(Toronto) Day 23 Of Refugee's Hunger Strike: Not Too Much To Ask

TORONTO, OCTOBER 21, 2003 -- It was a weak and haggard-looking Hassan
Almrei who was brought into court this morning on the 23rd day of his
hunger strike for heat, shoes, and a sweater in his solitary confinement
cell at Metro West Detention Centre. Almrei, who has lost almost 30 pounds
since his strike began, is already over 100 pounds below his normal weight.

Almrei smiled at the rows of supporters who greeted him with a
collective, "Good morning Hassan," a salutation which was returned with a
stern "No talking with the prisoner!" from the court officer.

It was the second day of a hearing into Almrei's demand that the
United Nations Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners be upheld
in his cold concrete cell. It has come to this in 21st century Canada: a
29-year-old refugee must starve himself to draw attention to the conditions
in solitary confinement where he has spent the past two years.

In short, Hassan refuses to freeze through another winter in
solitary, where he is held without charge or bail on secret "evidence"
neither he nor his lawyer is allowed to see.

His Tuesday hearing could have been much further along, since it
was scheduled for yesterday as well, but someone in the Ministry of Public
Safety and Security (sic) "neglected" to make the arrangements to have
Hassan transported from the jail on Monday. This is ironic, given that the
habeas corpus hearing (literally "produce the body" was precisely to bring
him forward to testify about the conditions he faces.

Ironic, but not surprising. From the beginning of Hassan's hunger
strike, the ministry has lied, deflected the issue, and refused to come to
a compromise solution that guarantees even the slightest level of comfort
in solitary confinement, a place Hassan has been forced to call home
through no fault of his own. He was in solitary the first 15 months of his
indefinite incarceration without any reason provided other than "security."
After a hunger strike and court appearance to get him out of solitary,
Hassan was placed in the general population with the unearned and
undeserved prison reputation as a man who must be some kind of threat
because of that long stretch of solitary.. Anyone who knows the amiable,
friendly Almrei would be surprised that he could be seen in any way as
threatening, but his life was immediately threatened and he was forced back
into solitary.

Since many of us got to know Hassan this past summer, he has spoken
at length about the difficulties he faces in solitary, the worst of which
is the winter cold, when temperatures plunge to 10 degrees Celsius,
inviting hypothermia. He vowed that he would not freeze through another
winter, and launched his hunger strike September 29.

On Day 16 of the hunger strike, members of his adopted Canadian
family and other supporters attempted to present a space heater to the
ministry, pledging to pay for the heating bills if necessary. They were met
by a line of police who told them that although the ministry of public
safety is a government building, it is not a public building!

It was another piece of Orwellian illogic that has been part of
Almrei's life these past two years, held without being told why and
threatened with deportation to Syria, where his life would be in grave
danger.

On Sunday, some 80 people gathered at Metro West to show support
for Almrei and the other secret trial prisoners. They marched to the local
RCMP detachment and attempted to present a personalized copy of the Charter
of Rights and Freedoms, on the basis that the way CSIS and the Mounties
treat Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and other targetted communities in
Canada, it's as if they have lost their own copy of the Charter.

True to form, the Mounties refused to accept a copy of the Charter.
Perhaps they prefer to continue trampling on people's rights, as issues
such as the right to know what you are alleged to have done, the right to
freely speak your mind or practice your faith, are inconveniences which
need not be respected in the relentless war against democracy being waged
by Canada's spy agencies.

As we pile into court Monday morning, we are surprised at the blunt
comments from Superior Court Justice Arthur Gans who, when government
lawyer Angela Jeffrey attempts to introduce the history of the Almrei case,
declares, "I don't need any history. You'd have to be in Nepal not to know
the history from the popular press," a reference to the extensive coverage
Hassan's action has drawn.

