Canada to review ‘troubling’ torture policy

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Liberal government says it will review information-sharing directives that critics say opened the door to the torture of Canadians abroad

Prime Minister Trudeau's Liberal government will review the controversial policy (AFP)
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Friday 22 January 2016 21:58 UTC
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TORONTO, Canada – The government will review controversial information-sharing directives put in place under the previous Conservative government that critics have alleged open the door to torture and other human rights violations.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told The Canadian Press (CP) this week that the “troubling set of issues” raised by the policy would be reviewed as the new Liberal government in Ottawa sets its national security priorities.

According to a four-page government document from 2010, top security officials must be notified when there is a “substantial risk” in sending or receiving information from a foreign agency that could lead to torture.   

These officials must then consider the threat to Canada’s security, the imminence of the threat, Canada’s relationship with the foreign agency, the foreign agency’s human rights record, and the reason to think sharing information may lead to torture, according to the CP’s report about the directives.

But the government allowed agencies to use or share information obtained through torture, or which may lead to torture, in “exceptional circumstances”.

“That’s a very troubling set of issues,” Goodale told CP about the directive, adding the new government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intends to develop a response “that reflects what Canadians want.”

Five Canadian agencies and departments were bound by the policy: the Canadian spy agency (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canada Border Services Agency, National Defence and Canada’s electronic spy agency (CSE).

“We’ll be listening very carefully for the messages from Canadians on that subject,” Goodale said, without giving specifics.

‘A first step’

Hilary Homes, an official at Amnesty International Canada who campaigns on issues of surveillance, security and human rights, said the group has “had long-standing concerns about these ministerial directives”.

“It’s very welcome to see that they are being reviewed,” she said about the minister’s statements.

Homes said that as a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture, Canada must ensure that its policies in no way make it complicit in torture; there are no exceptions.

“We want all of those doors shut,” she told Middle East Eye.

“There’s no wiggle room there from the human-rights perspective. That’s at the heart of what the concern is. You can put all the caveats you want around information-sharing, but (if) you leave that door open you’re going to put people at risk.”

Monia Mazigh is the national coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, which brings together dozens of civil society organisations working on human rights issues in the context of the “war on terror” across Canada.

She told Middle East Eye that the minister’s statement was “a first step” towards opening up a public dialogue into information sharing and its impact on Canadians.

“We are very much looking forward to see more of what they are going to propose,” Mazigh said.

Mazigh’s husband, Syrian-Canadian national Maher Arar, was detained in the US in 2002 and secretly transferred to Syria, where he was tortured in prison for a year before being able to return to Canada.

A commission of inquiry examined Canada’s role in his extradition and found that Canadian RCMP officers provided the US with “inaccurate” information about Arar that “portrayed him in an unfairly negative fashion”.

“It is very likely that, in making the decisions to detain and remove Mr Arar, American authorities relied on information about Mr. Arar provided by the RCMP,” the commission’s report stated.

The Canadian government later apologised to Arar and gave him $10mn in compensation.

Lives permanently affected

But Homes said that the problem with information sharing is that even when information is amended, that correction often does not go “all the way down the line” to all the foreign agencies involved.

“You can try to tag that piece (of information), but if you need to correct it, you can’t necessarily do that correction and do the redress,” Homes said. She said that Arar, for example, is still on a US no-fly list, despite getting an apology from Canada.

“His career and everything has been permanently affected by the inability to change something once it’s in that system. And if you can’t change it on an extremely well-known case (like Arar’s), imagine trying to do it in some of the other cases that have come along that are a much lower level.”

Another commission of inquiry, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, found that Canadian officials were “deficient” in ways that indirectly led to human rights violations against three other Canadian men: Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin.

The men were interrogated and tortured in the same Syrian facility as Arar and El Maati was also sent to Egypt where he was subjected to further torture.

It was also revealed that Canada used information obtained through torture by US officials to issue a security certificate against Mohamed Harkat. Security certificates allow Canada to indefinitely detain permanent residents that may “pose a serious threat” to the country, often on the basis of secret evidence.

Harkat’s wife, Sophie, told MEE in December 2014 that information collected through torture "has affected and ruined lives”.

“People face serious consequences: some of them [are] detained for years, people [are] tortured… it’s very concerning. We need to strike a balance between justice and national security, and I don’t think we have a balance right now.”

Opposition to Bill C-51

Mazigh said that she hoped a review of Canada’s torture directives would take place in a wider debate about a controversial new piece of anti-terrorism legislation passed under the Harper Conservatives.

Despite widespread public opposition, the Conservative government passed its anti-terrorism Bill C-51 into law in 2015 before being swept from office in the federal elections last fall.

The law gives CSIS more power, allows the RCMP to restrict peoples’ movements and extend preventative detention periods, increases the exchange of information between government agencies and broadens no-fly list powers, among other measures.

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a court challenge against the legislation in July, arguing that violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The law “has disturbing implications for free speech, privacy, the mandates of national security agencies, including CSIS, and the protection of civil liberties in Canada,” the groups said.

The Liberals voted in favour of the bill when it was passed last year. Trudeau argued at the time that supporting Bill C-51 was “in the best interests” of Canadians, but the now-prime minister promised to rewrite certain elements of the law if elected.

But human rights groups have urged the prime minister to go further.

“Our concerns were so widespread that we were calling for a repeal of the bill,” Homes said. “There is a lot of work to be done. We can’t just have a minor review and a little tidying up. This is not a small task, this is a big one.”

“There is a big momentum here, there are many opportunities. So far the government showed some openness in discussion, especially in public consultation,” Mazigh added.

“I think these are important moments for activists, for politicians, for civil society groups to be working together and to be present because we couldn’t really have our say in the previous years.”