Muslims prisoners and their visitors face abuse in Canadian prison system

Exactly a year after 17 Muslims were arrested on terrorism-related charges in Toronto, the case is largely being ignored by the media for two main reasons. One is an official ban on reporting of court proceedings, the other is the fact that several individuals–all of them minors at the time–have had charges against them either reduced or dropped altogether because of lack of evidence. This is not something the Islamophobic Canadian media want their readers to know. To say that these Muslims are innocent until proven guilty and that some of the charges against them have been dropped would go against the negative image they have so carefully crafted of Muslims as “terrorists”.

While the courts move at a snail’s pace and nobody has been pronounced guilty of any crime so far, this has not prevented guards at the Maplehurst Correctional Facility near Brampton, Ontario, where the youths are held in solitary confinement, from displaying their brutal nature. The youths are charged under federal law but held in a provincial facility. This enables the authorities to deny responsibility for the detainees’ mistreatment. For instance, the prison authorities claim that the detainees’ solitary confinement is the result of a court order. Each is held in a small cell measuring 4×6 metres for 23.5 hours a day. The cell has a concrete bed with a filthy mattress and an equally filthy pillow without a cover. There is a side-table, a sink and a toilet. They are allowed just half an hour daily for fresh air, but even this privilege is denied if there is a particularly sadistic guard on duty.

On May 12 one of the accused, Steven Chand, was dragged out of the shower naked because the guard insisted his time was up while he still had soap on his hair and face. Slammed to the floor, the guard struck him repeatedly while uttering profanities, according to the wife of another detainee who phoned her. Chand was then dragged to his cell, thrown in and locked up, still naked. He sustained numerous injuries, and two days later when he appeared in court could not sit properly because of the pain. When his lawyer tried to raise the assault case with the judge, he was told the court was only hearing arguments about their confinement; if the defence lawyer wanted to raise another issue he must make a separate application. The hostile attitude of some judges has emboldened the guards, not famed for good behaviour anyway, to act even more brutally. Three days later another detainee, Asad Durrani, was beaten up. Alarmed by such behaviour, leaders of the Muslim community have asked for a meeting with Monte Kwinter, provincial minister for correctional services, but have not yet been given an appointment.

Some guards abuse detainees verbally using profane language against Allah and the Prophet of Islam, upon whom be peace. Others deprive them of sleep or threaten them with execution. One under-age youth released on bail last August has been so traumatised by his experiences in jail that he is suffering serious mental problems. He often wakes up in the middle of the night screaming; at other times he is either completely withdrawn or goes into a rage and fights his parents.

Guards even abuse family members–mothers, fathers or wives–of the detainees during the half hour per week visiting time they are allowed. It should be noted that visitors are separated by flexi-glass screen and they can only talk through a phone, thereby depriving them of privacy. In one instance, the elderly mother of one detainee was left locked in the room for 20 minutes even after her son had been taken back to his cell. She banged on the door, but the guards ignored her. The father of another detainee was locked inside the visiting room for more than half hour. Complaints by family members and defence lawyers to prison officials and the courts have not resulted in any improvement in the guards’ behaviour.

There appears to be a pattern to such abuse. While the courts have not convicted anyone so far, prison guards and crown attorneys seem to treat them as criminals. Even convicted criminals have certain basic rights; in case of the Muslim detainees, they appear to have no rights simply because they are Muslims. A crown attorney privately confided to a defence lawyer that if it were up to him, he would drop the charges, but that he was under “pressure” not to do so. What kind of pressure is not difficult to imagine.

Since September 2001, there has been extreme hatred toward Muslims; Islamophobia has become widespread and has gained respectability. Western governments, especially those that wish to ingratiate themselves with US president George Bush, go to extraordinary lengths to project an image of being tough on their Muslim citizens. Making wild allegations or even borrowing Bush’s racist language is considered especially useful. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper of the rightwing Conservative Party has been particularly keen to be in Bush’s good books. The day after the 17 youths were arrested, Harper said while addressing military cadets in Ottawa: “Their alleged target was Canada. Canadian institutions. The Canadian economy. The Canadian people. As at other times in our history, we are a target because of who we are. And how we live. Our society, our diversity, and our values. Values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Values that make Canada great. Values that Canadians cherish” (emphasis added). One can hear echoes of Bush’s nonsensical rhetoric–“they hate our freedoms”–that has been used to such deadly effect in the US. Because Muslims are a soft target, they are being demonized to score cheap political points. In his eagerness to appease Bush, Harper apparently forgot that the matter was before the courts and that he should not make allegations that would make a fair trial difficult.

