Canadian Journalist Caught in ‘Post-9/11 Witch Hunt’

When police raided an Ottawa journalist’s office and home this week because of an article she wrote about a Canadian deported from the United States to face torture in Syria, it was a reminder how closely this country has followed the U.S. lead in the “war on terrorism.”

Just four months after Sep. 11, 2001, Canada’s Parliament passed sweeping legislation, the Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-36), which amended 19 existing laws and allowed authorities to suspend long-held judicial rights to combat vague threats.

But aside from that new law, 9/11 ushered in a climate that has emboldened security agencies to make use of extraordinary powers that were already part of the legal system but seldom employed, according to experts.

Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill had her office and home searched and her computer and notes seized Wednesday by officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) searching to discover who “leaked” information to her about the case of Maher Arar.

Arar is the Syrian-born Canadian who was stopped in New York in June 2002 on his way home following a holiday in Tunisia. Nine days later US officials deported him to Damascus, where he was jailed and tortured for 10 months.

On Thursday, Arar filed a lawsuit against US Attorney General John Ashcroft for deporting him to a country that US officials knew practiced torture. He wants an apology and unspecified damages from Washington.

Canadian security agencies have denied they were involved in Arar’s deportation, although US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have suggested otherwise.

In her article, O’Neill included details about Arar’s alleged stay in a “terrorist training” camp, information the RCMP says could only have come from a document protected by the post-9/11 Security of Information Act.

If O’Neill is charged with breaching that law, she faces up to 14 years in jail. The Security of Information Act is basically the former Official Secrets Act, revamped in the fear-filled months that followed 9/11.

Neither this nor other measures in the anti-terrorism laws have been used often by authorities to target suspected terrorists. Late last year the Supreme Court heard the appeal of a man who was forced to testify in a secret hearing, a process created by Bill C-36, about a plane bombing in the 1980s.

It is the only known instance of the Anti-Terrorism Act being used to date. Yet judicial rights continue to be violated in the name of security, say experts.

“Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation is broader than the anti-terrorism act. It plays out in a number of different pieces (of legislation),” says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

For instance, authorities are beginning to employ a rarely used measure in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, called the security certificate, says Neve in an interview.

“There are at least five cases of individuals who have been arrested under the (Immigration Act), who are facing deportation from Canada on allegations that they have some sort of link or are involved in terrorism activities,” he says.

“In most of the cases there’s serious reasons to believe that torture awaits them at the other end. And the security certificate is profoundly flawed. There’s no opportunity to know the extent of the accusations against you.”

At the same time, the Arar case suggests that security agencies might be acting beyond the scope of any laws, says Neve.

“His case points to the fact that there may be very serious things being done by law enforcement and security agencies outside the rubric of even C- 36, which are not regulated and are not subject to any kind of legal framework.”

Prime Minister Paul Martin on Thursday denied that the O’Neill raid signaled Canada has become a “police state.”

“Freedom of the press is an essential condition to protect our democratic freedoms,” said Martin, in Davos, Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum.

“The reason any kind of security legislation is put in place is so we can continue to protect those democratic freedoms,” he added, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). “We’re not going to do something that will go against those basic values.”

But Alan Borovoy says legal experts protested the Official Secrets Act, the forerunner of the law used to arrest O’Neill, 25 years ago, for inadequately safeguarding legal rights. Their advice was not followed.

When the government announced new measures to fight terrorism after Sep. 11, “we said, ‘the existing powers are broader than you need, why do you want new powers?”’ said Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in an interview.

He feels that Bill C-36 helped to “embolden the authorities, and makes them a little more likely to resort to these (long-standing) powers.”

Other experts say measures in the new bill themselves threaten the balance between the state maintaining rights while protecting security.

In a paper delivered to a June 2003 conference, Canadian Senator Raynell Andreychuk wrote that Bill C-36 “gave itself very wide ministerial discretion in a number of areas, void of any scrutiny in some cases, and without the possibility for appeal in others.”

The former judge added that “most troubling was the curtailment of the Access to Information Act (in some cases unlimited in time), the Privacy Act and the reduction of due process.”

After her materials were seized in the police raid, O’Neill told CBC, “I’ll always remember what happened to me as part of the post-9/11 witch hunts. We know many Canadians of Muslim faith and Middle East origin have had a knock on the door from the RCMP. And as a journalist, I’ve now experienced that first-hand.”

Read more by Marty Logan