Joel Bitar Battles Canada: New York Activist Faces Unprecedented Extradition Over G20 Protests
Joel Bitar will never forget this Valentine’s Day. While New York City was waiting for the sun to rise, Bitar was being led downtown from his family’s apartment by eight federal marshals who seized him on a provisional arrest warrant from the Canadian government by way of the US Attorney’s office. Overnight, he had officially become an American fugitive.
In his bail hearing on February 19 -- which was delayed because of an outbreak of lice in the federal prison where Bitar and other prisoners were held -- the assistant US attorney revealed that there were 26 charges in the complaint against Bitar. The charges related to property destruction and stemmed from his involvement in the G20 protests, which occurred in Toronto on June 26-27, 2010.
“Back around the time that events were unfolding shortly after the G20,” recalls Martin Stolar, Bitar’s former attorney, “there was a lot of newspaper publicity about the fact that there were three Americans who Canadian authorities wanted to arrest and charge with various property crimes that had occurred during the demonstrations. Joel was identified as one of the people they wanted to charge.”
One report in the Toronto Star from December 2010 quotes the lead investigator for the G20 team, Det. Sgt. Giroux, saying, “These people may think they have gotten away scot-free but they won’t.” In that article, it was revealed that the team was searching for three suspects, two of whom lived in New York and one in New Hampshire.
During the G20 demonstrations, which brought thousands of activists together from across the world, Bitar was arrested with 1,100 others in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. The G20, or the Group of 20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, is an economic and political affiliation of nation states whose economies account for about 80% of the world’s gross world product and about 80% of world trade. Since 2008, it has become the main economic council of wealthy countries. And since its inception in 1999, the G20 has been under fire for being a group of powerful people who make critical economic and political decisions in secret, accountable to no one.
At Bitar’s bail hearing, the assistant US attorney also revealed that the process of extraditing him had begun in October 2011, when Canada formally filed its complaint. From there, Canadian authorities spent almost a year reviewing their evidence, going over video footage and Facebook posts that Bitar is alleged to have made during the demonstrations. In October 2012, they submitted a request to the US embassy for his extradition.
But in a striking move, Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein granted Bitar’s conditional release on $500,000 bail--a surprise because Bitar is presumed to be a fugitive from Canada.
“Generally speaking,” says Stolar, “under extradition treaties and Unites States law, for someone who is being held for extradition to another country, it is only in the most unusual circumstances that he gets bail. Joel’s lawyer made an argument that said he’s not a risk of flight, he’s not a danger to the community, and it took them almost three years to authorize the extradition. And he may have a defense under the [extradition] treaty that we can raise here that’s going to say in the court in this country, we fall within an exception of the treaty, therefore do not order the extradition.”
A doorman and prospective nursing student, Bitar is not an obvious target for an international investigation. But beneath the common veneer, he is a passionate advocate of ideas for which he and many others are considered a threat.
In an interview with the Indypendent in 2010, Bitar recalled his entrÃ©e into politics, becoming a member of an antiwar group in 2008 when he was a student at Hunter College. “It was during Gaza that we started to awaken,” he recalled, referring to the bloody assault on the Palestinian Gaza Strip, which lasted from Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 18, 2009.
Bitar soon became an outspoken activist for Palestinian liberation (his father is from the West Bank), and a year later traveled with his mother Debbie and sister Jenna to Cairo to participate in the Gaza Freedom March. He is also an activist for economic justice.
There is a history of persecution of anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists. Most recently, 24 activists in the Midwest had their homes raided by the FBI on Sept. 24, 2010. The activists were served with subpoenas to appear before a grand jury in Chicago investigating “material support for terrorism.”
Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red, has been following the current invective against environmental activists and anarchists and remembers the public outcry after Toronto.
“The G20 protests in Canada in 2010 really caught international attention because of the incredibly heavy-handed nature of the police repression,” said Potter. “For anyone who has followed mass demonstrations like this, it’s not a surprise anymore to see this militarization of police, but the way it was on display at the G20 I think caught a lot of people off-guard and was really shocking even by those contemporary standards. When there is such a heavy-handed police response, power and law enforcement then have to justify that moving forward.”
In a report that was issued in May 2012 from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the Toronto police were found guilty of numerous violations. In one infamous episode, protesters and reporters were kettled by riot police and held for four hours during a heavy thunderstorm. Forty-five police officers are facing charges.
Author and activist Naomi Klein gave a speech at a fundraiser for the G20 arrestees in November 2010 and recited many of the complaints that had come out of independent hearings held by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Union of Public and General Employees. “We have heard many reports of beatings,” she said, “including beatings of people in handcuffs. Of racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs and threats, of people being screamed at for speaking in languages other than English. Of strip searches of women by male officers, of groping by police, sexual solicitation, rape threats.”
A number of arrests were made before the summit began, and a group of 17 people were charged with conspiracy, known as the G20 Main Conspiracy Group, even though some did not meet until they were in jail together. The group eventually decided on a deal and pleaded guilty to lesser charges of counseling mischief. Leah Henderson, one of the 17 charged, read a statement at her sentencing where she said: “The truth is this entire prosecution is born from the politics of fear. Fear of our ideas, fear of what we represent: Freedom.”
