Monday, September 10, 2007

Gitmo North's Last Prisoner in Limbo After 6 Years

by Michelle Shephard
The Toronto Star
September 5, 2007

BATH, Ont.– Hassan Almrei strolls from his cell wearing a pressed
cream shirt, dress pants and polished black shoes. If not for the
barbed wire behind him, the 33-year-old Syrian could be on his way
to a corporate board meeting, not an interview with a journalist
as the remaining detainee in a prison dubbed "Guantanamo North."

Almrei has fought a series of public and legal battles to get to
this point. Over the six years of his detention he has stopped
eating, sometimes for weeks at a time, to pressure the government
to grant him privileges like wearing a watch, or stopping the
daily strip searches.

"I don't think I should have to go through nine or 10 hunger
strikes while I'm in prison to know what time it is, to have shoes
on my feet," he said during an interview with the Toronto Star
inside the prison.

Last summer, he was able to make his first phone call to relatives
in Saudi Arabia. "I haven't been able to call them for years. I
had to go on a hunger strike just to call my mom and tell her,
`Look, I'm alive'. "

There are no other prisoners in the $3.2 million specially
designed prison on the grounds of Millhaven's maximum-security
penitentiary near Kingston – only Almrei, who was arrested one
month after the 9/11 attacks for alleged connections to Al Qaeda.
He has never been charged with a criminal offence. Four other
suspects were released on stringent conditions.

A bail decision is pending any day now for Almrei, who came to
Canada from Saudi Arabia in 1999 as a landed immigrant and ran an
unsuccessful pita restaurant in Yorkville before his arrest.

But he faces one obstacle in his release that the other suspects
didn't have. Almrei is not married, nor does he have any family in
Canada. That means despite support he has received from a number
of high-profile Canadians, and his willingness to wear a GPS
monitoring bracelet, he can't offer the security of a
24-hour-a-day supervisor.

When the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre opened last year,
Almrei's supporters called it Guantanamo North. But Almrei himself
is quick to note the differences between his confinement and the
imprisonment of 355 terrorism suspects at the U.S. base in
southeastern Cuba. "It's a million times different than Guantanamo
Bay, of course it is, and you know what, I'm lucky to be detained
in this country. I'm not denying that. (But) they're not talking
about the colour of the clothes, it's the principle. The principle
of Guantanamo Bay."

And like the legal quagmire that is Guantanamo, there is no
foreseeable end to Almrei's case.

Six months ago, the Supreme Court stuck down key provisions of the
immigration law that keeps him behind bars. National security
certificates had been used in rare cases to deport non-citizens
deemed a risk to Canada. But the court ruled the law was
unconstitutional because it allows the government to rely on
secret evidence from Canada's spy service, without giving
defendants a chance to refute the allegations. Parliament was
given a year to amend the law before it's declared invalid.

If Almrei's most recent attempt to get bail is denied, he'll
remain in prison until Parliament enacts a new law – and he could
again face deportation under the new system.

Hanging over the proceedings is the unresolved question as to
whether Canada will knowingly deport non-citizens to face torture
in their home countries. All five of the men – from Syria, Egypt,
Morocco and Algeria – say they will be tortured or killed if
returned, and in some instances the Canadian government has agreed
that's likely.

A 2002 Supreme Court decision ruled deportations could occur only
in "exceptional circumstances," but did not elaborate. That
question is expected to again go before the Supreme Court, which
means months, if not years more before the issue is decided.

"After six years in prison without being charged with any single
crime, I think the Canadian people, the Canadian public, should
come to the conclusion themselves ... that after all these years,
they cannot come (up) with one single ... real crime to show the
public this is dangerous to the public," Almrei said. "I think the
public should say enough is enough, that's it."

In a July bail hearing, a spy with the Canadian Security
Intelligence Service said the government believes Almrei supports
Al Qaeda's ideology and there is classified evidence that proves
it. "The Service's position is we are not willing to take a chance
with this person being out unsupervised and free to resume his
activities, given that we have no evidence that he has shed his
prior beliefs," the agent testified.

While disillusioned by the federal government, Almrei said he has
only grown to love his adopted country more during his incarceration.

"Even though I'm in jail now, people may think I have some anger,
or sorry I came to this country, (but) even if I knew before I
came this is what would happen to me, I still would have come to
this country. Why? After all these years behind bars I came to
know many, many Canadian people, which I really have respect and
admiration for them. I feel it's worth it."

Almrei checks his new watch. The 90 minutes are done. He saunters
back to his cell for another day behind bars.