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Interview with filmmaker Amar Wala, director of The Secret Trial 5

Canada's Islamophobia continues with government impunity

by Matt Hanson

Image taken at the July 26, 2008 demonstration in support of Omar Khadr (Joshua Sherucij)
Image taken at the July 26, 2008 demonstration in support of Omar Khadr (Joshua Sherucij)

Note: This is not a verbatim word for word transcript, this is a partial transcript written after an extended phone conversation with Amar Wala.

 

Why is filmmaking an especially relevant medium for this subject? What are other ways in which the issue of security certificates is being fought in Canada?

I don’t know that it has. We are certainly not the first filmmakers to tackle this issue. Sacha Trudeau made a broadcast documentary about it. It is fairly well covered. I don’t think anyone has taken the approach to focus on families and the human impact. Most of the people I knew didn’t know about this issue. For me, the easiest and smartest way to do this is to make a film. Activists are working really hard. We’re helping them. It’s been covered now since twelve years ago. When there’s a big moment in the case, when the certificate is upheld, the media covers it. The media is there for the Aha moments, but not for the day-to-day. The coverage fails to point out a lot of context. The families have been here in Canada for nearly twenty years. I find the mainstream media frames them as outsiders right off the bat, as people who are refugees, not Canadian citizens. They have wives, children and families who are Canadian. Their children were born here. If people are granted refugee status, we have a responsibility to protect their rights.  
 

How has your crowd-funding campaign contributed to spreading the message? 

It’s been invaluable. We started crowd funding out of necessity. I was 26 when I started the project. It’s been four years. I was naïve at the time. It was a time when the recession hit and documentaries were getting their funds cut across the board. The chance of an upcoming filmmaker was slim. The public has helped us, it was modest at first, and now is more than enough to help us get started. Without the crowd funding I would have not achieved so much. Thousands of people who didn’t previously know security certificates now know because of crowd funding. Activist communities have done a great job of helping these people, so I don’t want to pretend we’ve done as much as them.

We made the decision to end crowd funding on February 19. It was an ongoing thing for the last couple of years. The good thing about DocIgnite is there is a limited amount of time to fund, giving a sense of urgency. The public has done their part. We raised over twenty thousand on our own website. Now we are trying to raise another fifteen, the public has done their part. The crowd has definitely helped us as much as they can. 
 

Has your film project and its message been received by representatives of the federal government?

Nothing so far, they’re not too worried about us. We’re just lowly filmmakers. Getting support for human rights in Toronto is not the same as in Montreal. I don’t expect a reaction until the film is done. 
 

What has been the most effective organizational response to this issue in civil society? Besides Mr. Mohammad Zeki Mahjoub’s speaking tour, are the current security certificate victims on house arrest, including Mahmoud Jaballah, able to update the society interested in your project and fighting the issue on their condition?

There are different factions of support for these men. While the subjects of our documentary are not Canadian citizens, Canadian Muslims have also been tortured because of mistakes our government made. It’s pretty despicable in this country, and it continues. Specific groups have built support systems. Mohamed Harkat has support community in Ottawa. Adil Charkaoui is first of the Secret Five to be set free and part of the reason is because he had a huge support system in Montreal. People in Montreal tend to get angrier about these things. I wish people in Toronto reacted like Montrealers. After the activists realized this was going on, they raised the alarm and made it so loud in public that the government stopped issuing certificates. Charkaoui was finally the last to be set free because the civil rights groups in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto have made a huge impact. And also the five men held under security certificates were getting known.

They do update people through their support networks. Usually there is a support network around each detainee. Harkat, Mr. Mahjoub and Mr. Jaballah in Toronto. Mahjoub no longer has to wear a tracking bracelet around his ankle, the cameras in home were removed, and his mail is no longer intercepted. He has almost nothing left after years of a house arrest sentence that started under such horrible conditions that he had to return to prison. The house arrest sentence has come a long way with incremental improvements in quality of life.
 

Why are Muslims primary targets? Is this essentially about discriminatory, or racist, policies? 

9/11. Unfair suspicion of Muslim population, overall suspicion of Muslim community was wide-ranging thing, not just Secret Trial 5 and non-citizens, also Canadian citizens were tortured, Abousfian Abdelrazik, Sudanese-Canadian man was not let back into Canada and then tortured in Sudan. Security certificates were definitely not designed to be anti-terror mechanisms. It’s not exclusively Muslims, but almost. It’s part of a pattern of the Canadian government post-9/11.
 

How is the issue linked directly with Harper government policies and Canada's increasing impunity under Harper regarding similar policies in the United States, for example the Cuban 5? Is there a direct correlation between Obama’s Bill for indefinite detention measures and the security certificate policy in Canada?

