On June 2, a combined force of local, provincial, and federal police arrested 15 young Muslim men, including five minors, in the Toronto area. Those 15, and two others who have been in jail since last August, are accused of plotting terrorist attacks on various targets in Ontario. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.
These arrests were conducted in the name of “stopping terrorism,” but a close look at the facts suggests that they were actually the opening salvo in an intense propaganda campaign to divide the Muslim community, build support for the federal government’s draconian “anti-terrorism” laws, and push back the considerable opposition in Canada to Ottawa’s war policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The arrests were carefully orchestrated to ensure that the stories concocted by police received maximum publicity. The arrests took place on a Friday evening. This meant the men could be held incommunicado through the weekend, giving the police maximum opportunity to get their story out.
Friendly journalists and politicians were briefed before the arrests took place. Details of the police allegations were made public at a press conference the following morning, before the accused and their lawyers received any information at all.
Trial by Media
All normal standards of decency or concern for accuracy were abandoned by most journalists in the following days. Most reports were based on a police-prepared eight-page “synopsis,” a document normally given only to defense lawyers. Prominent criminal lawyer Julian Falconer told CBC Radio that such synopses are “notoriously acts of fiction” that seldom bear any resemblance to the evidence eventually presented at trial. Despite that, newspapers across Canada reported every lurid accusation. Most devoted several pages a day to the “plot.”
No allegation was too nonsensical to get front-page treatment. The men were said to be planning to take over Parliament, hold MPs hostage, and behead politicians one at a time until Canada withdraws from Afghanistan. Other reported targets include the CBC, the Toronto Stock Exchange, and the Toronto offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The Globe and Mail raised fears of a 9/11-style attack by reporting that the accused were taking flight training — in fact one of the men took one semester of an aircraft maintenance course that involves no flying at all.
The media coverage reeked of racism: article after article featured references to the arrested as “Canadian-born” (rather than simply “Canadian”); to “brown-skinned young men”; and to sinister goings-on in Muslim mosques.
Meanwhile, the 17 accused, five of whom are minors, were held in isolation cells with the lights on 24 hours a day, denied the right to consult lawyers in private, denied visits from their families. When they were taken to court, the police put on a show. Over 30 officers with machine guns surrounded the building while sharpshooters patrolled nearby rooftops. The accused, none of whom has been accused of committing a single violent act, were brought in wearing leg irons.
There is no reason to believe any part of the police story. Less than two years ago, Toronto Police arrested 19 young men from South Asia, and the press was filled with charges that they planned to blow up the CN Tower and the Pickering nuclear plant. The entire story was false: no charges were ever laid. Bear in mind also that these latest arrests in Toronto occurred just before police in the UK were forced to apologize for a heavily publicized raid on a London apartment that they wrongly claimed was a storage site for chemical weapons — a young Muslim man was shot and seriously injured during that attack.
But even if every word of the bizarre police synopsis is true, it’s clear that this was not a sophisticated terrorist cell plotting to rain devastation on our “pluralistic western society.” What the synopsis actually describes is a group of devout young Muslim men, angry at Canada’s increasingly active role in the international war against Islam, venting their frustration in wild online chat and “plots” that were mostly fantasy. They may have wanted to strike out, but they had no skills, no realistic plans, and no resources. As Toronto-area imam Aly Hindy told Newsweek magazine, “I just think these people were bulls–ting.”
The police say they have been watching these young men for nearly two years: tapping their phones, reading their emails, interviewing friends and employers. Until now the RCMP and CSIS have claimed that their policy is to break up groups like this before anything actually happens. Such heavy-handed police interventions have long been standard procedure against political activity the cops regard as threatening — an RCMP/CSIS briefing paper presented to the new federal Cabinet in February bragged that they have carried out 12 such disruptions in the past two years (Globe and Mail, June 7, 2006)
But this time the cops changed tactics. Someone, undoubtedly with Cabinet approval, decided that, rather than simply intimidating the young dissidents into inactivity, they should arrange for an anti-terrorist propaganda coup.
So they orchestrated a sting, setting up the young men to buy fertilizer from an undercover cop, allegedly to build giant bombs. It’s not yet clear to what extent the cops used agents or provocateurs to promote the purchase. Entrapment is standard police procedure in this type of case, and there’s no reason to think that the RCMP and CSIS have clean hands now.