All indications are that Bitar’s prosecution is just the next in a long line of costly indictments to justify the violent, illegal and outrageously expensive policing of dissent at the G20. Klein was careful to underscore this point: “Spending on summit security was so exorbitant, and the systems of entrapment leading up to these arrests were so elaborate that at the end of the day they need something to show for their billion-dollar budget and their rampant civil liberties violations. A conspiracy -- not a movement.”
A Precedent for Extradition
Although there is no precedent for extraditing someone from the US to Canada for property destruction charges, Will Potter points out an important example of the reverse. “It happened in a pretty high-profile case involving Tre Arrow, an environmental activist who fought for four years against extradition from Canada to the US where he would face arson charges related to property destruction in 2001. He finally gave up that fight and voluntarily went to Eugene. That was significant because of how much the US was pushing for his extradition to face charges where he was branded as a terrorist.”
At the time of his indictment, by a grand jury in October 2002, the environmental movement in the Northwest was surging, and Tre Arrow was one of its visible stars. In 2000, Arrow made a daring maneuver at a protest outside of a Forest Service building in downtown Portland. He climbed 35 feet up to perch on a 9-inch-wide ledge for 11 days. This flamboyant action helped to halt the proposed logging operation in Eagle Creek near Mount Hood.
But by 2002, the post-9/11 new McCarthyism of the Bush administration was in full swing, and environmental activists and Muslims were the doctrine’s main targets. Arrow was branded a terrorist and featured on America’s Most Wanted for his alleged role in the destruction of three trucks at Ross Island Sand and Gravel in Portland, and a month later, the destruction of two trucks and a front loader near Eagle Creek.
What is instructive about this comparison is that Arrow’s extradition came at a time when the political landscape of the US was shifting dramatically, especially in regards to the treatment of protesters. The FTAA protests in Miami were still a year away, but would soon be the model for the militarization of the police at major demonstrations moving forward. The FBI would begin to rapidly shift its attention from fighting the drug war to domestic threats, infiltrating mosques and Muslim community groups, as well as circles of environmental activists.
“I think what this really reflects in Joel’s case is that now it’s reversed, and to me what that reflects is how a lot of these priorities and methodologies have been exported to Canada and they’re showing up there,” says Potter. “We’ve seen a lot of stories about how activists are showing up as terrorists in different Canadian government watch lists and the profiling of anarchists intimidating dissent. This is literally a continuation of that.”
Canada’s request to extradite Joel Bitar comes at a decisive moment in US and Canadian diplomatic relations. Newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry made his first international trip to Canada in early February to talk relations, and at the top of the agenda was the Keystone XL Pipeline. It is unclear what his recommendations were following that meeting.
The stakes are high. In a recent article on the risks President Obama faces in making a decision about the pipeline, the authors underscored the importance of the US’ decision for the future harmony of the two countries moving forward.
Portending the ominous, the authors write, “[Canada’s] leaders have made it clear that an American rejection would be viewed as an unneighborly act and could bring retaliation.” Don’t expect Canada to declare war on the US, but expect the retaliation to be more subtle: “...a rejection could influence future decisions on purchases of American F-35 fighter jets and other trade and border matters.”
Bitar’s case certainly falls into this last category, “border matters." There is a sense that if the US does not appease Canada in his case, it could retaliate by refusing to extradite an alleged criminal, a future Tre Arrow, to the US.
To make things more complicated, public outrage at the proposed pipeline grows everyday. NASA’s leading climate scientist James Hansen has said that the pipeline, which is proposed to connect Houston and Port Arthur on the US’ Gulf Coast to Hardisty, Alberta, at the heart of the tar sands in Canada, would be “game-over” for the environment. On Friday March 1, the US State Department released a review of the proposed project, and unsurprisingly predicted that the pipeline would have no adverse environmental impacts. The Obama administration, for its part, is waiting to make its decision until more evaluations become available.
Whether or not there is a direct link between the repression Bitar is facing and the completion of the Keystone XL Pipeline may not matter. What is clear though, according to Will Potter, and what unites the two issues, is that the public is fed up.
“Whether it’s the Keystone pipeline or the militarization of police or the crackdown on dissent, the public is increasingly not supportive of these international tactics,” he says. “I think with both of those things it’s really an international PR crisis that the Canadian government is desperately trying to justify these tactics and desperately trying to save this dying campaign.”
The Road Ahead
Bitar’s next court appearance is scheduled for March 20, and at that time, his extradition request by the Canadian government will be decided. According to his former lawyer Martin Stolar, there is potential for a strong argument against his extradition.
“In most of the extradition treaties that exist around the world, there is an exception for political cases,” he says. In legal jargon, this is known as the "political offense exemption." It’s a tricky framework that differentiates common crimes from crimes of a political nature. Most scholars believe that its roots are in the American Revolution, and that it was created in order to protect the losers of warring nation states from post-war prosecution.
It goes something like this: “As opposed to common offenses, political crimes are not inherently criminal because the perpetrator acts not for personal motives but for the benefit of society as a whole. Criminal acts, in contrast, are anti-social and not committed to improving the general well-being of society. Because the political offender is committed to enhancing the general well-being of his society, his acts are less reprehensible and in some cases, even excusable. Therefore, the judiciary’s role is not to determine tacitly that particular objectives are not legitimate.”
This, of course, will be an uphill battle. Just as the last decade has seen the rise of the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping, it has seen the exponential criminalization of dissent, putting this and any argument that seeks to justify crimes of a political character in a prickly light. But there is every indication that Joel Bitar seeks to fight his extradition to Canada however he can. He’s not going down without a fight.