Canada’s shame: the incarceration, torture, and exile of Abousfian Abdelrazik

For more than five years, the Canadian state has victimized Abousfian Abdelrazik, a 46-year-old Canadian citizen of Sudanese origin, and, in so doing, negated and illegally redefined Canadians’ citizenship rights.

In August 2003, Abdelrazik was arrested at the behest of the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) by Sudan, a country that Canada routinely condemns for gross human rights violations. Subsequently, CSIS agents traveled to Sudan to participate in his interrogation.

Sudanese authorities first held Abdelrazik for 11 months, during which time he was brutally tortured. He was released in July 2004, only to be arrested again in late 2004 and imprisoned and abused for a further 7 months.

Shortly after his first release, the Sudanese government said it had found no evidence supporting Canadian and US claims that he was an Islamic terrorist. Ultimately, Khartoum would issue a formal document exonerating Abdelrazik of the charge that he was an al-Qaeda operative.

But the Canadian state has systematically blocked Abdelrazik from returning to Canada, thereby stripping him of his fundamental rights of citizenship.

Abdelrazik has never been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime either in Canada or Sudan. Nor has the Canadian government initiated proceedings to strip him of his citizenship. (Naturalized citizens who obtained their citizenship fraudulently or who have committed certain crimes can lose their status as Canadians.) Yet Ottawa has prevented Abdelrazik from rejoining his wife and children in Canada and condemned him to live in isolation and poverty in Sudan. 

The “smoking gun”

Civil liberties groups and the World Socialist Web Site have charged that, in the name of “the war on terror,” the Canadian state has collaborated with foreign governments in the detention without charge and torture of Canadian citizens.

A lengthy public inquiry into the case of Maher Arar—a Canadian of Syrian origin who was apprehended by US authorities, then “rendered” to Syria where he was held for more than a year and tortured—essentially whitewashed the role played by CSIS, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canadian government. Justice Dennis O’Connor recently criticized the RCMP for labeling Arar a terror suspect and passing that information on to US intelligence agencies without qualification. Yet he ruled that Canadian authorities had played no role in Arar’s rendition to Syria and had otherwise made good faith errors in conniving in his detention and interrogation.

In respect to Abdelrazik, however, CSIS documents, first revealed by the Globe and Mail last spring, openly boast that the Sudanese government arrested Abdelrazik “at our request.”  Moreover, this past summer, government lawyers effectively confirmed CSIS’s role in Abdelrazik’s arrest, when they did not contest his lawyer’s claim of Canadian government responsibility in court proceedings aimed at forcing Ottawa to repatriate him.

Abdelrazik, who came to Canada in 1990 as a political refugee and became a Canadian citizen in 1995, was long under investigation by Canadian authorities. Indeed, so obtrusive and aggressive was the state surveillance that it apparently was a factor in his decision to visit Sudan in March 2003 to see his ailing mother.

By inciting Sudanese authorities to jail Abdelrazik in August 2003, CSIS officials were able to get around Canadian constitutional prohibitions on holding persons without charge and to contract out Abdelrazik’s interrogation to a regime that, like Syria’s, has repeatedly been condemned for its abuse of prisoners.

The complicity of the Canadian state in Abdelrazik’s torture is underscored by the current Conservative government’s indifference to the treatment he received while in captivity.

Abdelrazik said he informed his CSIS interrogators that he was being abused and subsequently complained to other Canadian officials, but they showed no interest in his mistreatment.

This past March, Abdelrazik met with Deepak Obhrai, a Conservative MP and the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, and lifted his shirt to show the scars his torture had left. But a memo prepared soon after by a senior Foreign Affairs bureaucrat dismissed Abdelrazik’s claims. “Conditions in Sudanese prisons are very difficult,” wrote Odette Gaudet-Fee, the department's Africa consular case-manager. “But this does not amount to torture or mistreatment." Abdelrazik, insisted Gaudet-Fee, "would not have been targeted for mistreatment any more than other fellow detainees."

An affidavit drawn up by Abdelrazik’s lawyer cites him as testifying: “Around December 2003, conditions worsened greatly, after some prisoners escaped from the prison. I was transferred to a solitary cell of about 1 by 2 meters, which had carpeted floors. An air conditioner was made to run almost constantly, which made the room unbearably cold. Often I was told to stand with my hands and face against the cell wall. Twice a day I was let out to the bathroom, during which time I was also beaten. The beatings were administered with a rubber hose of about 2 feet in length, applied to my back, head and legs. This abuse was in the context of interrogation by the Sudanese about the prison escape that had taken place, and interrogation by the two men who were introduced to me as Canadians [i.e., the CSIS agents].”

