Three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Adil Charkaoui was working in his father’s pizza restaurant in Montreal when a group of federal agents visited him.
The men, Charkaoui remembers, were dressed in black suits and approached him gravely.
“They asked me, ‘Hi, Mr. Charkaoui, where is Osama bin Laden?’”
He wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I said, ‘The guy is retired and he’s resting in my basement; please don’t disturb him,’” he said. “At this time I was perhaps really naïve, joking with them.”
Charkaoui soon found out the agents were being serious.
In 2003, the Canadian permanent resident was issued a security certificate for suspected connections to terrorist activity.
A security certificate, which is only issued to a non-citizen, declares a person a threat to national security and gives the government the right to indefinitely detain the certificate holder without knowing what evidence the government has against him or her.
The government may also order the deportation of the individual.
On June 16, he spoke to a roomful of people in Dunning Hall about his experiences since arriving in Canada with his parents and sister in 1995.
Charkaoui, a Moroccan-born Montrealer, was imprisoned for 21 months in Quebec without charge before being released and put under house arrest in February 2005.
Since then, he has fought to clear his name and to bring awareness to four other men who were also issued security certificates and held under similar circumstances.
“I was really lucky to be the last one to be arrested and first one to be released,” he said.
For the past four years, Charkaoui has lived with 40 bail conditions but, in February, he won a court challenge that lifted many of them, including a previous ban on his travel outside of Montreal.
He’s using his newly won freedom to tour the country with his campaign, Justice for Adil.
He still carries a GPS monitoring device that tracks his movements.
The family applied for Canadian citizenship in 1999 and everyone but Charkaoui received theirs. Instead, he got a call from federal agents summoning him for questioning.
“Perhaps it was a mistake that I was young and didn’t ask a lawyer to come with me,” he said.
Charkaoui said the agents asked him for his opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other issues relating to the Middle East.
“There were lots of questions I felt not focusing on my personal [citizenship] file but on my politics,” he said. “At one point they told me, ‘We want to know about Muslims in Montreal.’”
Charkaoui’s car was stopped on the highway and he was arrested on May 21, 2003. He said six RCMP tactical units and agents with M16 rifles escorted him to prison.
He was given a 400-page public summary of the allegations against him, although he was mentioned in no more than 14 of them, he said.
The document said there was reason to suspect Charkaoui was a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda because, among other things, he is a young Arab Muslim, co-owned a pizza restaurant with his father and has a black belt in martial arts.
“I explained to the judge that this is a biased profile,” he said. “If [a terror suspect] is poor, he can be bought; if he’s rich, he can finance terrorism; if he’s educated, he’s an ideologue and dangerous; if he’s not, he can be brainwashed. … You cannot really win this type of profiling.”
Charkaoui launched a constitutional challenge in 2003 to the security certificate process, which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled as unconstitutional in 2007.
Last February, to replace the struck-down legislation, the government enacted Bill C-3, which Charkaoui said is nearly identical to the old legislation. He has another constitutional challenge pending review.
Charkaoui said he hopes the tour, which wraps up in Victoria on June 25, will encourage Canadians to contact their local politicians to protest the security certificate process, which he said has been applied in recent years to discriminate against young Arab and Muslim men.
He admits he would prefer not to be on tour.
“I’m not going to Morocco with my children,” he said. “I’m going across Canada to explain that I’m living under a crazy law and we’ve got to change it.”
He jokes about what he would do if the security certificate was removed.
“If I clear my name, maybe I will go to live in Cuba—just not Guantanamo.”
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