Lisa Lisle Interviews Mohamed Harkat
Source: The Ottawa Sun Online
Date: Sat, July 31, 2004
IT's NOT RIGHT - After 599 days behind bars without charge, an Ottawa terror suspect tells Lisa Lisle he still believes in justice
MOHAMED HARKAT has been racking his brain for the past 20 months, trying to figure out why anyone would think he's a terrorist. In his first jailhouse interview since his 2002 arrest, the accused al-Qaida sleeper-cell agent emphatically denied having links to any terror network and wondered how this "mistake" could have been made.
"Since my time so far, I just went all through my life," Harkat told the Sun. "I just review what's going on in my life. I didn't see anything wrong in my life to accuse me of these things. I didn't see anything I was involved in."
Harkat, an Algerian national, was arrested Dec. 10, 2002, under a rarely used section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act dealing with security certificates. Signed by then-solicitor general Wayne Easter and then-immigration minister Denis Coderre, the certificate is the first step in the deportation process for "members of an inadmissible class to Canada."
In addition to al-Qaida, Harkat's accused of having links to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) -- the first terrorist organization to be banned in Canada after the Sept. 11 attacks -- and the mujahedeen.
In its initial accusations, CSIS alleged that Harkat had decade-old ties to one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants, Abu Zubaydah. Since that original report, CSIS claims that Zubaydah fingered Harkat as a mujahedeen supporter, who operated a guest house in Pakistan in the mid-1990s for mujahedeen travelling to Chechnya.
But Harkat said that he's never met Zubaydah and didn't even know who he was until he read the story in the Sun.
Because CSIS said he was identified by "physical description," Harkat believes Zubaydah simply made a mistake or is bowing to U.S. pressure to name names.
"That's what I believe is happening," Harkat told the Sun. "It's the same thing with (Maher) Arar. My name, it comes in leaks too. I've never seen (Arar) in my life. Living in the same city as Arar, but I never met him."
Last October, high-level government leaks to the media suggested that Arar shared information about four al-Qaida suspects, including Harkat.
Arar was arrested during a stopover in New York in September 2002 and deported to his native Syria. The Canadian citizen was jailed in Syria for a year before his sudden release in October 2003.
Accused of being linked to several high-profile accused terrorists, Harkat does admit to knowing one, Ahmed Said Khadr. But even then, Harkat said his encounter with Khadr, who's accused of bombing the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, was brief and uneventful.
"The first time when I came to Canada, immigration let me go because it doesn't have a translator for me at the airport," Harkat said, explaining his meeting with Khadr. "They gave me two weeks to come until they find somebody.
"When I came to Ottawa, he (Khadr) was here," Harkat said. "Mohamed El Barseigy, who I was living with, he was taking him (Khadr) to Toronto to his place. Mohamed El Barseigy wanted to give me a ride. That's when we met -- from Ottawa to Toronto."
Harkat said that was the first and last time he met Khadr.
It was that second interview with immigration officials that may have caused even more problems for Harkat.
Not knowing his rights, Harkat said he was told that "everybody" is subjected to these kinds of questions. He never considered calling a lawyer.
"They made it feel like this was not important," he said. "Me, I was honest with them. I don't have anything that I would call a lawyer for."
He was also told it was no big deal that his English wasn't so great.
"Sometimes in the interview, when I didn't finish a sentence, they would finish it for themselves," he laughed.
But Harkat believed it was all routine and began living the life he had hoped for when he came to Canada.
By January 2001, Harkat had married his wife Sophie, whom he met while working at a gas station. He was working three jobs -- two at gas stations and one at a pizza place.
Just as he had when he decided to come to Canada, Harkat was still trying to improve his life.
He had passed an English class and was gearing up to get a licence to drive a taxi.
"I just paid the money," he said of the days before his arrest. "I registered and the class was going to start on Jan. 5. But then everything went upside down."
Wearing his Petro Canada uniform, Harkat was heading to work on Dec. 10, 2002, when he spotted four or five police officers running toward him.
"I thought they were after somebody in the door," he said. "That's why I opened the door for them. I opened it with the key, the side door. And they said, 'Yeah it's you Harkat. We're here to arrest you.' "
But even after they said his name, Harkat thought they must have been after another Harkat. And then, one of the men began reading the security certificate.
"I don't know what he's talking about," he said. "I'm just like 'What the hell?' "
Since then, it's been an uphill battle for Harkat, his family and legal teams.
In a secret hearing, held just days after his arrest, Federal Court Justice Eleanor Dawson decided that about 1,500 pages of documents should be released to Harkat's lawyers. The majority of the pages were newspaper articles, transcripts of television programs and excerpts of textbooks. All other evidence was deemed top secret and never handed over to Harkat, even after applications to Dawson herself and the Federal Court of Appeal.
Rarely critical of the Canadian government or its justice system, Harkat suggested it's hypocritical of Canada to slam the secrecy surrounding the Iranian trial for Zahra Kazemi's accused killer.
He believes Canada is setting a bad example with the way it handles security certificate hearings.
"It's not right," he said. "It's supposed to be an open court and show all the people what's going on."
His security certificate hearing, which has been delayed three times already, could happen this fall. Until then, he'll continue to bide his time at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, where he's been housed since his arrest.
Despite being separated from his wife, Harkat believes that his jail experience could be much worse. Although he was initially held in segregation, Harkat has since moved into the general population.
He gets exercise time and vigorously reads newspapers. He's made several friends -- many of whom have come and gone since his arrest -- and he's learned to communicate better in their language.
"You have to survive," he said. "You have to speak English. Nobody speaks Arabic in here."
And in spite of everything that has happened, from the arrest to every setback his legal team has faced in court, Harkat has never lost his faith in the system.
"I actually have confidence in the system," he said.
"I believe in the system. I'm going to prove what's going on."
THE TRIALS OF MOHAMED HARKAT
Mohamed Harkat's Canadian experience:
1995: Using a fake Saudi passport, Harkat arrives at Toronto's Pearson airport.
February 1997: Harkat is granted refugee status and applies for permanent residency.
January 2001: Harkat marries his wife Sophie in a Muslim ceremony at a private home.
Dec. 10, 2002: Harkat is arrested outside his Vanier home.
Feb. 13, 2003: Harkat's lawyer files an application with the Federal Court requesting more disclosure.
March 4, 2003: Amid heavy security, Harkat appears in court so his lawyers can argue for more disclosure. The request is denied three days later.
June 12, 2003: Lawyers appear in court asking that a judge determine whether it truly is unsafe for Harkat to return to Algeria before going through the lengthy security certificate hearing. The request is denied.
July 21, 2003: Harkat's security certificate hearing begins, but is stalled after a witness becomes fearful of testifying because of a letter he received from government lawyers. The court rules that there was no abuse of process, but the hearing is put on hold while Harkat's lawyers file an appeal.
Dec. 11, 2003: Lawyer Rocco Galati drops all his security certificate cases, including Harkat's, after receiving death threats.
May 2004: Citing financial issues, Harkat's original lawyer, Bruce Engel, asks to be taken off the record as counsel.
June 2004: Harkat loses his appeal on the abuse of process motion.
lisa dot lisle at ott dot sunpub dot com