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Case Of 19 'Terrorists' In
Canada Unravelling

By Marina Jimenez, Colin Freeze and Victoria Burnett
The Globe and Mail
8-30-03


TORONTO and ISLAMABAD -- Anwar-ur-Rehman Mohammed is a pharmacist who left his wife and children behind in southern India to live in a tiny, cluttered basement apartment in Markham in the hopes of obtaining a prestigious commercial pilot's licence.
 
Instead, he wasted $50,000, did not graduate and despairs of getting a licence after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
 
Saif Ulla Khan is a 42-year-old refugee claimant from Faisalabad, Pakistan, who was picked up by police because he shared an apartment with his brother, a suspect in an immigration raid. He was found hiding in a pile of laundry, and complained that authorities had mistaken him for his brother.
 
Muhammed Naeem, 34, is a physician from Islamabad who hoped to practise medicine in Canada. His decision to register for computer courses at the Ottawa Business School, a defunct institution that sold phony registration letters, drew the suspicion of authorities investigating the school.
 
These men and 16 others are at the centre of Canada's most sensational ó and most controversial ó terrorism case in recent years.
 
After they were jailed on the grounds that they could pose a risk to Canada's national security, the case made headlines around the world as the news media quoted a government official's now infamous words: "I guess the easiest way of putting it is there is a suggestion they might, in fact, perhaps be a sleeper cell for Al-Qaeda."
 
Other Immigration officials raised allegations that some of the men may have been in search of diagrams and schematics of the CN Tower and other prominent Toronto landmarks.
 
However, the case of the terrorists among us began to unravel almost as soon as the detention reviews began, with the RCMP and Citizenship and Immigration Canada distancing themselves from the idea that the men posed a clear threat to security.
 
The RCMP, which is just beginning to sift through 25 boxes of files and 30 computers seized in the raid that netted the 19 men, said this week there is no evidence that Canada's national security is at risk. Immigration officials underlined that they are investigating only the possibility of such threats.
 
"I can comfortably say there is no known threat; what is being investigated is a reasonable suspicion," said Giovanna Gatti, spokesperson with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. "It's taken the spin that it has taken in the media for whatever reason."
 
Privately, other government sources say that public fears are overblown ó and that at its root, the case remains an investigation into an illegal-immigrant ring.
 
Two of the men were released after Immigration adjudicators found that they posed no threat to security.
 
At least 10 of the 17 men who remain in jail in the Maplehurst Correctional Centre in Milton, Ont., were moved into protective custody after complaining of threats from inmates.
 
The Pakistani high commission in Ottawa has expressed concern for the well-being of the men and requested their release. "Correctional services sent us a letter saying that the reason for the incarceration of the 19 men is Immigration. The terrorism word was not used. It is nothing to do with terrorism," a spokesman for the high commission said.
 
The Muslim Canadian Congress denounced the case as racial profiling and demanded an apology and the immediate release of the men. "The authorities have created hysteria and created a national security scare," Tarek Fatah said. "We are deeply troubled."
 
As Immigration adjudicators assess the allegations, a central issue is how far authorities should go to protect the public from terrorism in a world irrevocably changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, without violating individual rights.
 
"There exists, unfortunately, stereotyping. . . . We live, unfortunately, in very uneasy times, and it's only heightened by the tragic event of Sept. 11, 2001," said Silvana Gratton, an Immigration adjudicator who presided over one detention review. "Suspicions are real. . . It was only heightened by the bomb at the United Nations in Baghdad."
 
Under Canada's post-Sept. 11 Immigration Act, foreigners can be jailed if there is a reasonable suspicion they may be inadmissible to the country on grounds of national security. There need be no evidence or proof.
 
Jahan Zaib Sawhney was ordered jailed, for example, because the Immigration adjudicator found it suspicious that he was only a part-time student at the University of Windsor. Mr. Sawhney's explanation that his low grade-point average precluded him from taking more courses failed to persuade the adjudicator to release him.
 
Detention reviews are not like criminal trials. They are held in conference rooms, not in courts of law. Suspects appear in person with police escorts or by videolinks from jail. Immigration adjudicators presiding over the hearings and officials arguing the government's case do not have to be lawyers.
 
But the men cannot be held indefinitely, and some of the adjudicators hearing the 19 cases want more evidence presented during the next round of hearings in 30 days.
 
The men came to the attention of authorities because they used the Ottawa Business School to obtain student visas to enter Canada. "Project Thread" was launched after a sharp-eyed Immigration officer determined that the school is bogus.
 
In February, the RCMP seized 400 student files from the school that was based in Scarborough, Ont. Immigration agents said school officials later admitted to selling phony registration letters for $400 and to handing out receipts for thousands of dollars more.
 
