Documentary takes unflinching look at men branded as terrorists Ottawa tried to deport
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The theatre was packed and when the subjects of the film were invited to the stage, people rose to their feet, clapping.
Three members of the “Secret Five” waved, somewhat shyly and were passed microphones.
There were no armed guards escorting Hassan Almrei, Mahmoud Jaballah, Adil Charkaoui, no bomb-sniffing dogs for Saturday night’s premiere of The Secret Trial 5, part of Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival.
What a difference a decade can make.
Almrei, Jaballah, Charkaoui, who along with Mohamed Harkat were the documentary’s stars, may not be familiar names now — it has been awhile since news about the men facing “national security certificates” was everywhere.
They were accused of being members of Canadian “sleeper cells,” or having ties to Al Qaeda, or other allegations that no one will likely ever see as their files remain secret.
(Mohammad Mahjoub, the fifth high-profile accused, declined to participate in the film).
Ottawa had tried to deport the men as terrorism suspects to the countries where they were born using a rarely used immigration provision known as security certificates. The certificates can only be used for non-citizens and are signed by two federal ministers based on information provided by Canada’s spy service.
The men were detained, branded terrorists and had their lives upended for years. Case files fill boxes and boxes and yet so much about the government’s allegations against the men are unknown as much of the process happened behind closed doors.
Eventually, Almrei and Charkaoui had their certificates quashed or withdrawn. The cases against Harkat, Jaballah and Mahjoub limp on in the courts. A Supreme Court decision on Harkat’s case is expected this spring.
Perhaps nothing was more telling of the time passed since the men were first accused than the sight Saturday of Jaballah’s sons on stage. The eldest was just 11 when he surreptitiously taped an interview his father had with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in 1998. Now he has kids of his own.
Asked after the screening how the experience has shaped him, Ahmad replied simply: “It’s something we’ve grown up with.”
In the years that these boys have grown up, so too have society, law and the public’s understanding of security and terrorism once it became this generation’s reality on Sept. 11, 2001. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought; widespread revolts throughout the Middle East and northern Africa changed decades of rule; enemies have become allies and allies, enemies.
And yet Al Qaeda lives on still, as does state terrorism.
The film has a distinct point of view: Egypt is a country that holds secret trials, not Canada. If any of the five is guilty of terrorism, arrest and put him on trial in a criminal court. National security certificates are an affront to democracy.
“As young Canadians, we find their use deeply troubling,” says Amar Wala, the film’s director, who spent four and a half years, along with producers Noah Bingham and Madeleine Cohen, making the film, relying heavily on crowdfunding.
“We are not activists really, though we obviously feel cinema can be a powerful tool to increase public engagement, which in turn can lead to real change.”
The documentary does a powerful job in humanizing the men, especially Almrei and Charkaoui, both known for their humour.
It is also an indictment of the process and highlights the hundreds of thousands of dollars the government has spent defending national security certificates to the Supreme Court again and again.
“Ridiculous,” scoffed one man loudly in the Isabel Bader Theatre Saturday night when the film noted that a special detention facility dubbed “Gitmo North” was built on the grounds of Kingston’s Millhaven Institute to house the men and then was closed after their release. That cost taxpayers $3.2 million.
Former CSIS director Jim Judd famously said Canadians have an “Alice in Wonderland” attitude about global terrorism, according to a secret diplomatic memo released by WikiLeaks.
Canada’s spies have lashed out at the lawyers challenging the cases, dubbing it a “judicial jihad.”
And, privately, they ask why activists do not highlight security cases against non-Muslims, such as Russian spy Paul William Hampel who was deported on a certificate in 2007.
While Hampel did not face a harsh homecoming (the five men feared they would be tortured or killed if deported — Almrei to Syria, Charkaoui to Morocco, Harkat to Algeria and Mahjoub and Jaballah to Egypt) few protested the use of the security certificate in his case, even on principle.
But the filmmakers’ attempts to get comment such as these were shut down.
A black screen at the end of the film notes: “CSIS declined to be interviewed for this film.” Then CSIS is replaced by CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency), Public Safety Canada, Immigration Canada, Correctional Service Canada and the Department of Justice.
In other words, not one person in Ottawa would defend national security certificates publicly.