What was described as the biggest terrorism-related case in Canada is gradually unraveling: four more Muslims have walked free after the prosecution “stayed” charges against them on April 15. Qayum Abdul Jamal, Ibrahim Aboud, Ahmad Ghany and Yasin Abdi Mohamed joined three others against whom charges were dropped a year ago. In theory the prosecution could reintroduce charges against these four within a year, but most legal experts discount the possibility because of precedence and the fact that the three whose charges were stayed earlier are now completely exonerated.
Oldest of the eighteen persons arrested almost two years ago, Jamal, now 45, was considered the group’s ringleader and spiritual guide. He spent thirteen months of his seventeen-month detention in solitary confinement. “I’ve been tortured, I’ve been racially profiled because I was older, I was abused,” he said outside the courthouse on April 15, accompanied by his lawyerAnser Farooq after the court ruling. “I was beaten, I was kicked. I was pushed by the guards… They thought I was responsible.” Both Jamal and his lawyer have called for a public inquiry into his case, including the thirteen months he spent in solitary confinement before he was released on bail in September 2007. Other Muslim detainees have recounted similar tales of abuse. Jamal also said during a press conference later that he would sue Wajid Khan, a member of parliament of Pakistani origin, for accusing him of allegedly saying that Canadian troops were raping Afghan women in Afghanistan. Jamal insists that he never uttered such words.
Of the eleven Muslims still in detention, three completed 699 days (nearly two years) in solitary confinement on April 30. The eight others plus Jamal had spent thirteen months in solitary confinement before the court ordered that these restrictions be lifted. In the original indictments, the prosecution had asked for only three individuals to be held in solitary confinement, but this information was deliberately withheld from defence lawyers. When it was discovered last September, it caused much embarrassment to the government. Also, on September 24, 2007, the prosecution abruptly halted court proceedings while their star witness, Mubin Shaikh, was being cross-examined by the defence. The prosecutors withdrew all charges against the accused but immediately replaced them with new ones in order to change the rules of the game. However, they dropped the bombing charge against Jamal that led to his being granted bail.
Canada’s largest daily, the Toronto Star, asked in an editorial on April 17: “Was it absolutely necessary that Qayyum Abdul Jamal spend 17 months in detention as a suspected terrorist, 13 of them in solitary confinement, only to have the Crown stay the charges against him? Was there no better way to handle his case?” The editorial in the Star went on: “The justice system risks being discredited when people are charged on thin evidence, then held in detention for long periods, only to have the charges stayed. There must be a better way.” In addition to discrediting the justice system, the long-term damage to detainees’ mental health is also a serious issue. Psychiatrists claim that 60 days is the maximum time a person can be held in isolation before it begins to affect his mental balance.
To understand the background of what has been called Canada’s “homegrown” terrorism case, one must recount how it started. On the evening of June 2, 2006, heavily-armed contingents of police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP- the federal police force) stormed the homes of many Canadian Muslims in Toronto and Mississauga and arrested 13 adults and four youths (one person, Ibrahim Aboud, was arrested in September 2006). Some were slammed to the ground, others had doors to their homes kicked in and broken. Even parents and siblings were pushed about, handcuffed and interrogated. Immediately, the media labelled the case the “biggest terrorism case” in Canadian history. The case hit international headlines, with instant ‘terrorism experts’ and politicians outbidding each other in making outrageous allegations and painting the arrested youths as an “al-Qaeda-inspired cell”. Islamophobic writers immediately gave vent to racist cant and mainstream newspapers that otherwise maintain an aura of respectability joined the gutter press in making wild allegations about the threat from “Islamic extremists”. Canada, they warned, had joined the big league as a target for international terrorists.
The day after the arrests, even the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, while addressing military cadets in Ottawa, joined the fray in words borrowed from US president George Bush’s limited vocabulary: these people “hate our values” and “our freedoms”. Heads of police, RCMP and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) all appeared at press conferences in full regalia to inveigh against the threat from homegrown terrorists and how their vigilance had thwarted the biggest terrorist plot in Canadian history. On June 3 the arrested individuals were brought to court in handcuffs and leg-irons, while masked police sharpshooters took positions on rooftops around the courthouse and helicopters circled overhead. In court, bizarre allegations were made: the group “planned” to bomb the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, and to occupy the Toronto Stock Exchange and the CBC television station. It was also alleged that they planned to behead the prime minister. It later transpired that they neither knew where the parliament building was—having never been to Ottawa—nor who the prime minister was. As for occupying the CBC, it must have come from some Hollywood movie script where coup-makers in third world countries take over the “only” TV station—government-owned of course—to announce the takeover. Outside the courthouse in Brampton (northwest of Toronto), cameramen and journalists jostled hijab- and niqab-clad female relatives of the defendants, shoving microphones into their faces without the slightest concern for their privacy or dignity.