I think this is definitely linked to the U.S. policies. These certificates have been around since the seventies. The Liberals initiated the security certificate for six years in its current form beginning in 2000. Jaballah and Mahjoub were first incarcerated, right before 9/11. The bottom line, this is a Canadian issue regardless of policy. The conservatives carried it on and fought to keep it. In 2007, the certificates were seen as unconstitutional under Conservative government. These policies are part of a pattern of appeasing the Americans. There was a lot of talk about 9/11 hijackers coming from Canada to U.S. There was panic to make sure they did not come from here, that we’re being diligent in fighting terrorism, not complicit, to make the Americans satisfied. As a result, Canadian citizens and non-citizens had their rights trampled on.
 

How is the security certificate related to growing trends in immigration policies? 

Certificates are an immigration law. You are using immigration courts to fight terrorism. If you truly believe these men are criminals why would you use immigration laws? There is an unexplained paradox. Canadian immigration has shifted directly to the Right in the last few years, as an outcome of Conservative government. In my personal opinion, the entire immigration system is towards temporariness and treating immigrants as outsiders. The immigration policy as inclusive is nonexistent. There is Canadian and people who want to get into Canada, and they have to please us. That is not a good immigration policy. That is not how Canadians want to treat immigrants. People say that Secret Trial 5 are not citizens, but we have also done this to our citizens. It is more deeply rooted in Islamophobia more than anything else.
 

How does constitutional change happen in Canada? How do people in Canada reinforce constitutional justice on a federal system that doesn't play by the rules? 

The constitutional challenge was brought forth by Charkaoui, first of Secret Trial 5 to be set free. They won that constitutional challenge in a unanimous, 9-0 Supreme Court ruling. It was the first time that security certificates were deemed unconstitutional. It was a policy to destroy. They don’t have powers of arrest. Their basic job is to collect intelligence and information. If it is collected off spying, and for example, a phone call doesn’t lead to evidence they must destroy information. In a security certificate, you have only summaries of information. Bottom line is security certificates were deemed unconstitutional. The Supreme Court gave government one year to change the policy. The conservative government introduced Bill C3, which introduced a “special advocate” who gets to see portions of secret evidence. The special advocate doesn’t get to communicate with the accused, or with the lawyer of the accused. If you are Harkat’s special advocate, you can’t go to Harkat. You can’t speak to the person you are trying to defend. It’s silly. The special advocates are the country’s best lawyers. Why wouldn’t you trust these lawyers? They could go to jail if they reveal the secret evidence. They don’t get to see everything. They didn’t get to cross-examine human sources in Harkat’s case. If the special advocate can’t cross-examine a witness, what’s the use? The special advocate is an improvement, but does it lead to a fair trial? Of course not. Harkat is leading a court case challenging the special advocate policy. Everything was pointing to him being set free and he wasn’t. When he doesn’t know and his friends and family don’t know the evidence against him, that doesn’t seem fair. I hope to God that people see the special advocate system is flawed.
 

Is the issue linked to others of similar import in Canadian history? How is this related to Canada's war in Afghanistan?

Loose connections can be drawn. Afghanistan is biggest component of the war on terror. The entire system from day one of the war on terror is deeply problematic. The security certificates are not an inexpensive process. People who claim to be Conservatives should be appalled for spending hundreds of millions of dollars for these court cases. You are never going to solve the case this way, by destroying twelve years of the victim’s life. If you are conservative, security certificates are a terrible idea, millions of dollars for people who could be innocent. What was the point of the security certificate if someone is innocent? You put them in jail, destroyed reputation of Canada, at the end of the day Charkaoui is now free. Hassan Almrei was in late twenties when he was arrested. That time of life was wasted. I don’t see any logical argument for security certificates. If fiscal conservative, they should be angry. Though, this is not a fiscal issue, it is a human issue.

9/11 is the starting point. The outrage and fear created out of 9/11, the whole war on terror has historically made dramatic mistakes. After WWII the treatment of Japanese Canadians is very analogous, not as dramatic, but on human level equally important. How about at this time we stop it as we are doing it. Looking back on this we will shake our heads. I don’t want to take away from other grievous human rights issues. It’s along the same lines. The treatment of Muslims while not as dramatic is part of the same fear-based strategy that a country will make in times of stress.  
 

How might this issue be resolved?

First and foremost, if we’re going to do the right thing, security certificates need to be abolished. If government says the three men are threats, they need to be charged with something. Give people a chance to defend themselves; I believe that if any of the men were being accused of anything actually criminal they would have been charged. I don’t believe there is any real evidence of criminal activity. Charkaoui and Almrei, launched law suits against Canadian government.

It’s the least we can do to financially compensate and apologize as a nation. If the track record of Canadian government is any record, this is not going to happen overnight:

A.    Remove the specter of deportation

B.    If you have something on these men legitimately charge them with crimes or let them go.

If there is a risk to Canadians, we have to take that risk. That what’s living in free society is about. You can never give Almrei his seven years back.


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