Monday, January 7, 2008

Marchers seek humanitarian reprieve

Blind Algerian refugee claimant Belaouni has been living in a church for two years

IRWIN BLOCK, The Gazette

Supporters of Abdelkader Belaouni, a failed Algerian refugee claimant, took their protest underground yesterday.

After a rally in Phillips Square, an estimated 100 demonstrators descended to the métro level of McGill station and surprised lunch-hour shoppers and diners in the underground city with marching music and slogans.

Led by the 12-member Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble, they shouted: "Two years is too many" - a reference to Belaouni's living in the presbytery of St. Gabriel's Church in Point St. Charles for more than two years.

He sought sanctuary there on Jan. 1, 2006, after losing his bid for refugee status and failing to get a reprieve on humanitarian and compassionate grounds to remain in Canada as a permanent resident. He was ordered deported in January 2006.

The fact Belaouni, 40, is blind and has diabetes adds merit to his claim for humanitarian treatment, his supporters said.

Belaouni left the city of Oran, Algeria, where he worked at his family's grocery store, and fled to the United States in 1996, at the height of the murderous civil war in his native country.

According to Rev. James Macdonald, parish priest at St. Gabriel's, Belaouni is in good spirits because he has a strong support group, many of whom were among the demonstrators.

"He often has someone bringing him food or teaching him piano or the flute or guitar," Macdonald said.

Belaouni deserves to stay in Canada because he has lived in Montreal since March 2003, Macdonald added.

"The sprit of the law gives life. The application of the letter of the law produces death," he told protesters.

Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair, of the New Democratic Party, told demonstrators his caucus believes "deporting a blind man under current circumstances ... is simply unacceptable."

Thierry St-Cyr, the Bloc Québécois MP for Jeanne Le Ber, said he is impressed by Belaouni's simplicity and kindness and by how well he has integrated into the community.

"He can contribute to the community, even if he is blind and in sanctuary," St-Cyr said, noting Belaouni regularly hosts a radio program on CKUT from the presbytery.

After winding through midtown Montreal, the protest ended in front of Citizenship and Immigration offices on St. Antoine St.

St-Cyr added his voice to others appealing for federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley to intervene. Her office in Ottawa said the minister had no comment.