Mourad Ikhlef

Canada delivers deportee into arms of abusive Algerian secret police: watchdogs

Sue Bailey and Jim Bronskill, CP, 16 December 2009

MONTREAL - Canada deported a refugee to face a notoriously abusive intelligence service in Algeria where he was questioned under duress and denied a lawyer, say international justice watchdogs.

A United Nations working group says former Montrealer Mourad Ikhlef, removed to Algeria under a national security certificate, was jailed and interrogated in breach of basic legal principles.

Amnesty International found Ikhlef was held incommunicado and was refused counsel after Canada handed him over six years ago.

He left behind a devastated wife and two young children who have lived without him in Montreal ever since.

His brother, Nabil, still lives and works in the same Montreal neighbourhood where Mourad came under surveillance.

He says Canada abused security certificates in the rush to judgment after 9-11.

"When you accuse somebody of being a terrorist, that's it. He gets stuck with that title for his life.

"People get their rights gradually and they will lose them gradually if they don't fight to keep them."

Ikhlef's case and other certificate files Canada closed long ago raise fresh questions about the maligned immigration tool for deporting foreign-born terror suspects.

In one case, The Canadian Press discovered that an alleged Sikh extremist shipped to Belize has vanished from the Central American country.

In another, a Palestinian man banished to Sudan on a certificate orbited several countries before being accepted last year as a citizen of Belgium - one of Canada's staunch allies.

Two current certificate cases have collapsed and three others are bogged down in the Federal Court of Canada as Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan reviews the teetering system.

Mourad Ikhlef, now 41, is the second oldest of six boys and two girls. He grew up in the El Harrach district of Algiers and studied engineering before fleeing to Montreal in 1993.

Ikhlef claimed refugee status, saying he feared torture in Algeria after learning he was wanted by the authorities for terrorism-related activities. He denied any involvement in extremism and said he discovered he had been sentenced to death by reading about it in the newspaper.

Nabil joined him in Canada in 1994 and became a landed immigrant. Mourad obtained refugee status that year and also applied to become a permanent resident.

Canada's spy agency interviewed Mourad several times about life in Algeria and his new circle of friends and neighbours in Montreal. They included Ahmed Ressam.

Travelling under a fake name, Ressam was caught at the U.S. border in December 1999 with a trunk full of explosives. He was convicted in April 2001 of plotting to bomb the Los Angeles airport.

A few months later Ikhlef told the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that while Ressam was an acquaintance, he had nothing to do with the fellow Algerian's scheme.

He suggested his own troubles with Algerian authorities stemmed from a stolen identity card that had been traced to his cousin.

Ikhlef was arrested on a security certificate in December 2001. CSIS accused him of aiding Ressam's plans as a member of a Montreal cell of the Armed Islamic Group, intent on overthrowing the Algerian government.

Ikhlef denied any involvement in terrorist plots.

Nabil said in an interview it's no surprise his brother knew Ressam and other terror suspects. "We were a small Algerian community at that time. Everybody knew everybody."

Federal Court Justice Pierre Blais didn't believe Mourad Ikhlef was simply hanging out with the wrong crowd. After reviewing the certificate, Blais ruled in March 2002 there was sufficient evidence to conclude he was involved in terrorist activities.

Ikhlef broke down at the news he would be sent back to Algeria.

For Ikhlef's wife Houda, life has been tough.

"She's waiting, but it's very hard," Nabil said.

The couple's pre-teen children, son Hakim and daughter Hafsa, barely know their father.

Nabil and Mourad were especially close while living in Montreal.

"I miss that part," said Nabil, 36. "It's as if I was left alone when he was arrested."

Mourad was deported after Algerian officials assured Ottawa that he wouldn't be mistreated.

An Amnesty International report says Ikhlef should have been immediately brought before judicial authorities for retrial in Algeria on charges of terrorism. He had been convicted in absentia - apparently on the basis of confessions made by another detainee who'd been tortured, Amnesty says.

On arrival at Algiers airport, Canadian security officials handed him to officers of the Department for Information and Security, or DRS, an intelligence agency accused by the human rights group of chronic abuse.

The DRS transferred Ikhlef directly to military barracks, reportedly forcing him to lie on his stomach so he could not see where he was taken, says the Amnesty report.

Ikhlef was "put under duress and insulted" during 10 days in custody while a lawyer and his family tried in vain to find him.

"That deportation went ahead on the basis of an assurance from Algerian officials that Mr. Ikhlef's rights would be respected and in particular that he would not be subjected to any ill treatment," said Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada.

"This case very starkly underscores how wrong-headed and unlawful it is for Canada, or any country, to rely on such assurances, when offered by government authorities whose record for violating the very rights they now promise to uphold is notorious."

Van Loan told The Canadian Press he couldn't discuss specific certificate cases. But he added it's preferable to charge someone in Canada, rather than deport them, when there is evidence of involvement in terrorism.

Ikhlef's lawyers happened to be in court on other business the day DRS officers turned up with him in March 2003.

"When they asked him if he was Mourad Ikhlef he denied his identity, reportedly after one of the DRS officers stepped on his foot," the Amnesty report says.

He was presented to the judge without counsel, even though his lawyers were waiting outside.

Ikhlef was acquitted of terrorism-related activities in a 2003 retrial. In a second matter, he was sentenced in November 2005 to seven years in prison on charges of membership in a terrorist group - allegations he denied.

"He was apparently sentenced exclusively on the basis of the statements he had made while in the custody of the DRS which, according to his testimony, had been made under duress," says the Amnesty report.

Ikhlef was released in March 2006 and told all proceedings against him would be dropped as part of "national reconciliation" measures. But he was arrested a week later by DRS officers and again held at military barracks before being taken to prison.

In November 2006, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Ikhlef's detention arbitrary because it violated internationally recognized rights to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.

Ikhlef's current lawyer, Amine Sidhoum, said his client has since been acquitted in a third Algerian trial, related to the Ressam affair. Ikhlef is slated for release next year, unless the authorities open another file on him, said Sidhoum.

Ikhlef's parents visit their son every week at the prison in Berrouaghia, south of the capital.

Nabil says his brother passes the time studying math, science and literature behind bars.

Sidhoum himself was sentenced to a suspended prison term of six months last year for "bringing the judiciary into disrepute." He had told a newspaper that the 30 months one of his clients was held without being sentenced amounted to "abusive judgment."

Amnesty International called the case against Sidhoum politically motivated intimidation.

The Algerian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Amnesty's findings or Ikhlef's current status.

In a 2006 interview with an Ottawa newspaper, Algerian ambassador Smail Benamara said his country does not torture people returned there.

Nabil Ikhlef fears the fight against terrorism has taken a toll - that people will become used to the notion of suspects being arrested and held without charge.

"The next generation will not remember."

Details on the case of Mourad Ikhlef, deported to Algeria

Some facts on the case of Mourad Ikhlef, a former Montreal resident:

Born: February 1968, Algiers, Algeria.

Route to Canada: Voyage by boat from Algeria to Montreal in August 1993.

Deported from Canada: To Algeria in February 2003.