January issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

The pre-dawn darkness was pierced by light beams coming from long columns of police vehicles on the deserted streets of Toronto, Canada. In the cars, men on a mission: to swoop upon homes in different parts of the city to arrest 19 young men whom they had identified as “Islamic international terrorists.”

The targets had some things in common: all bore the name ‘Mohammed’ in one form or another, were under 30, and had previously been, or were still studying in the Ottawa School of Business, Toronto. Additionally, all the men belonged to the Sunni sect and ostensibly, all hailed from the Punjab in Pakistan.

It was an extraordinarily high-security operation, unprecedented in scope. All highways, airports and train stations were closed down before action began. Police stood guard at all entry points to the city, and helicopters were seen hovering in the air.

‘Project Thread’ — the operation’s official name — was jointly conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the newly established anti-terrorism police unit named Public Security and Anti-Terrorists (PAST) commissioned in 2002 following 9-11. The two agencies had been working on different leads for six months prior to taking action. For PAST personnel involved in the operation, the tension and excitement was overwhelming, since for most it was their first major assignment.

Once the targets were apprehended, they were handcuffed, blindfolded, put into wagons and transported to an interrogation centre at Maplehurst, the largest maximum security prison in Canada where hardened criminals, murderers and rapists are usually confined. The raiding party also seized as “evidence” against the men at the time of the arrests their personal computers, magazines and newspapers in their native language, Urdu, and Asian spices and other traditional food items from their kitchens, which were declared “raw materials for making explosives.” PAST personnel claimed to have seized three wagon-loads of such “damning” evidence.

At Maplehurst the prisoners had heavy chains placed around their necks and feet and they were made to don orange uniforms like those worn by the detenues at Guantanamo Bay prison. Neither were the men informed why they had been arrested, nor were they allowed to call their lawyers or relatives — in blatant violation of the law. Interestingly, only after their arrest was it discovered that while 18 of the prisoners were Pakistanis, Anwar Mohammad, a computer engineer and commercial pilot, though Punjabi was Indian.

The morning following the arrests, TV channels and publications across the world flashed the news that Canada had busted 21 members of an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell just before the second anniversary of 9-11. It was reported that the men had planned to blow up the Canadian National Tower (CNT) and other important installations, including nuclear power plants and government office buildings, but the agencies had thwarted their plans.

The Ontario Tories celebrated the arrests and used them as part of their election campaign, shrugging off queries about the validity of evidence against the accused with the argument “better safe than sorry.” The media, meanwhile, dubbed the arrested 19 as the “image group” of the 19 terrorists accused of the 9-11 bombing of the WTC, and played up the arrests as the biggest ever success against Muslim international terrorists in the past two years.

For the accused meanwhile, it was a descent to hell. The first five days the detenues were kept in total isolation, in dark cells without lights. During this period they were relentlessly interrogated. The questions asked included queries such as how many times a day the men offered prayers, whether they went to mosques for the purpose, had they visited Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden, had they been to any training camps, had they performed Haj or visited Saudi Arabia, and how much did they believe in the Quran which the interrogators frequently referred to as the “War Book,” etc.

The men’s entreaties and declarations of innocence fell on deaf years. Furthermore, throughout their confinement, they disclose, they were constantly humiliated. “We were told [things like] ‘this is your independence day, we will tell you the real meaning of independence,” said one of those detained, Mohammad Asif Aziz, who had moved to Canada in 1999 to study Business Administration.

“They asked us if we celebrated the anniversary of 9-11 and told us we were going to celebrate our independence like that,” added Mohammed Waheed, a computer programmer from a feudal family in Gujranwala who was shortly set to graduate from the University of Windsor. He continued, “The most heinous thing the investigators did was threatening to make us eat pork. They maintained they would see how we would resist eating pork which was prohibited in the ‘War book,’” said Asif.

After five days of relentless interrogation, the men were produced before the immigration courts specially set up inside the jail, manned by members of the Immigration and Refugees Protection Board, or briefly, Immigration Canada.

“It was very strange, we were expecting criminal court hearings as we had been dubbed a ‘threat to Canadian security.’ The prosecutors told the judge they would be presenting evidence to support this charge. They also mentioned ‘three wagon-loads of solid evidence’ against us. Strangely, 10 days later, the same prosecutors told the judge that the charges of us being a threat to national security were being dropped, and now we would only be charged for immigration violations, and that too of a minor nature,” said detenue Mudassar Awan from Lahore.

The court was told that the men had obtained fake certificates and transcripts from the Ottawa School of Business where over 400 foreigners had been issued such papers. The prosecutors disclosed that a six-month-long inquiry which was launched into the affairs of the institution had found that the school had issued transcripts to students despite the expiry of its licence in June 2001. Interestingly, the owner of the school, Samuel Luther, was not charged for any offence. He was apparently absolved of all charges by the court because he informed the judge about some students “behaving in a suspicious manner.”