The Canadian government likely played a role in prompting Abdelrazik’s second lengthy incarceration as well, although US intelligence-security agencies were almost certainly also involved, since Washington was, by all accounts, demanding that Khartoum treat him as an al-Qaeda operative.

Sudanese authorities re-arrested him shortly before Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin paid a visit to the country. Abdelrazik had indicated he would try to see the Canadian prime minister to apprise him of his plight

An exile in all but name

What is incontrovertible is that the Canadian government made sure Abdelrazik was unable to leave Sudan after his original imprisonment and to this day continues to deny him the right to return to his home and family.

Soon after his first release in 2004, Abdelrazik’s wife paid for an airline ticket to bring him back to Canada. But Air Canada and Lufthansa refused to issue Abdelrazik a ticket because, soon after he had traveled to Sudan in the beginning of 2003, his name had been placed on a no-fly list, presumably at the behest of the Canadian government.

At one point, the Sudanese government offered to repatriate Abdelrazik on a private plane, but the Canadian government aborted this project by refusing to pay the costs.

The question of costs is a transparent excuse.  On repeated occasions since the summer of 2004, Canadian government planes have travelled to Sudan for official trips by Canadian representatives, including Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004 and Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier in 2008. But Ottawa has consistently refused to provide Canadian citizen Abdelrazik with an airplane seat. (This is in striking contrast to the treatment Ottawa accorded Brenda Martin, a Canadian woman who was jailed in Mexico for her reputed involvement in a scam. The Conservative government pressed for Martin to be repatriated to Canada, then dispatched a government-chartered jet to bring her home.)

In an attempt to cover its tracks, the Canadian government repeatedly claimed in recent months that it would provide Abdelrazik the necessary travel documents if he were to find an airline willing to transport him back to Canada despite the no-fly ban the Bush administration issued against him on the day of his second release from Sudanese prison. But when Etihad Airway said it would give Abdelrazik a seat on a flight to Toronto on Sept 15, 2008, the government failed to honor its promise.

Ottawa had been advised of Abdelrazik's travel plans three weeks before the planned flight, but only on Sept 26, 11 days after Abdelrazik was to have returned to Canada, did the government matter-of-factly inform his lawyer, "In light of the complex issues...it was clear that these matters could not be resolved in time for your client's travel which you scheduled on Sept. 15.”

The Canadian government has likewise blocked Abdelrazik from leaving Sudan via sea, by categorically refusing to issue him a valid passport. (His passport expired during his first imprisonment.)

"There is no right to a passport,” asserted the Canadian government in a document meant to prep officials on how to respond to journalists' questions regarding the Abdelrazik affair. “It is a privilege that is subject to a certain number of restrictions. One consideration is whether a person poses a risk to the national security of Canada.”

Redefining citizenship rights

Abdelrazik has been denied his fundamental rights of citizenship and on the basis of allegations that the government clearly knows are unsustainable in a court of law. Otherwise, it would be seeking his extradition to Canada, not exiling him.

In the process, the Canadian government has surreptitiously redefined the rights of citizenship.

That this is being done apparently under pressure from the US makes it no less pernicious.

A secret document prepared by Canadian intelligence and Transport Canada security officials this past April and obtained by the Globe and Mail says, “Senior government of Canada officials should be mindful of the potential reaction of our U.S. counterparts to Abdelrazik's return to Canada as he is on the U.S. no-fly list.

"Continued co-operation between Canada and the U.S. in the matters of security is essential.”

Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that if Abdelrazik today finds himself stranded in Sudan, it is only because Canadian authorities incited Sudan to arrest him in the first place and have been complicit in his lengthy detention without charge and his torture.  

From his second release in July 2005 until this spring, Abdelrazik lived as a stateless person in Khartoum who was forced to sleep each night in a house under the control of the police. Due to the publicity recently given his case, Abdelrazik has been able to compel Canadian authorities to provide him a form of refuge in Canada’s Khartoum embassy compound. But, according to press reports, he has been treated there like a prisoner. For weeks, embassy staff refused even to speak to him.

The state victimization of Abdelrazik has taken place under Liberal and Conservative governments alike. Paul Koring, the Globe and Mail journalist who has played the leading role in drawing public attention to the Abdelrazik case, recently wrote, “It's clear from thousands of pages of classified documents dating back to 2002 that the highest levels of government had been kept informed about the jailing of Mr. Abdelrazik in Khartoum, his interrogation by CSIS officers while in prison, his release and the refusal of the successive government to renew his Canadian passport.”