Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mahjoub ordered freed pending government review of case

Globe and Mail
15 Feb. 2007

TORONTO ­ An Egyptian who has been jailed in Canada for nearly seven years on suspicion of possible links of al-Qaeda was ordered freed on bail this morning by a Federal Court judge.

Mohammed Zeki Mahjoub worked on a Sudanese farm for Osama bin Landen in the mid-1990s but has faced no criminal charges since coming to Canada in as an asylum seeker.

He has been jailed under the Immigration Act's national-security provisions since 2000, but is now to be freed on some form of conditional release. Mr. Justice Richard Mosley has ruled that any threat that Mr. Mahjoub may represent has been effectively neutralized by his years of being locked away.

”It's pretty much house arrest,” said Matthew Behrens, an activist who has long been pressing for the rights of Mr. Mahjoub and prisoners jailed in similar circumstances. He said it is likely that the Egyptian detainee will be made to wear an ankle bracelet and remain mostly confined to his Toronto home, as his case continues to be mulled by judges.

Some freedoms will be permitted. ”He'll be able to take the kids the school,” Mr. Behrens said in an interview.

It's not clear when Mr. Mahjoub would be released. He is currently on the 83rd of a hunger strike aimed at a improving the conditions of a new prison he his held in, one built for immigrants labelled security threats like himself.

Two detainees suspected of links to al-Qaeda remain there, while two others have been ordered freed from prison in recent years.

While these cases are not new, they have drawn increased attention from Parliamentarians and the media in recent weeks. Mr. Behrens believes the Canadian public is no longer taking the government's national-security claims at face value.

”People have been able to see them as human beings not as these ogres and caricatures,” he said. ”This has been a human-rights embarrassment for this country.”

Five fundamentalist Muslim immigrants continue to be branded threats to national security, but three of them – including Mr. Mahjoub – have now been ordered freed until the government can figure how to deport them.

Recent court decisions have stated that these men cannot be sent back to their homelands if it is likely they will be tortured there. The overall constitutionality of what's known as the ”security certificate” process is also being reviewed by Canada's Supreme Court.

In 2000, two federal cabinet ministers signed off on secret intelligence information that allowed Mr. Mahjoub to be arrested and labelled him a threat to national security. Much of the case has since been revealed in court, but the government continues to use classified evidence to detain him until he can be deported.

The case has stalled at Federal Court, as judges weigh claims that Canada would violate the suspect's rights by deporting him to a state that would likely torture him. Before yesterday, a string of Mr. Mahjoub's bail applications had failed.

The competing national security and human-rights claims basically left Mr. Mahjoub and the others in a legal limbo for years. Recently, the hunger strike he and two other detainees have staged at a new Canadian prison have drawn the sympathies of the broader public and of Parliamentarians.

Canada's Parliament this week endorsed a Liberal MP's motion to improve conditions at the new prison, by giving the detainees better access to health care, family visits, and correctional oversight. The motion, however, does not bind the government to act.

Previous hunger strikes staged by Mr. Mahjoub and the others had been largely ignored by Parliamentarians and the public.