Strange Spy Games

what is it about fahti aowad that has csis spooked?


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fahti aowad carries himselfwith the thoughtful demeanour of someone who has experienced many terrible things growing up as a Palestinian in refugee camps in Lebanon.He barely escaped with his life and was granted refugee status here in 1992. His story was good enough for Canadian authorities then.

But he had to go to court to push the feds into giving him landed status, which he was granted in 97. Now they’re forcing him to go to court to win citizenship — even though he’s undergone and seemingly passed four separate security clearance checks conducted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spy agency.

What is it about Aowad’s past that has the feds unnerved?

Aowad says he’s completely at a loss. “Why did they give me landed status if they’re so unsure of me?”

It’s a good question, but officials at CSIS and the Immigration Department aren’t eager to answer it.

Is it because he’s Muslim? Because he’s Arab? Because his middle name is Mohamad?

His legal agent, Harry Kopyto, seems to think so. This week Kopyto filed a formal complaint with the federal human rights commission claiming discriminatory treatment of his client.

Kopyto has also filed a mandamas application in federal court, which will compel a citizenship judge to make a decision within 60 days on Aowad’s application for citizenship.

Certainly, the federal authorities’ handling of Aowad’s case has at times bordered on the bizarre.

This past January, when CSIS called him in for yet another security clearance check, they asked, among other things, if he knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding.

Last May, CSIS officers paid him an impromptu visit at his Toronto home. They suggested he might have been involved in a rock-throwing incident on the West Bank.

Aowad showed them his passport and told them he hadn’t left the country since he arrived in Canada, save for a recent four-hour jaunt to Detroit.

Is Aowad just another innocent victim of the government’s post-September 11 paranoia? CSIS spokesperson Chantal Lapalme isn’t saying. She spends a good part of her interview with NOW deflecting attention from CSIS’s role in this strange affair.

“If Mr. Aowad has any concerns, there’s a process,” Lapalme says. “He could write a letter to the director or the Security Intelligence Review Committee.”

Lapalme says CSIS’s role is strictly to provide advice. Ultimately, it’s the Immigration Department’s decision, she says, when it comes to Aowad’s application. Then she takes a shot at Kopyto. She says the embarrassing CSIS interview that found its way into the press — the one during which Aowad was asked about bin Laden — was “surreptitiously recorded.”

Kopyto says the tape recorder he was using was on his thigh.

Over at Immigration, the attacks against Kopyto continue. Spokesperson Danielle Sarazin has never seen Aowad’s file, but suggests nevertheless that Kopyto may have some ulterior motive, given his efforts to publicize his client’s case.

“I want to be clear that I have no information about this case,” says Sarazin. But “maybe you want to ask yourself why he’s using the media?”

This logic seems twisted. The last thing anyone with a questionable case wants is a reporter poking around.

But the feds have cause to be concerned about Kopyto. He recently got them to fork over a tidy sum to a client who was caught up in the post-September 11 hysteria, a Muslim engineer fired from his job at a nuclear facility near Deep River after CSIS came calling. It was all a mistake.

In Aowad’s case, it’s his alleged connection to El-Fatah, predecessor of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), that seems to be the main point of contention. At least that’s what’s suggested in court documents related to his request for landed status in 97.

Before it became the PLO, El-Fatah was an armed resistance movement. Kopyto says his client has never been a member of El-Fatah or the PLO.

Indeed, the claim Aowad filed to win refugee status back in 92 indicates that he’s spent the better part of his life above the political fray in the Middle East.

He cites his refusal to join the Syrian army-backed Shiite Amal militia and another Syrian-backed group, Abu Musa, as reasons why he feared for his life and was forced to leave. This while he lived in the Al Jaliel refugee camp in Baalbak, Lebanon.

Instead, his refugee claim says, he worked for a Palestinian youth organization that helped distribute food and give first aid to civilians hurt in bombings or attacks in the refugee camps.

His father, oldest brother and brother-in-law were arrested by the Syrians, who controlled part of Lebanon at the time. Many of his friends and two of his first cousins were not so lucky. They were killed by the Syrians.

Aowad says he was arrested by Syrian intelligence officers after he refused to spy on fellow Palestinians.

He says he was interrogated and beaten for three days before his father bribed a Syrian military official for his release. He made his way to Canada via Cyprus on the strength of a forged Swedish passport. He works construction and has a wife and two children.

Kopyto argues that if the feds had anything on his client, surely it would have been uncovered during one of the three security clearances he’s had to undergo since his arrival.

“CSIS is a world unto itself,” says Kopyto. “They see terrorists everywhere.” enzom@nowtoronto.com

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