Gans, a straight-talking, no-nonsense fellow, in reference to our
efforts at the RCMP, even offered the government lawyer his own copy of the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He also acknowledged the large support
community in the court by stating he imagined, as another case was about to
come up, that we were not there for the cocaine trial. After a brief break,
it was determined we could not proceed without Almrei in court., Gans
remarked, "Isn't this issue easily determined? Sneakers with velcro might
work--I can't imagine that they would be life threatening."

His voice drips with an almost bitter irony at the idiosyncracies
and bureaucratic failures of the judicial system. By the end of the day,
his face --he could pass for Murray Hamilton, the actor who portrayed Mr.
Robinson in The Graduate -- must be tired from his expressions of
jaw-dropping disbelief and his incessant rolling of eyes when he is
displeased upon hearing the bureaucracy-speak uttered by witnesses and
government attorneys.

Tuesday morning's hearing gets off to a sharp start, as Gans
directs some pointed comments to Government lawyer Angela Jeffrey. Like all
of us in the gallery -- who are unsure how the government can justify
wasting thousands of dollars of court time to deny Hassan his three basic
demands -- Gans is in no mood for legal game-playing. "All [Hassan] wants
is a pair of sneakers. I want to hear why he can't have sneakers. I don't
see why this guy can't have them. That is the sole issue before the court."

Jeffrey consults with her fellow lawyer Donald McIntosh, a veteran
federal government lawyer who has prosecuted numerous security certificate
cases with such a dangerous lack of empathy that it is unclear if he has
misplaced not only his own copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but
his heart as well. McIntosh says he will not be speaking to the matter, as
it falls under provincial, not federal jurisdiction, yet he remains in the
court throughout, as if to ensure that Hassan's ill-treatment should
continue unabated.

The government calls as its witness Frank Geswaldo, the soft-spoken
head of security at Metro West. Geswaldo is hardly in an enviable position,
and it shows. Geswaldo is not someone who makes or changes policy, but
rather someone who follows directives from the ministry. As he admits under
questioning, his hands are essentially tied when it comes to questions of
policy changes.

Nonetheless, he is in the hot seat, and says the judge is making
him feel uncomfortable as Gans directs a rapid-fire succession of tough
questions when he is frustrated with Jeffrey's plodding inquiries.

Geswaldo asks if he could refer to his notes, to which Gans angrily
replies, "About WHAT???? This isn't about an event where something happened
like when police take notes. Put your notes away."

Geswaldo proceeds to describe the small, concrete solitary cell
where Hassan is "housed" as a "special handling offender." This draws the
ire of Gans.

"Rather than using euphemisms, tell me what these words mean," Gans
says.

Geswaldo replies that Hassan is "an offender who requires special
protocol."

Gans bursts in again. "Look, are we talking violent people,
mentally unstable, suicidal, what?"

Geswaldo says it means people who have threatened staff, been involved in altercations, or brought contraband into the jail.

Almrei fits none of these categories, however. Indeed, Gans
questions Geswaldo, with each question drawing the same answer..
Is he violent?
"As far as I'm aware, no."
Has he ever been involved with contraband?
"As far as I'm aware, no."
Been abusive to staff? Been a security risk in the jail? Misbehaved on the way to the shower? Ever thrown anything at anybody?
"As far as I'm aware, no."
So if Almrei is a nonviolent person, has never threatened anyone, and is trusted enough to allow him out of his cell to sweep up other segregation cells with a broom while wearing running shoes, why is he not
allowed shoes in his cell?

The answer is simple: shoes are viewed as a potential weapons. They can either be thrown at staff, or the prisoner can gain better traction to ground themselves, making it difficult for staff to tackle them in a
confrontation. Yet shoes such as those Hassan is requesting are worn by
inmates in general population, where incidents of violence are just as
likely to occur as in segregation.

There is also the issue of alleged "special treatment" were Hassan
to get his shoes, which currently sit outside his cell in a box, worn only
when he is let out to clean, to go to yard, or to the shower.

If Hassan were allowed to wear his running shoes in his cell,
Geswaldo maintains, people throughout the institution and at other jails
would be resentful, and "inmates may rebel. The next thing you know we have
problems all over the province."

