Security Crackdown Deja Vu

Arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, prosecution and imprisonment for peaceful protest were the norm years ago in my native land, Sri Lanka. It was also a time when gurus from the west seized the opportunity to preach from the book of human rights on one hand and propagate the gospel of globalization with the other. The country was fighting terrorism and had switched into survival mode to maintain its sovereignty and keep a nation from crumbling under huge pressure. Arbitrary checks on the streets and at military checkpoints, restricted movement, and being watched for any suspicious movements were commonplace.

Under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, any person could be arrested on suspicion and kept in "detention" indefinitely. That was 10 years ago and thousands of kilometres away. Today in North America, I see the all too recognizable scenes unfolding once again, of gross violations of personal space and dignity in the name of security and state interests. It seems like the collapse of the towers on that fateful day in September 2001 signaled the erosion of the principles of fairness, equality and tolerance in the west. Recently in Toronto, the RCMP detained nineteen young Pakistani men on suspicion. Why? Because they had Muslim names? Because they were recent immigrants or visitors? One had taken flying lessons while another had pictures of the CN tower, obvious ingredients for disaster. Police burst into homes in pre-dawn raids taking away innocent young men whose only crime was to enter Canada as asylum seekers, a phenomenon that has been going on for years by many would be refugees.

We need to be on guard against the risk of terrorism. Yet under new immigration laws, unproven allegations are enough to keep people, such as the Pakistani men, detained indefinitely until their innocence is established. Legislation allows a judge to determine whether a person (other than a citizen) is a security risk without allowing the accused to defend themselves or even hear and respond to charges brought against them. There are other ominous developments. Police in Ontario recently contemplated allowing peaceful protests only by permit. South of the border, the elderly wife of a pastor was arrested and placed in solitary confinement when she stood in peaceful protest outside the premises of the infamous "School of the Americas" military training centre, which trains foreign military and paramilitary groups to kill and torture political dissidents in their own countries. She's still in prison. It may not be long before various mutations of xenophobia spread across North America carrying with them stories of abuse and victimization. The use of torture to elicit information is not beyond the realm of possibility. What's worse will be the nicely crafted excuses offered, in the name of state security.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act referred to above came under severe criticism by the International Commission of Jurists as "a blot on the statute book of any civilized nation." One wonders what they would say about some of the new legislation enacted to curb terrorism in North America. Special registration laws, laws that allow secret trials and indefinite detentions, policies that allow a nation to invade the sovereignty of another in the name of rooting out terrorism, ...the list goes on. Crises precipitate and expose character. The cracks are beginning to appear in our national character. It increasingly appears two-faced, condemning human rights abuses abroad, but willing to accept arbitrary treatment at home. What will unravel in the future remains to be seen. That's the unknown. What's known is that a fear of the unknown, and of people stereotyped as threats, is taking root. The implications for our civil rights are troubling.

Chris Pullenayegem is the refugee issues coordinator for Citizens for Public Justice.

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