It took until this month for police to co-ordinate 13 predawn raids at various locations around the Toronto area. Police initially identified 31 suspects but arrested only 13 of their targets ó and six bystanders dubbed "found-ins" ó during the Aug. 14 raids.
 
They are searching for more men. A suspect reportedly was arrested yesterday in a grocery store where he works.
 
And friends said another man, Mukhtar Awan, 25, surfaced yesterday and wanted to turn himself in but could not reach Immigration's enforcement unit. Arif Raza, a lawyer, said Mr. Awan was "terrified" by news that authorities were looking for him but wanted to clear his name.
 
In addition to their connection to the business school, some men had applied for refugee status, in some cases using false identities. Others are said to have misrepresented themselves to obtain work permits. One man smuggled his way into Canada in the back of a truck.
 
What is not clear is what prompted officials to suggest these men "might in fact perhaps" be al-Qaeda cell members.
 
Project Thread's four-page backgrounder, submitted by the government in the detention hearings, outlines certain collective characteristics that bear a striking similarity to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
 
It is said the men lived in clusters in sparsely furnished apartments in Toronto, Mississauga and Scarborough, moved frequently and had several unexplained fires in their homes. One man took flying lessons while others had associates who were found walking around the Pickering nuclear power station. Some allegedly knew a man who had links to Global Relief Foundation, identified by the United Nations as a fundraising group for al-Qaeda.
 
But there are no specific allegations of terrorist activities.
 
During this week's detention hearings, unlike at others, the government did not utter the words that had so worried the public: "CN Tower" and "al-Qaeda." And Mr. Mohammed's flight path over a nuclear-power plant turned out to be routine for flight-school students.
 
Immigration adjudicators released two of the men, noting the case appeared to be one of misrepresentation, day-to-day immigration business that had been manipulated into a national-security issue.
 
In Pakistan, visa scams are common as thousands of aspiring ÈmigrÈs eager to study overseas or escape economic stagnation turn to "consultants" to help them obtain visas to enter Canada.
 
Tucked away in shabby concrete shopping areas in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and in nearby Rawalpindi's store warrens offering a range of items from laser hair-removal to naan bread, hundreds of small offices offer visa services. Signs reading "Immigration Canada" and "Study UK" hang on peeling walls above the streets.
 
Obtaining visas has become doubly difficult since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has spawned a plethora of "visa consultants," small businesses that promise to assist by processing paperwork and identifying potential employers or colleges.
 
At the Canadian high commission in Islamabad, the overseas-study promotion service receives about 60 queries per week, a commission official said. Some consultants offer legitimate services, while others deal in fake paperwork or phony organizations.
 
"Canadian Immigration" is emblazoned across the door of Transworld Consultants, down a narrow staircase in one of Islamabad's many featureless shopping centres. The owner, Muhammad Azim, used to work on Canadian visas only, but since Sept. 11 Canadian rules have become so strict that he expanded his network to other countries.
 
"Canada has introduced such tough criteria for scoring points [to qualify as immigrants] that even highly qualified people don't get past," said Mr. Azim, who added that the majority of his clients apply for student visas.
 
At World Consultants, Kiren Javed said that most of her clients are desperate to leave Pakistan, where economic opportunities are few.
 
"Right up front they tell me it's not the studies they're going for, it's the work," she said. "We say it's not possible to get the immigration visa, so we suggest they go for the alternative, which is studying."
 
Once in Canada, the advantage of a Canadian student visa comes to the fore: It is easy to stay, said Ms. Javed, who guides applicants from preparing an immigration interview to tailoring appearances in a world where prejudice has grown against orthodox Muslims.
 
Canada's Immigration Department is aware of the chronic problem of misrepresentation in Pakistan. "Fraud continues to be pervasive, as evidenced by the routine submission of counterfeit and altered education certificates . . . as well as fraudulent and fictitious letters of invitation in support of visitor visa applications," Canadian officials in Islamabad wrote in a recent report.
 
Officials vowed increased vigilance in a document, the 2001-2002 Islamabad Environmental Overview, released recently under the federal Access to Information Act to Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based lawyer.
 
As for the 19 men detained earlier this month, some of them say they want to go back to Pakistan. Saif Ulla Khan ó the suspect found in the laundry pile ó was released on a $4,000 bond yesterday, and he and his brother Aqeel Ahmed, still in jail, want to return home.
 
The brothers are from a well-off family in Faisalabad, a city of six million close to Lahore, and are not religious. "Aqeel is a very nice guy, very helpful and friendly. He knows nothing about al-Qaeda," said Faisal Zafar, who employed him and his brother as pizza delivery drivers at a Pizza Hut in Mississauga.
 
"Aqeel wants to leave Canada now, he even had a flight booked," said Mr. Zafar. "Those two guys just wanted to make a life in Canada. They are not terrorists."
 
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 
http://www.globeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20030830.uterr0830/BNStory/National/

 

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