The forgotten Canadian detainee of 9/11

by Habib Siddiqui | Published: 00:00, Jul 29,2020


Momin Khawaja being escorted in Ottawa in October 2008. — CBC/Reuters/Chris Wattie

IT HAS been almost 19 years since the United States, joined by its western allies — especially the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia — launched the so-called global war on terror invading first Afghanistan, soon after 9/11 for the Taliban government’s sheltering of al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden and then Iraq, in 2003, under the false pretext of destroying the weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist there. Under an orgy of unfathomed bigotry and heavy bombardment, never to be seen before, both the regimes were toppled and friendly regimes put by the invaders.

The Afghan invasion was codenamed by the US as Operation Enduring Freedom (2001–14). The Iraqi invasion was codenamed Operation Iraqi Freedom. These were rather odd code-names for operations whose goals were nothing more than regime changes and wanton massacre and destruction. The lives of millions of those bombed, murdered, maimed and ruined forever simply did not matter to the neo-crusading warlords — the Bush-Blair cabal.

Every Muslim living in the west became a suspect by default. Many were lynched. Thousands were put in prisons and tortured on mere suspicion of being part of a sleeper cell and many were given long sentences, violating all the well-established principles or notions of justice in this so-called secular world.

The role of United States’s neighbour to the north was equally troubling. The day after the 9/11 attacks, Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien telephoned US president George W Bush to pledge ‘Canada’s complete support’ for the Americans. The exact nature of this commitment became clear in October 2001: Canada would take part in a US-led multinational campaign to invade Afghanistan, capture members of al-Qaeda, dismantle their training camps and overthrow the Taliban government. In one such operation, during a firefight with al-Qaeda members, US troops wounded and captured 15-year-old Omar Khadr, who was born in Canada.

Omar Khadr was the only minor since the Second World War to be convicted of purported war crimes. He had been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and Canada for almost 13 years. In July 2017, he received $10.5 million in compensation from the government for Canada’s role in violating his constitutional rights.

Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, was detained in September 2002 and had been held without charges in solitary confinement in the United States for nearly two weeks before being deported to Syria where he was tortured, according to the findings of a commission of inquiry ordered by the Canadian government, until his release to Canada. Prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologised to Arar for Canada’s role in his ‘terrible ordeal.’

At home, the Canadian government was equally gung-ho about detaining anyone suspected of ties with or sympathetic to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Consider the case of Mohammad Momin Khawaja, a computer software specialist who was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the UK terrorism case. He was acquitted by the Canadian trial judge Rutherford of involvement in ‘terrorism’ in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, however, the government made up five other criminal charges to try Khawaja in a public court of law in Canada. He was accused of sending $859 to Displaced Afghan Women and Children Fund for medicine, foods and clothing, making of a cell phone jammer, sending e-mails to his girlfriend, taking part in a one-day remote camp at Afghan-Pakistan tribal area and travelling to London to meet a few British youngsters who were later convicted of terrorism. The trial judge sentenced him to 10.5 years, but the Supreme Court of Canada (Court of Appeal) increased the sentence to life and 24 years (to be served concurrently) with a parole ineligibility at 10 years instead of five years. It is also worth noting here that Momin had spent five years in detention before the trial but he was not given the credit of the time served, again in violation of the established practices.

One cannot but question the wisdom behind such a harsh sentence to a young man who has not committed any crime against Canada. He was never engaged in any violent activity nor posed any threat against anybody throughout his life. Although death penalty is legally abolished in Canada, how is this life sentence any better? He has already served 16 years in prison without a bail.

As we have noticed with documented evidences of abuse and torture in Gitmo; sadly, the Canadian prisons are not safe either. In January 2012, while a prisoner in a high-security federal jail in Canada, Momin Khawaja was attacked by another inmate with boiling water and major parts of his body were burnt. No official investigation was conducted. He had been kept in a solitary confinement continuously for three years in violation of the international law and even Canadian humanitarian practices.

When criminals commit crimes, they are expected to serve their time behind bars for crimes that they actually committed. And the sentences ought to be fair and congruent and not lopsided. The notion of innocence until proven guilty has been the bedrock of justice in a civilised society.

When a non-white criminal is given a life or long sentence for selling a few grams of cocaine while a white-collar Wall Street scion is given a much lighter sentence for misappropriating billions of dollars of lifesavings of people I fail to see justice in such sentencing. Are we not seeing a similar problem with the Canadian judges when they issued life sentence to Momin Khawaja?

When Justice Louis LeBel of the Supreme Court of Canada (June 12, 2012, Appeal Hearing Judges) asked the prosecution: ‘Why should Mohammad Momin Khawaja be sentenced to a life and 24 years when he was not charged with the crime nor he committed it?’ the prosecution asserted that ‘terrorism’ was an international problem and they wanted to send a message to other offenders.

Is that how the Canadian government wants to send ‘messages’ to would-be offenders? What type of justice is that? Are we living in the 19th century or the 21st century? And how could Canada claim to be a civilised nation with such an outlandish verdict?

I had the opportunity of studying in Canada before moving to the United States for my doctoral studies. I always entertained a very favourable opinion about what was once Pierre Trudeau’s Canada. I am shocked to learn about the ordeal of Momin Khawaja in Canada.

It is important that the Canadian government and higher judges rethink and commit to redressing their lopsided decision. Life is precious and no one should be held hostage to a skewed decision that takes people’s confidence away in the judicial system. It is incumbent upon the Canadian prime minister to ensure that human rights are protected and equal justice is accorded to all by appropriate action and that Momin Khawaja should be at the priority list to be set free from what seems to be travesty of legal justice that disgraces Canada in the eyes of many. I hope the Justin Trudeau and his government will have the moral fortitude and decency to let Khawaja go free.

I truly see a miscarriage of justice with Momin Khawaja’s life imprisonment, which needs to be rescinded letting him go free. The civilised world knows too well that injustice is wrong any time and anywhere; injustice cannot be promoted to ‘send messages’ for future ‘offenders’.

President George W Bush wanted to ‘send a message’ to the ‘offenders’ in Afghanistan and Iraq for bringing in 9/11 to the United States. His response was an asymmetric one that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims that once lived on the other side of the globe who did not know for what crime they were targeted for extermination. As the history of the last two decades has repeatedly shown, Bush Jr was grossly wrong; he did not make our world safer. His actions self-radicalised many Muslim youths and made our world messier and unsafe.

Al-Qaeda has been decimated; with millions of natives dead and displaced America’s war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, will soon be, too, or that is what is hoped by the Trump administration. But with so many of the tortured and abused detainees, the scandal of Gitmo endures to shame all Americans. And so is the case with the Canadians with their government’s reprehensible acts and its asymmetric verdict against the detainees like Momin Khawaja.

For too long, we have forgotten the detainees in Gitmo and the special prison cells inside Canada even though it is a human rights disgrace that is unique in recent American and Canadian history. It is high time that those detention centres were shut down. Those wrongfully detained under the pretext of the global war on terror, thy have suffered enough and should be set free. Our conscience demands it. And it is the right thing to do. By releasing detainees like Momin Khawaja, prime minister Justin Trudeau will be standing on the right side of history. The sooner, the better.


Dr Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.

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