Embassy, community indifference keeps Pakistanis in Canadian jail
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: The 19 men, almost all of them Pakistanis, being held by Canadian authorities on suspicion of links to terrorists are innocent and could be released if the Pakistan government and the Pakistani-Canadian community were to flex their muscle.
Barring some civil rights groups and activists like Pakistan-born broadcaster and journalist Tarek Fateh, the detainees have few friends. Some leading newspapers such as the Globe and Mail have run stories on the case but by and large, there appears to be little sympathy for the men, though with each passing day their continued detention becomes more and more indefensible.
One of the detainees, Anwarur Rehman Mohammed, is a pharmacist from southern India who lived in a cluttered basement apartment in Markham, a Toronto suburb, hoping to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence, an ambition into which he invested $50,000. However, he did not graduate and is no longer sure if he would be able to get a licence in the wake of 9/11.
Saifullah Khan (42) comes from Faisalabad and was picked up by police because he shared an apartment with his brother, a suspect in an immigration raid. He was found hiding in a pile of laundry, and said that he had been mistaken for his brother.
Muhammad Naeem (34) is a physician from Islamabad who hoped to practise medicine in Canada. His decision to register for computer courses at the Ottawa Business School, a defunct institution that sold fake registration letters, drew the suspicion of authorities investigating the school.
At least 10 of the 17 men who remain in jail in the Maplehurst Correctional Centre in Milton, Ontario, were moved into protective custody after complaining of threats from inmates. The Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa has expressed concern for the well-being of the men and requested their release. “Correctional services sent us a letter saying that the reason for the incarceration of the 19 men is immigration. The terrorism word was not used. It is nothing to do with terrorism,” a spokesman for the High Commission said.
According to a report in the Globe and Mail at the weekend, these men and 16 others are at the centre of Canada’s most sensational – and most controversial – terrorism case in recent years. After they were jailed on the grounds that they could pose a risk to Canada’s national security, the case made headlines around the world as the news media quoted a government official’s “now infamous words, ‘I guess the easiest way of putting it is there is a suggestion they might, in fact, perhaps be a sleeper cell for Al-Qaeda.’”
Other immigration officials alleged that some of the men may have been in search of diagrams and schematics of the CN Tower and other prominent Toronto landmarks.
However, the case began to unravel almost as soon as the detention reviews began, with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada distancing themselves from the idea that the men posed a clear threat to security, reported the newspaper.
They are searching for more men. A suspect reportedly was arrested on Friday in a grocery store where he works. Another man, Mukhtar Awan (25) wanted to turn himself in at the weekend but could not reach the immigration enforcement unit. Arif Raza, a lawyer, said Mr Awan was “terrified” by news that authorities were looking for him but wanted to clear his name.
In addition to their connection to the business school, some men had applied for refugee status, in some cases using false identities. Others are said to have misrepresented themselves to obtain work permits. One man smuggled his way into Canada in the back of a truck. What is not clear is what prompted officials to suggest these men “might in fact perhaps” be Al Qaeda cell members.
The RCMP, which is just beginning to sift through 25 boxes of files and 30 computers seized in the raid that netted the 19 men, said this week there is no evidence that Canada’s national security is at risk. Immigration officials underlined that they are investigating only the possibility of such threats. “I can comfortably say there is no known threat; what is being investigated is a reasonable suspicion,” said Giovanna Gatti, spokesperson with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. “It’s taken the spin that it has taken in the media for whatever reason.” Privately, other government sources say that public fears are overblown – and that at its root, the case remains an investigation into an illegal immigrant ring. Two of the men were released after immigration adjudicators found that they posed no threat to security.
The Muslim Canadian Congress has denounced the case as one of “racial profiling” and demanded an apology and the men’s immediate release. “The authorities have created hysteria and created a national security scare,” Tarek Fatah said. “We are deeply troubled.” “There exists, unfortunately, stereotyping. . . . We live, unfortunately, in very uneasy times, and it’s only heightened by the tragic event of September 11, 2001,” said Silvana Gratton, an immigration adjudicator who presided over one detention review. “Suspicions are real. . . It was only heightened by the bomb at the United Nations in Baghdad.”
Under Canada’s post-September 11 Immigration Act, foreigners can be jailed if there is a reasonable suspicion they may be inadmissible to the country on grounds of national security. There need be no evidence or proof. Detention reviews are not like criminal trials. They are held in conference rooms, not in courts of law. Suspects appear in person with police escorts or by videolinks from jail. Immigration adjudicators presiding over the hearings and officials arguing the government’s case do not have to be lawyers. But the men cannot be held indefinitely, and some of the adjudicators hearing the 19 cases want more evidence presented during the next round of hearings in 30 days.
The men came to the attention of authorities because they used the Ottawa Business School to obtain student visas to enter Canada. ‘Project Thread’ was launched after a sharp-eyed immigration officer determined that the school is bogus. According to the Globe and Mail, in February, the RCMP seized 400 student files from the school that was based in Scarborough, Ontario. Immigration agents said school officials later admitted to selling fake registration letters for $400 and to handing out receipts for thousands of dollars more. It took until this month for police to coordinate 13 predawn raids at various locations around the Toronto area. Police initially identified 31 suspects but arrested only 13 of their targets – and six bystanders dubbed “found-ins” – during the August 14 raids.
The Globe and Mail wrote, “Project Thread’s four-page backgrounder, submitted by the government in the detention hearings, outlines certain collective characteristics that bear a striking similarity to the September 11 hijackers. It is said the men lived in clusters in sparsely furnished apartments in Toronto, Mississauga and Scarborough, moved frequently and had several unexplained fires in their homes. One man took flying lessons while others had associates who were found walking around the Pickering nuclear power station. Some allegedly knew a man who had links to Global Relief Foundation, identified by the United Nations as a fundraising group for Al Qaeda. But there are no specific allegations of terrorist activities.”
Some of the 19 now in detention say they want to go back to Pakistan. Saifullah Khan – the suspect found in the laundry pile – was released on a $4,000 bond on Friday, and he and his brother Aqeel Ahmed, still in jail, want to return home. The brothers are from a well-off family and are not religious. “Aqeel is a very nice guy, very helpful and friendly. He knows nothing about Al Qaeda,” said Faisal Zafar, who employed him and his brother as pizza delivery drivers at a Pizza Hut in Mississauga. “Aqeel wants to leave Canada now, he even had a flight booked,” said Mr Zafar. “Those two guys just wanted to make a life in Canada. They are not terrorists.”