Friday, August 17, 2007

Suspect Anything? Religious profiling by Canadians lands asylum-seeker in custody

Edmonton Sun
Thu, August 16, 2007

Benamar Benatta's story reads like a work of fiction conjured up in our post-9/11 world.

It's almost as if someone wondered what would happen if a Muslim man, who knew something about airplanes, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Benatta knows exactly what would happen, and it is with shame that we must admit it's no work of fiction.

At age 27, Benamer Benatta was a lieutenant in the Algerian military with training in aviation electronics.

In December 2000, he travelled to the U.S. to attend a training course along with fellow members of the military. At the end of the course, Benatta decided to desert the military and not return to Algeria.


Having chosen to claim political asylum in Canada, Benatta was stopped at the border on Sept. 5, 2001, found to be travelling on a false document and held in isolation at the Canadian Niagara Detention Centre.

As a result, it was not until Sept. 12, 2001, that he learned of the terrorist attacks in New York City. This was the same day he was told he was being held as a suspect.

By this time, Benatta was in U.S. custody, thanks to the Canadian officials who had driven him across the border on Sept. 12 and handed him over to the American authorities.

Held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, New York, Benatta was denied access to a lawyer, and subjected to conditions that the United Nations found could be described as torture.

Even though the FBI cleared him of any terrorism suspicions in November 2001, he continued to be imprisoned for close to five years. In July 2006, Benatta was allowed to return to Canada and resumed his claim for refugee status.

Benatta is now calling on the Canadian government to conduct a review of the actions of Canadian officials in illegally transferring him to the U.S. His lawyer, Nicole Chrolavicius, says that to date, no such public review is forthcoming.

While some may balk at the idea of yet another public review of the actions of Canadian security and border officials, the issues that are raised in this case warrant nothing less than a comprehensive and independent review.

Without granting him access to a lawyer and without giving him a hearing of any sort, Benatta was transferred to the U.S., not as a refugee claimant, but as a suspect in the worst terrorist attacks in American history.

Canadians are entitled to know how such basic civil liberties were disregarded.

In addition, Canadian officials identified Benatta as a suspect, presumably because he was an Arab Muslim man who also was an aeronautical engineer.

No amount of post-tragedy panic and frenzy can justify such blatant racial and religious profiling, especially given the consequences.


What's more, it would be naive to assume that we have now moved past that initial period of heightened suspicion (a.k.a. discrimination). Ask any Muslim or Arab man who has crossed the border in the last six years and he will tell you that the ramifications of 9/11 continue to resonate.

Having failed to immediately implement the Arar Commission's recommendations on creating an oversight mechanism for security agencies, the government has left Benatta with no option other than a public review.

Its inaction, along with our own complacency, leaves the door wide open for further abuses.