From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
Last updated on Friday, Jul. 31, 2009 08:55AM EDT
The role played by CSIS – Canada’s secretive anti-terrorist agency – in the arrest, imprisonment and alleged torture of Abousfian Abdelrazik, the Canadian citizen forcibly exiled in Sudan for years, will be probed by the Security Intelligence Review Committee.
The full-blown probe by the spy watchdog casts another potential pall over CSIS, which was recently criticized for its failures in handling the case of Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr.
SIRC rejected the agency’s request for a quick, exculpatory review of its handling of the Abdelrazik case, opting instead for a full investigation into the formal complaint brought by Mr. Abdelrazik.
“We hope SIRC will be able to dig out the details of CSIS conduct that we have been unable to get,” Paul Champ, a lawyer for Mr. Abdelrazik said Wednesday.
The probe pulls the agency closer to the centre of the Abdelrazik controversy. A federal judge, in ordering Ottawa to bring Mr. Abdelrazik home from Sudan, concluded CSIS was “complicit” in his detention. Mr. Abdelrazik has offered chilling accounts of his treatment by CSIS agents in Canada and during his imprisonment in Sudan.
Although SIRC hearings are secret, they are “quasi-judicial” and have the power to compel agents to testify. SIRC members carry the highest-possible security clearances and have access to even the most secret of CSIS documents.
The probe, which may not get under way until next year, will be chaired by Arthur Porter, an eminent Montreal doctor who was born in Sierra Leone and appointed to SIRC last year.
Although CSIS has loudly protested its innocence in Mr. Abdelrazik’s case – going so far as to publicly post a letter on its website insisting it had nothing to do with his arrest – Federal Court Justice Russel Zinn has already cast grave doubts on the agency’s claim of clean hands.
“CSIS was complicit in the detention of Mr. Abdelrazik by the Sudanese authorities in 2003,” concluded Judge Zinn, who ruled the Harper government had violated Mr. Abdelrazik’s constitutional right to return to Canada and ordered him repatriated.
CSIS “does not, and has not, arranged for the arrest of Canadian citizens overseas,” Jim Judd, then director of the spy agency, wrote in a March letter to SIRC, demanding it conduct a review after The Globe and Mail published secret and heavily redacted government documents that seemed to implicate CSIS agents in Mr. Abdelrazik’s arrest and imprisonment.
“Recent media reporting has gone so far as to allege that Abousfian Abdelrazik was arrested by Sudanese authorities at the request of CSIS, citing documents obtained under an access to information request,” Mr. Judd wrote, adding that “in the interest of clarifying this matter for Canadians, I request that the Security Intelligence Review Committee – at the earliest opportunity – investigate and report on the performance” of CSIS agents.
Mr. Judd said they had “conducted themselves in accordance with the CSIS Act, Canadian law and policy.”
SIRC rejected that request for a review, telling CSIS it would conduct a full-blown probe into the Abdelrazik affair.
A number of government documents – most marked secret and heavily redacted – refer to CSIS’s involvement in Mr. Abdelrazik’s imprisonment. Mr. Abdelrazik was arrested “at our request” says one document, bearing a CSIS stamp, although the spy agency claims it is not a CSIS document.
In other documents, including one marked “Top Secret” from Oct. 15, 2007, Foreign Affairs Department officials raise concerns that heavy censoring by CSIS will shift the focus to other departments. “We and consular have questioned CSIS’s extensive redactions on national security grounds, which could leave DFAIT exposed,” the document says.
Last week, Mr. Abdelrazik gave a chilling account of CSIS’s conduct.
After months in solitary confinement with little food and occasional torture, Mr. Abdelrazik said one day his Sudanese jailers told him the “Canadian mukhabarat want to talk to me,” using the feared Arabic term for notoriously brutal security agencies in most Middle Eastern dictatorships. Mr. Abdelrazik says he was taken to a room with a table laden “with cakes and fruits and juice and bottles of water.” He said one of the two CSIS interrogators was the same agent who questioned him at his Montreal home two days before he flew to Khartoum in March, 2003.
Mr. Abdelrazik said he begged the CSIS agents to be allowed to return to Canada – telling them he was willing to face any charge, if they had any.
“I am not going to help a terrorist,” the CSIS agent replied, according to Mr. Abdelrazik. The agent added that Mr. Abdelrazik was “Sudanese, not a Canadian, and should stay in Sudan forever; … my country doesn’t need you,” the CSIS agent said according to Mr. Abdelrazik’s account.
“Sudan will be your Guantanamo,” Mr. Abdelrazik said one of the CSIS agents told him, a reference to the U.S. prison for terrorist suspects on a naval base in Cuba, where hundreds have been held – many in solitary confinement and without charge – for years.
CSIS has declined to respond directly to Mr. Abdelrazik’s claims.
In a written response to questions listing the allegation that CSIS agents had threatened to maroon a Canadian citizen abroad, CSIS spokeswoman Manon Bérubé said: “CSIS does not discuss operational matters.” However, the spy agency will have to defend them in the secret SIRC hearings.
What remains unknown is whether CSIS videotaped the Abdelrazik interrogation. It did in Mr. Khadr’s case, but that was at the insistence of U.S. agents.
But in a harbinger of where the Abdelrazik probe may lead, SIRC released its findings in the Khadr probe earlier this month.
“The time may have come for CSIS to undertake a fundamental reassessment of how it carries out its work, and to shift its operational culture to keep pace with recent political and legal developments,” SIRC’s chairman, Gary Filmon, concluded in the report into CSIS’s interrogation of Mr. Khadr, who remains imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay nearly seven years after he was captured as a 15-year-old in Afghanistan.
Mr. Filmon added it was “vital for CSIS to demonstrate that it has the professionalism, experience and know-how required to make the difficult decisions that arise when conducting operations abroad.”