Demonstrators wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods braved the ice and cold to protest outside the Airport Road offices of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) Monday, January 15.
The event marked the end of four days of country-wide protests, from Penticton to St. John's, in support of three Muslim men currently on lengthy hunger strikes who are being held without charges at Kingston Immigration Holding Centre on the grounds of Millhaven Penitentiary.
In the ground-floor intake area of the deportation centre, a stern-faced CBSA official tells Mona Elfouli, wife of Mohammad Mahjoub, one the detainees, "You can only stay if you're here on business."
"We are here on business," explains protester Kirsten Romaine. "It's human rights business."
While many are quick to condemn U.S. actions at Guantánamo, we tend to forget that we have our own version of illegal, indefinite detention. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have all condemned the security certificate process that has led to the indefinite detention of Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohammad Mahjoub and Hassan Almrei. The certificates allow for the use of secret evidence that neither the detainees nor their lawyers may see. Ottawa claims the three have ties to terrorists groups and pose a security risk.
Sometime in the next month the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the security certificates that have kept them behind bars for between five and six and a half years violate the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.
The threat of deportation, meanwhile, continues to hang over their heads. Ottawa has appealed a Federal Court decision that Jaballah cannot be deported to his native Egypt, where he faces the threat of torture.
MPs of all political stripes have joined high-profile Canadians June Callwood, Naomi Klein, Alexandre Trudeau, David Suzuki and others to demand an end to the process and that the detainees be released or charged and given a fair trial.
Last week Jaballah, Mahjoub and Almrei, all of whom have been on liquid-only hunger strikes for more than six weeks, issued an open letter asking Canadians to contact MPs and Minister of Public Security Stockwell Day to protest the conditions under which they're being held.
The three say promised library and educational programs have not been delivered. Also, they are being denied needed medical care.
They have refused to be escorted by guards to medical facilities in a separate building without a supervisor present. The three fear that unsupervised guards will make false accusations against them, and say that prison authorities are using this as an excuse to deny them treatment.
Jaballah, Mahjoub and Almrei say their demands are simple: they want the same rights as other federal inmates, including access to the media without guards present, an end to "humiliating and unnecessary" daily head counts, phone cards to call families overseas and access to an unused grassy area outdoors.
"We have been told we can send complaints to the Red Cross, but we are not allowed to phone them," reads the letter. "We wish to be treated as human beings, and all human beings have rights."
In response to their appeal, almost two dozen film screenings, public events, vigils and delegations to MPs' offices took place between January 11 the fifth anniversary of the opening of the notorious U.S.-run detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and January 15, Martin Luther King's birthday.
To date, not a single representative of the Canadian government that holds the three has met with any of the detainees' family members.
Upon my return home from the demo, I accept collect calls from Mahjoub and Jaballah. Both are weak. They tell me about the headaches and chest pains they are experiencing. They are grateful for the outpouring of support, but in the current political climate it's hard to be optimistic.
"Most people, they don't know how hard it is to be in jail," Jaballah sighs. "Everything takes too long. My kids, they are growing up without me. I don't know when it's going to end."
Mahjoub tells me he has spent most of the day prone, but says he is hopeful now that long-standing terror allegations against Hamilton resident Abdellah Ouzghar have been dismissed.
He chuckles at the thought. "Maybe we'll be next," he says, before hanging up and heading back to his tiny cell.
Border Services Talkback
From an interview with Derek Mellon, spokesperson for the Canadian Border Services Agency.
"For privacy reasons we can't discuss grievances or complaints. There is a grievance process that is available, and all requests are considered and if deemed appropriate, granted. I can't get into specifics.
"The Kingston Immigration Holding Centre was established to meet the needs of the individuals. Compared to where [the three] were before, at the West Detention Centre, we have longer visiting times and four times more time for outdoor recreation. They continue to have access to medical care, a nurse on a daily basis, three meals a day, access to a dietician, to fresh air and exercise. The Canadian Red Cross monitors all our immigration holding centres. "