The arrests and allegations stunned the already traumatized Muslim community. Since September 2001, Muslims living in the West have been put on the defensive; unless they categorically and repeatedly denounce terrorism (without any clear definition of the term), and proclaim that they had nothing to do with offenders, real or imagined, anywhere in the world, they are guilty by association. While leaders of the Muslim community were trying to comprehend what had struck the community, Bill Blair, chief of the Toronto police force, appeared at a press conference on June 4, 2006, with leaders and imams to assure them that neither he nor his force considered all Muslims to be terrorists. There were “bad apples” in every community, he said. But by attempting to reassure the Muslim community, the police chief had by implication already pronounced the arrested individuals guilty; the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law was thrown out the window.
While some imams at the press conference waxed eloquent about how they condemned all forms of terrorism and reiterated their loyalty to Canada, Zafar Bangash, director of the Instituteof Contemporary Islamic Thought, reminded everyone to reserve judgment and let the courts determine the defendants’ innocence or guilt. He also took the prime minister to task for making allegations against the arrested individuals, whose chances of a fair trial could be jeopardized by such intemperate remarks. He asserted: “There should be no trial in the media or by the media. Now that the matter is before the court, that is the proper forum to judge this case.” While the press conference was televised live throughout North America, it did not prevent the self-styled terrorism experts from pontificating darkly on the threat from “homegrown terrorists” or from “extremist” imams and mosques. Some of them openly declared that the situation had changed and that Muslims had better get used to closer scrutiny and curtailment of their civil liberties.
A raft of oppressive laws had already been instituted in almost all Western countries since 2001, as if these countries themselves were targeted by the attacks of that September. Paranoia has now become part of official policy in the West; Muslims, declared guilty by definition, are required to prove their innocence. Some self-styled experts also suggested that it would be advisable to cast the net as wide as possible to “save” people from terrorist attacks, and that those Muslims who are innocent would eventually be released.
That appears to have been the case with the Toronto-18, as they were dubbed then, before becoming the Toronto-11. With charges against seven out of the eighteen virtually dropped, the case looks increasingly shaky. It is a far cry from the outlandish allegations made two years ago. The four released last month have signed a peace bond with the court to observe a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am for a year, but lawyers describe this as a face-saving device by the prosecution. The Islamophobes in the media and other institutions continue to insist that the government decided to remove the marginal players before trying the hardcore of six or eight individuals. If so, what was the purpose of holding these seven for nearly two years? On April 22, bail hearings for 18-year-old Saad Gaya resumed. Nearly a hundred students and supporters were on hand to express their solidarity with him and his family. Two years ago, most Muslims were too frightened to associate with the families of the accused. Many families were told by friends and relatives not to contact them any more. This is beginning to change as the case unravels.
The government’s case has rested on the testimony of paid informants whom most informed observers suspect of being the chief instigators of the plot. One of them, Mubin Shaikh, a compulsive talker and, it appears, liar as well, has admitted receiving nearly $370,000 from the RCMP. A second informant, a chemical engineer, was reportedly paid $4 million but has been placed in a protection program and has not appeared in public in the last two years. His name, although known to many in the Muslim community, cannot be divulged because of a court-imposed publication ban. Shaikh has alleged that the defendants participated in a “terrorist training camp” in northern Ontario in the dead of winter (December 15-31, 2005). It has now been revealed that the gun at the camp belonged to Shaikh, who insisted that they handle it while he videotaped them. The campers were too cold to do anything; most of them walked or did exercises to keep warm and to save themselves from freezing to death. They also made frequent visits to Tim Hortons, a coffee shop, to drink coffee and to get out of the cold. When asked what he was doing at the camp, Jamal said outside the courthouse on April 15: “It was just winter camping and the paintball, you heard that in court.” He added: “Everybody is allowed to do that” – except Muslims, apparently. Even Mubin Shaikh has admitted that there was less to the camp and some of the suspects who attended it than meets the eye.
Shaikh is a shady character. He has had several brushes with the law relating to assault charges as well as allegations of drug use. In the murky world of informants, few can match his sleaziness. But what is less talked about is that the so-called terrorism case was apparently manufactured to curry favor with the warmongers in Washington. Rocco Galati, defence lawyer for Ahmad Ghany, the soft-spoken medical student from McMaster University, described the case as a “horse and pony show for Bush’s war on terror.”
Successive Canadian governments have tried to ingratiate themselves with the Washington warlords for political and economic reasons. If they have to destroy the lives of a few dozen Muslims in the process, it is a small price to pay for a bigger game. After all, Muslims are the world’s favourite villains today and can be dispensed with easily. If they do not like it inCanada, they can always “go back to where they came from”. And if they were born there, then presumably they can “go back” to their parents’ country of origin, whatever that may have been.