In any event, it’s not illegal to buy fertilizer in Canada, so the police have fallen back on charges of “plotting” and “conspiring” — the usual resort of prosecutors when hard evidence is weak or non-existent.
These young men are being used as pawns to promote Ottawa’s pro-war, anti-immigrant policies. The evidence against them is virtually non-existent; the media coverage is a blatant witchhunt; and the police propaganda campaign has so poisoned the atmosphere that they are unlikely to get a fair trial.
The weakness of the police case was demonstrated on June 12, when the prosecution sought (and a judge granted) a complete publication ban on court proceedings, over the objections of defense lawyers.
“After they’ve had 10 days with the media, feeding the media whatever they want to feed the media, denying us disclosure of any evidence and doing what they need to do to conduct a trial in this parking lot of this courthouse, they now have the audacity to request a blanket publication ban of all proceedings from today’s date,” said Rocco Galati, lawyer for one of the accused.
The cops were eager to get their unproven “synopsis” allegations out to the widest possible audience, but when it comes to court-tested evidence, well, that’s different. It’s hard not to conclude that the actual evidence is even less convincing than what we’ve seen so far.
The police could have moved against this small and poorly organized group at any time. The decision to move now was driven by the cops’ political bosses, who wanted a dramatic event they could use to build support for the government’s pro-war and anti-immigrant policies. Defense lawyer Galati told reporters that the government’s goal is “a show trial for political ends” designed to influence the Supreme Court’s review of the legality of security certificates under which five Muslim men have been held without trial for as long as five years.
He also said that the arrests and publicity aimed to build support for Cabinet’s plan to renew the Anti-Terrorism Act, which eliminates important civil rights, including the right not to testify. That law, which was rushed through Parliament in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, will expire this year unless Parliament votes to extend it.
But the number one goal of the June 2 arrests and the subsequent propaganda campaign is to intimidate opponents of Ottawa’s growing war in Afghanistan, where 2,200 Canadian troops are participating in the NATO occupation force.
On May 17, a motion to extend Canada’s “mission” until 2009 passed in the House of Commons by only four votes, and antiwar sentiment has been growing across the country. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expanding Canada’s partnership with Washington’s imperial war drive, but it fears that growing domestic opposition will block its ambitions. The war is not going well in Afghanistan for the Canadian invaders, and large numbers of people at home are opposed to it. With these arrests, Canada’s rulers are renewing the fraudulent claim that the illegal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is somehow connected to stopping terrorist attacks in Canada.
The anti-terrorist propaganda barrage has had a short-term impact on antiwar sentiment. In May, a Strategic Counsel poll found that 54% of Canadians opposed Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, while only 40% were in favour. Three days after the arrests, the same polling company found 48% in favour and only 44% opposed. That’s a substantial shift — but 44% opposition is still very strong, and support for the war will certainly erode again as people realize the destructive effects of the war on both Afghanistan and Canadian society.
Opposition to the war is particularly strong among Muslim Canadians, most of whom correctly see Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan as part and parcel of Washington’s war in the Middle East. The June 2 arrests and the subsequent propaganda campaign are part of a concerted effort by the government to isolate the Muslim community, to split that community itself by pressuring “moderate” Muslims to condemn “radicals and extremism” — and to block the developing alliances between Canadian Muslim organizations and antiwar activists, particularly in Toronto. The message is very clear: support the government, refrain from criticism, and keep your head down — or you might be next.
But the government’s campaign of intimidation can be countered. Opponents of the war must defend the right of everyone in Canada to speak out against the war, against “security certificates,” and against all attacks on civil rights. We must condemn every attack on immigrants and refugees, and ally ourselves unconditionally with the Muslim community in their fight against discrimination and religious or racial profiling by the police.
And we must build the antiwar movement, which opposes Ottawa’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Canadians are dying in increasing numbers in Afghanistan, and working people at home are suffering as the government diverts money from education, health care, and social programs into increased military spending. Ottawa’s demagoguery about “supporting our troops” must be countered with an unequivocal demand that Canada end its participation in the occupation of Afghanistan now.
Ian Angus is a Contributing Editor of Socialist Voice. This article also appears in Socialist Voice (No. 84, 14 June 2006).
Socialist Voice (No. 82, 11 June 2006) included two statements opposing the arrests of the 17 in Toronto. Another statement, by the Vancouver-based Mobilization Against War and Occupation, can be found at www.mawovancouver.org/toronto17.html.