TORONTO — Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub, an Egyptian who once ran a Sudanese farming operation for Osama bin Laden, was released after seven years of detention Thursday night.
For the first time since 2000, the terrorism suspect, who had been held under Canada's controversial security certificate law, is allowed to live with his Toronto family, albeit under a very strict form of house arrest.
Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub, seen here in an undated photo, was released from custody Thursday after seven years of detention under a national security certificate. (Family handout)
"I just couldn't believe it was him. I just ran to hug him ... I feel like here he is, and I'm happy to have him, and that's good enough for now," his elated wife, Mona El Fouli, told The Globe and Mail in an interview outside her Toronto apartment Thursday night.
"We'll worry about everything else later," she said, speaking of the stringent controls her family will now live under. She said she could not permit a reporter to enter her home, but Mr. Mahjoub was visible through the doorway, sitting in the living room with his hands on his knees. He wore an off-white Islamic tunic and his beard came down to his stomach.
In an earlier interview, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said he's displeased that judges are releasing Mr. Mahjoub and other suspected security threats. "I would prefer that the people would stay in detention," Mr. Day said Thursday. He then reiterated the long-standing allegations against Mr. Mahjoub. "The [Federal] Court agrees that Mr. Mahjoub worked closely with and was paid by Osama bin Laden," Mr. Day said.
But he added that the same court decided to grant bail, and his government is obliged to respect the decision. "We will respect the court ruling and hope that the [house-arrest] safeguards will be enough to keep Canadians safe."
Though the bail decision was announced in February, the timing of Mr. Mahjoub's release was unclear until Thursday. His release coincided with Thursday's announcement of bail terms against another long-held Egyptian terrorism suspect, Mahmoud Jaballah, although its not clear when he will be released.
The Egyptians are among a total of five alleged immigrant Islamists deemed threats to Canada by federal security certificates, although none of the suspects have ever been charged with a crime. They face Immigration Act charges only, under penalty of deportation.
The suspects have spent years battling attempts to kick them out, and human-rights concerns about torture overseas and indefinite detention within Canada have led judges to order the suspects released, under strict controls.
Now that Mr. Mahjoub has been released, officials at the Canada Border Services Agency will monitor the 47-year-old with a GPS ankle bracelet and through video cameras and phone taps at his house.
CBSA agents will also shadow the suspect during the few outings he is permitted each week and his immediate family must make sure he lives up to bail obligations. There is speculation among border officials that they will have to set up a 24-hour surveillance centre in Toronto just to keep tabs on Mr. Mahjoub and Mr. Jaballah.
But there was little talk of this last night at the Mahjoub household. "I can't believe it. I looked at his face and I said, 'was that really you?'" Ms. El Fouli said. The first thing the couple did together was pray, she added.
Mr. Mahjoub's children, aged 7 and 9, showed their father, whom they have rarely seen, around the apartment.
Of all Canada's terrorism suspects, Mr. Mahjoub has the clearest ties to al-Qaeda. Prior to being granted refugee status in Canada in 1996, he ran a large farming operation for Mr. bin Laden. The business was in Sudan, during the years the al-Qaeda founder lived outside Afghanistan.
Mr. Mahjoub has always argued that his contacts with Mr. bin Laden were innocuous, that he wasn't involved in terrorism and that he left Mr. bin Laden's employ in a dispute over money. He has never been accused of taking part in a specific terrorist act.
But the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has argued that Mr. Mahjoub formed part of an Egyptian terror group known as the Vanguards of Conquest. CSIS has further alleged that he knew other important extremists, such as an alleged Canadian al-Qaeda financier and an Iraqi identified by the U.S. 9/11 Commission as al-Qaeda's "principal procurement agent for weapons of mass destruction."
For these reasons, and partly on the basis of evidence that has never been disclosed, the Federal Court has ruled it is "reasonable to suspect" Mr. Mahjoub is a security threat. The certificate process does not hold the Crown to the proof beyond reasonable standard that exists in criminal cases.