Politicians are not the only ones indulging in such blatant racism that, if directed against any other community–Blacks or Jews, for instance–would be immediately denounced. Intelligence agencies and the media take their cue from politicians. When the prime minister of a country indulges in such racist cant, it is hardly surprising that others go even further.

After their arrest, the suspects were brought to court surrounded by tight security, with sharp-shooters dressed in black uniforms brandishing submachine guns on rooftops and helicopters circled overhead to whip up mass hysteria. Gun-toting police officers were also present inside the courtroom when they were brought in chains–leg irons and handcuffs–before the judge. For an entire week, crown attorneys made wild allegations so that the media could splash them on their front pages and on television to create the impression that these are hardened criminals. Thereafter, the court imposed a ban on all reporting. Rocco Galati, a leading defence lawyer, condemned this decision, saying: “For a week, a public trial of the accused was held in the parking lot outside the courthouse and now a gag order has been imposed.” He not only demanded an open trial but also insisted there should be complete access for the media to report on what is going on inside the courtroom. The crown attorneys would have none of this because it would expose the allegations as untenable and the game would be up.

Similar allegations were made by officials of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). Luc Portelance, CSIS assistant director for operations, speaking at a press conference on June 3, 2006 said: “It’s important to note that this operation in no way reflects negatively on any specific community or ethno-cultural group in Canada. Terrorism is a dangerous ideology and a global phenomenon. As yesterday’s arrests demonstrate, Canada is not immune from this ideology.” While this may have sounded like exonerating the larger Muslim community of any wrongdoing, there was no mistaking the fact that he said the arrested youths were involved in terrorist acts. The use of such loaded expressions as “terrorist ideology” is a complete giveaway.

An ideology is a set of beliefs or doctrines that “form the basis of a political, economic, or other system”, while terrorism is “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons”, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. It is immediately obvious to any reasonably informed person that the US and Israel, together with their Western allies, are the chief practitioners of terrorism in the world today. Terrorism as a tool is embedded in their ideology of violence and murder. Human life has little value for them; one only has to look at the situations in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan to confirm this. They have murdered or displaced millions of people without any concern for their plight.

A fundamental principle of law is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It is the prosecution’s responsibility to prove beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused; the latter does not have to prove his innocence. In the case of the Toronto-17, this principle has been turned on its head. The government has provided only sketchy evidence against the individuals, dramatizing each aspect as if they were out to destroy the whole world if they had not been apprehended. Their star witness–the police informant and instigator, Mubin Shaikh–has admitted to the media that he misled these youth over a period of two years. He was promised a sum of $369,000–only part of which has been paid to him–to entrap young men who happened to be loose talkers.

While media statements by the prosecution’s chief witness have clearly embarrassed crown attorneys, the question is why these under-age youths were arrested in such a brutal manner when they had been under police surveillance for two years. More than 400 heavily armed police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) troopers stormed their homes and not only arrested the suspects but also brutalized their families, breaking down doors and holding everyone, including infants, at gunpoint. Several machine-gun-mounted trucks were also used in the raids. In one case, the elderly mother of one of the accused who was in sajda during maghrib salat was nearly choked when one police officer put his boot on her neck.

Media frenzy was then whipped up; racist writers were given complete freedom to spew anti-Muslim venom on the front pages of leading newspapers. Margret Wente and Christie Blatchford, two columnists for the Globe and Mail, usually regarded as a responsible newspaper, gave them front-page space to print their toxic brew of racist invective. In a column entitled “The biggest elephant in the room,” Blatchford called the arrested youth “brown-skinned” and wrote: “They have first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed and last names like Mohamed.” She even mocked the police chief’s concern that the windows of a mosque were smashed immediately after the arrests: “Windows everywhere in Canada’s largest city are safe, especially windows in mosques. The war on windows will be won, whatever the cost.” This on the front page of Canada’s leading newspaper!

With Blatchford, and others like her, as the new face of the Canadian media, the prospects for Muslims in Canada for equality before the law and in society appear bleak indeed.