‘We’ve just stripped away essential safeguards’: Civil libertarians decry new ‘anti-terror’ law

Published in rabble.ca | April 25, 2013 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly visitors


With last night’s passing of the Combating Terrorism Act (Bill S-7), Canada quietly marked the return of controversial post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation — granting authorities “exceptional” abilities to detain Canadians, preemptively, for three days without charge, and imprisoning anyone for up to a year who refuses to testify before new “investigative hearings.”

The Conservative bill, mirroring the previous Liberal administration‘s 2002 measure which had expired under a sunset clause six years ago, passed with the latter party’s support, although Liberal MP Irwin Cotler (who was Attorney General from 2003-6) said he would vote for the bill hoping it would be reviewed.

“I offer my support today,” Cotler told the House of Commons. “… Preventive arrests and investigative hearings can be effective, limited and lawful counterterrorism measures…”

“I understand why some members, maybe even from all parties, remain uncomfortable with the proposed measures. They are indeed extraordinary provisions, though extraordinary provisions to combat extraordinary threats.”

But civil liberties groups and opposition MPs denounced the bill, and questioned its timing andrushed debate in Parliament coinciding with the Boston bombings and announcement of two arrests in an alleged Via Rail bomb plot.

“True to Conservative form, they are using the victims of the attacks in Boston for political gain,” accused NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice in the House. “We find that offensive …”

“What reasons do they have for reintroducing measures that were never used, that are therefore useless and ineffective, and that threaten the freedoms we and 34 million other Canadians enjoy? Why put these freedoms at risk for the sake of measures that we do not need, that will not work and that most groups defending our rights and freedoms angrily denounce?”

For more on the concerns about the bill’s impact, David P. Ball and Anushka Nagji — co-hosts of Media Mornings on Vancouver Co-op Radio — interviewed Sukanya Pillay, Director of National Security for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

Here is a transcript of the discussion. (Listen to the full show here).

DAVID P. BALL: Could you start off by telling us what is most concerning in this legislation that passed yesterday? They basically renewed the expired post-September 11 anti-terrorism laws. What is it that’s concerning to you?

SUKANYA PILLAY: We have some very specific concerns – but let me contextualize them for you. We know that the Canadian government has to do everything legally possible to keep Canadians safe. Canada has to cooperate with all international community members to keep all of us safe from the global terrorism threat.

Having said that, we feel the best way to keep ourselves safe is to comply with legal safeguards. Now, the bill that just passed provides for some exceptional measures – which include investigative hearings, preventative detention, and bail conditions or recognizance with conditions. Our view is that these exceptional measures don’t add any value. Our police and national security agencies – pursuant to provisions that apply in the Criminal Code – already have powers that would allow them to properly pursue, investigate, disrupt and successfully prosecute terrorism-related crimes.

We want the police to go out there and catch the guilty people – we don’t want them to go off on a wild goose chase, or be misled by allegations or something less than suspicion, where somebody can be detained and questioned. This runs counter to our democratic legal system. The person who is targeted has no way of asking, ‘Why am I being pulled in and questioned?’

ANUSHKA NAGJI: They can’t challenge the evidence.

SP: They cannot challenge the evidence, and that evidence could come from anywhere. It could even come from a third country where somebody who’s being tortured has just named names.

ANThat’s right.

SP: It’s not like this hasn’t happened before; we know that this has happened. There are many serious issues this raises.

ANThat itself is also against international convention – being able to use evidence that is gained by torture. Is that right?

SP: Absolutely. There is an absolute prohibition against torture. Our own Criminal Code says that evidence cannot be used in a courtroom if it was obtained from torture, except to prove somebody has been tortured. So we don’t want to go through the back door, where we’re not using this evidence in a courtroom, but we’re using torture-tainted information to subject people to what is essentially criminal sanctions. Let’s not forget the practical problem with this: we want people who are plotting or carrying out terrorist crimes to be captured, to be prevented from carrying out that crime. We want them to be caught, prosecuted, and — if they’re guilty — sentenced.

ANBut in a way that’s fair and in accordance with the rule of law, right?

SP: Absolutely, and my point is that if we’re off on wild goose chases, and if we’re targeting people outside of our legal due process procedures, not only is there the possibility that we might have the wrong person — but there’s the possibility that the people who are guilty are tipped off that an investigation is underway. It impedes prosecutions.

ANThere’s also conversation about how these rules could be used to quell international activism by dubbing it ‘terrorism.’

SP: The ramifications are broad. Once you start entering into an arena where somebody can be guilty or tainted by association, it’s very dangerous. Recent history has taught us that.

ANIt’s not only mere association, is it? Even if the government believes that you have some information related to ‘terrorism’, you are subject to the same rules.

SP: Yes. The issue is: where does the belief come from? Again, the Criminal Code allows for people to be brought in for questioning, but there are certain safeguards that have to be complied with. That’s what we say is missing with this bill. There’s no value added, but we’ve just stripped away essential safeguards —

AN— And rights…

SP: — And that doesn’t necessarily make us safer.

ANThe question is, then: If the government is mandated to protect its citizens from this ‘global terrorism’ you’re talking about, what happens when the citizens have to be protected from their government?

SP: Well, exactly! The thing is, the government wants to protect us, but this isn’t the best way to protect us. This doesn’t necessarily protect us from terrorists, but it creates new risk to our security.

DBWe’re almost out of time here, but some last thoughts on going forward – what’s the next step now that this has passed? Once again, both the previous Liberal administration and now the Conservatives have put in place fairly sweeping legislation about how long you can be held and arrested [without charges], evidence, 12-month detention if you don’t provide information. What’s the next step for [the Canadian] Civil Liberties Association?

SP: The CCLA will definitely be monitoring how this is implemented, and if it’s used, and we will continue to make the argument for compliance with important legal safeguards such as the presumption of innocence, due process, and fair trial – all of which are protected in the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms], which our criminal process has typically complied with, or traditionally complied with I should say – and which are also part of international civil and political rights, guaranteed by law.

DBWe’re really glad you could join us today. Thanks you so much.

SP: Thank you.

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