At a seminar a week after the court hearing absolving the 19 men of security violations, the Chief Commissioner of the RCMP announced that no evidence to support national security violations by the detenues had been unearthed, and that they were being tried for minor immigration violations. But their nightmare was far from over.

After the men had been shifted to prison following five days of solitary confinement, they were allowed to call their family and lawyers. However, that too proved an ordeal. RCMP personnel rang up the mens’ families, friends and lawyers, warning them to desist from helping the prisoners, and threatening to conduct large-scale inquiries against those who did not listen and even face possible charges of abetting terrorists themselves. “Such action detached some of our friends and potential lawyers from us, most of whom were also from Asia,” said Waheed. Nonetheless, their kith and kin refused to give in to the threats and managed to muster the support of the Pakistani community and of some lawyers who began to campaign against the discriminatory treatment meted out to the men in violation of every law of the land and all democratic norms. Said Waheed, “Our friends launched ‘Project Threadbare’ to counter the vicious official propaganda against us and began to seek legal remedies for us.”

As the men sat in prison waiting to discover their fate, they were subjected to other kinds of trauma. During their days in prison they faced dire threats to their lives from the hardened criminals they were kept with. Seeing their images on TV with the accompanying stories in the early days of their incarceration, many criminals attacked them, in the process breaking the jaw of one, and fracturing the arm of another.

As Asif Aziz narrated, “We approached the cell guard about the threats, but he was most unconcerned. However, when some of us were attacked he brought in his superior officers, who moved us, presumably because our lives were important in as much as the authorities’ belief that we could lead them to Osama bin Laden.” The move did not help. The men faced similar threats in their new cells. “Finally, after we had been shifted five times, the authorities vacated an entire barrack for us,” said Asif.

He continued, “after the authorities conceded they had no serious case against us, they attempted to frame charges against us for immigration violations. But none of these could be proved either. Nevertheless, the prosecutors made us sign documents waiving our legal rights in regard to these immigration violations, and agreement to early deportation to Pakistan. We were so depressed and desperate to see our ordeal end at any cost, that almost all of us agreed to forego our rights in exchange for being sent back to Pakistan.” Asif also disclosed that a few who resisted signing on the dotted line were finally coerced into doing so because the authorities threatened to produce evidence against them in other cases if they did not come around. Nonetheless, even when all the men signed, the court issued deportation orders for only 10 of the 19 men. The cases of the others are still pending on account of certain legal requirements, with the exception of the Indian national against whom all charges were withdrawn.

The case opened up a Pandora’s Box. The men’s lawyers had argued in court that their arrest was a classic case of racial prejudice, and in violation of Canadian law. They had also questioned why only 19 of the 400 students in the school, who had been accused of obtaining fake degrees had been arrested. The lawyers maintained it was because of the men’s Muslim identity and the fact that they hailed from the Punjab in Pakistan, cited as a “hotbed of extremism and Talibanisation” in the RCMP report. However, no remedial action was taken by the Canadian authorities.

Furthermore, according to the men, their tribulations did not end with their deportation. Said Asif Aziz, “The flashing of our pictures all over the world as alleged terrorists destroyed our careers, shattered the prospects of good jobs and further study for us and subjected us and our families to immense mental torture and suffering.”

Then there was the ordeal they faced when they arrived in Pakistan. The immigration authorities, FIA, and police department did a thorough interrogation of the men at the airport, and subsequently in their respective offices. “Instead of sympathising with us, our own law enforcers made us feel we had committed a crime,” said Awan. This, despite the fact that the Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa had sent them letters informing them that the Canadian government had informed the former through a letter that we had no charges against us in respect of national security.”

An understandably bitter Asif disclosed, “Now we are seeking a public apology from the Canadian government, the issuance of clearance certificates of all charges against us and compensation according to the law.” He added that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and its director Asma Jahangir had been of great help in this regard.

“We are pursuing their case with the Canadian authorities and plan to sue the Canadian government. We are seeking an apology and compensation,” said Jahangir, adding that she was hopeful of achieving those objectives. She continued, “The systematic abuse of rights and denial of due legal process will only strengthen the hands of militant forces who preach hatred in the name of religion.”

Back home the men maintain that their image of Canada being a free and fair country had drastically changed after their horrific ordeal. Said Asif, their defence counsel, arguing before the court, had likened their situation to that of Japanese-Canadian nationals during World War II who were interned in detention camps and later deported in the name of national security, and he couldn’t help but agree with the analogy. He also said the media campaign against them was so effective in stirring up racial hatred against the Muslims that even their lawyer had received threats for “supporting terrorists” by racial extremist groups in Canada. “Rocco Galati who had announced he would sue the Canadian government, was issued life threats by more than one group,” he maintained.