he was moved, without explanation, out of solitary confinement and back to the general population. Both dates correspond with demonstrations held by the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials outside the detention centre.
Mahjoub will likely not receive a decision on his detention release application until the end of the year, and a date has yet to be set for judicial review of his deportation decision. In the meantime, he is relieved about the stay, and bemused that so much hot air was expended on him by government lawyers today. He wishes to thank those who have come to court, supported his family, and sent him cards and letters, and hopes people in Canada will continue writing to Anne Mclellan to stop the deportation and end his long-term incarceration.
On a related note, charges against four people who were arrested at CSIS national headquarters last October 31 while trick-or-treating for secret evidence will be dismissed Friday morning in Ottawa. After almost a year of requesting proper disclosure from the demonstration -- everything from RCMP security reports and video surveillance to CSIS plans for the demonstration and a subpoena for Ward Elcock, former head of CSIS -- the Crown has said they have no evidence against us (yah, right) and so charges will be dismissed. Guess CSIS did not any more bad press...
Members of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials will be joined by Christian Peacemaker Teams, Tikkun, and the Canadian Assdociation of Jews and Muslims this Sunday, Sept. 12 at 1:30 pm in Toronto at CSIS HQ, 277 Front Street West, for a multifaith march
through downtown Tornto. The event is preceded the evening before with a CPT benefit at 9 pm at the Reverb (Bathurst and Queen).
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