Like Harris-Eves Tories, McGuinty Liberals Refuse Meeting with Almrei's Supporters Following a "Shoe-off" at "Community Safety" Ministry
(report from Matthew Behrens of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada)
TORONTO, OCTOBER 23, 2003 -- Hassan Almrei, a 29-year-old Syrian refugee who has spent the past two years in a cold, concrete solitary confinement cell in Toronto, marked one month of a hunger strike today. Hassan has been demanding shoes, a jacket, and a guarantee that the temperature in his cell will be kept at the provincial standard of 22 degrees celsius throughout the winter.
One would think such demands, consistent with the United Nations Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, would be easily met by the new Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty, who promised that the winds of change would blow through Queen's Park upon his ascension to the premiership last week.
But for anyone thinking, perhaps naively, that the new Liberal government would be any different than that of the departing Harris-Eves regime, any illusions would have been lost today in front of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (renamed from Public Safety and Security).
Following a "shoe-off" by about 15 people, who removed their footwear and stood on the cold concrete sidewalks in their stocking feet, much as Almrei must stand without shoes in his solitary confinement cell, a number of representatives of the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada attempted to enter the ministry and arrange an emergency meeting. Their attempts by fax and phone to arrange such a meeting last week were met with refusal.
As they attempted to enter the building, they were greeted by security forces who blocked their entry. Two weeks ago (under the since departed Tories), when group members had attempted to provide a space heater for Hassan, they were turned away in equally undemocratic fashion, with one of the security claiming that just because it was a government building, it did not mean it was public.
Refusing to back down, Diana Ralph and I sat in front of the security at the narrow entrance to the building, essentially blocking access to the ministry for close to an hour. Ralph noted that the Harris government got off to a quick, bloody start in 1995 with the murder of First Nations resister Dudley George. She asked whether McGuinty would want to have blood on his own hands if he failed to act to help end the hunger strike by meeting Hassan's simple, basic demands.
In any event -- much as we were in the first days of the Harris government -- we were once again facing the possibility of arrest, this time under the newly-elected Liberals, for the simple act of trying to access government officials to save lives.
As Metro police looked on warily, a security official came and offered to see if a meeting could be arranged. That request took an hour to filter through the bureaucracy, after which we were informed that every soul in the skyscraper was too busy to deal with the matter, and that faxes were a much better solution.
We explained that we had already tried that route, and that now we were on the ministry's doorstep to ensure the matter was not ignored. On Friday, an executive assistant to a deputy minister had finally returned a series of phone calls with the basic message that no meeting was possible because the issue is "before the courts," yet we pointed out the judge in the case had instructed the parties to work something out before the next court date of November 5. The EA refused to provide a written guarantee that Hassan would have heat in his cell.
Police chose not to make any arrests on this afternoon, and we vowed to continue keeping up the pressure to get the government to reach a solution so that we don't have to gather in a week's time for a memorial service.
As for Hassan, he continues to deteriorate physically, his body devoid of any fat and now beginning to consume itself. He barely has the strength to rise from his mattress. He voice is crackly, a result of not drinking any fluids during the day now that the fast of Ramadan has begun, but his spirit is still loving and kind. He makes an effort to carry on a phone conversation even though it hurts his whole body to do so.
Almrei is not only a master of the Koran, he is also a poet and a dreamer. The last time we spoke, he told me that he dreams sometimes of food, of the sweet joy in eating chicken or a good falafel sandwich. "If I think about food now it would really hurt," he says, as he tries to come up with other things to dream about.
Throughout the ordeal of his solitary confinement and of his more recent, punishing hunger strike, Almrei's spirits have always leaned toward the transformative. He has refused to demonize his jailers, his guards, his fellow inmates, even CSIS, the inept, perjuring spy agency which placed him behind bars to begin with. He is nothing if not patient, and he has watched as people who used to spit at him now are friendly and understanding with him. They have gotten to know the decent man behind the media scare stories that filled the papers post September 11, 2001.
He laughs meekly, unable to enjoy it too much, for it is an effort. "Aaahhhh, I don't know," he says, "I don't know." Hassan is scared, but he is also exhilarated. He has been receiving support from across North America, in the form of cards and letters and words of encouragement. He writes only in Arabic, but can read English, and wants us to thank the people from California, New York, Halifax, North Bay, British Columbia and other places who have sent him words of encouragement and support.
He is also feeling a funny kind of universal love for people that may seem hard to explain, given the circumstances of his incarceration. When we discuss it, it's something that comes across both in the poet's manner of transforming great concepts into neat phrases, and in the tone of voice that is wise, wistful, and a bit sad.
It's something that hits an emotional, unexplained connection with me and, after a brief moment, I realize why. After I hang up I run to a copy of the wonderful autobiography of Dave Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter. Dellinger was in the hole in federal prison for refusing to fight in World War II and for refusing to go along with segregation in the prisons. While on an extended hunger strike, he experienced a strange feeling of peace. "I am in the Hole. Something is happening to me and I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm not in heaven. Maybe I'm drunk. 'Jesus Christ, Mother of fine apples, I feel drunk all the time' (Kenneth Patchen). I've never had more reason not to be drunk, but I am. I've never been more possessed of all my faculties and it's better than being drunk. If you fight clean and hard they can kill you but they can't hurt you. They can do terrible things to you -- and probably will -- but they can't hurt you unless you do it to yourself. From now on, no one will ever frighten or control me, no one will stop me from living to the full and loving to the full, loving everyone I know and everyone I don't know, fighting for justice without seeing anyone as an enemy."
Like Dellinger during World War II, Almrei is staring down mortality a bit more each morning. His body is in prison but his soul is free. A man calls me from Timmins to express his support for Hassan, and explains, "That guy is tough. He's the kind of guy this country really needs."
And so now, Hassan is into week five of his hunger strike, and the McGuinty government is off to a Harris-like start, refusing dialogue, and prepared to let a man die over the issue of whether the running shoes he wears outside his solitary confinement cell can be worn inside. McGuinty and his corrections minister Monte Kwinter seem content to leave Hassan with the most narrow of choices: freeze to death or starve to death.
Please keep faxes and calls going to Monte Kwinter, the man who would have blood on his hands of Hassan is to die. He has received many of these--he needs more, with the additional demand that he meet with us to strike a solution that will save Hassan's life.
In the meantime, Friday will be a national day of action to stop secret trials in Canada, with actions in Edmonton, Regina, Durham (where 70-year-old Barney Barningham plans a 23-hour occupation of his MP's office to protest the solitary confinement of Hassan Almrei), Ottawa (the mass trick or treat for secret evidence at CSIS), Quebec City, St. John, Halifax, Kitchener, and Guelph. Students plan a 1 pm vigil at Glendon College cafeteria in Toronto on Thursday.
Faxes and calls sent to:
Minister of "Community Safety "
25 Grosvenor St., 18th Flr., Toronto, ON M7A 1Y6
(416) 325-0408, fax: (416) 325-6067
please cc us at email@example.com if you can or at the PO Box listed at the top of the news release
Kwinter's constituency office is (416) 630-0080, fax (416) 630-8828
Campaign to Stop Secret Trials
PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West
Toronto, ON M6C 1C0
(416) 651-5800, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.homesnotbombs.ca
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