But as Barbara Jackman, Almrei's attorney, points out, after two
years in solitary, there have been numerous exceptions for Hassan. He has
received a pillow, a towel for religious purposes, and a sheet for his
mattress.

"Have there been any riots in the wake of Almrei getting a
pillow?" Jackman asks, in light of the comment that exceptions create
resentment leading to general rebellion. The answer is no.

Gans blurts out, "So why hasn't there [been a riot] if something like this [granting an exception] is so notorious?"

Geswaldo is caught between a rock and a hard place. There's not a
lot he can do other than refer to policies and manuals put out by the
ministry.

"Are there any standing orders with respect to special management
offenders, special handling protocols--I want to see the manuals. How long
will it take?" Gans demands.

It is suggested that Paul Greer, deputy superintendent at the jail,
can arrange for that right away and call a deputy minister. "You can do that, can't you Mr. Greer?" Gans asks.
"Yes your Honour," Greer replies from the gallery
"Goodbye Mr. Greer," Gans replies, dismissing him to make that phone call.

The court addresses the issue of the plastic flip-flops that have
been offered in lieu of shoes. A pair of these also sit outside Hassan's
cell, bought through the prison canteen.

"I'm astonished that he has to buy his own clogs," a clearly
annoyed Gans states, his frustration with the bureaucratic idiosyncracies
and injustices of the prison system coming to the surface one after the
other.

As he explores a plastic bag containing the flip flops, Gans
realizes these belong to Hassan, and that to mark them as an exhibit means Hassan would not have access to them. "These are his property. Did you ask permission to take them?" he asks.
"No," Geswaldo says.
"Why didn't you take a sample of the shoes from the canteen [where they are sold]?"

After the government closes its questioning to show that in its
opinion, shoes pose a threat, the question arises: why are the plastic flip
flops not allowed in the cell either. Do these too pose a security risk?
The answer is yes. Gans has had enough. The arguments about both shoes and
flip flops is that they would allow prisoners to literally stick to the
ground, making them indomitable foes in confrontations with staff.

"Come on, I've seen my sons wrestle wearing those things. I
wouldn't want to wrestle wearing those things, you'd break your ankle
before you did anything else," he says, implying the possibility of getting
traction with them and then fighting guards is about as sure a thing as
getting traction on black ice on the 401.

Gans is clearly miffed at the government's lack of preparation on
the case. As Jeffrey says Hassan has refused certain garments, which are
only worn by women prisoners, Gans asks if these garments have been brought
for him to examine. No. Are Hassan's or someone else's running shoes
available to examine? No.

Is the jacket that Hassan allegedly wears in the yard in the middle
of winter (Hassan has never been given such a jacket) available to view?
No.

"Am I to guess at all of this?" Gans demands,. "I'd like to see
what this gentleman is given when it is 30 below and he's out in the yard.
Does the jacket have a hood?"

Geswaldo is unsure. "I believe it does." Gans rolls his eyes yet again.

Geswaldo explains that jackets are a security risk because they can
be thrown over another person's head in a confrontation. He says they would
also prevent guards from checking to see if inmates are breathing at night
(this of course does not prevent prisoners from having blankets, which
would serve the same purpose of preventing one from seeing if someone is
breathing!)

Gans is trying to wrap his head around the lack of clarity here.
"So let me get this straight, the sneakers are left outside of the door of
his cell at all times," Gans sums up, and that Hassan is allowed to wear
them in yard or on the way to the shower. "Tell me then," he continues
sarcastically, "how he doesn't jump the guards on the way to the shower or
brace himself in the yard with these sneakers and beat up on guards!"

It is theatre of the ridiculous. It would be wholly laughable if it
were not so serious that Hassan is in day 23 of a hunger strike for this
very basic demand: he does not want to walk about in socks on a cold
concrete cell floor. Yet the government behaves as if giving him shoes will
create not only a superhuman security threat, it could undermine the very
foundation of the "correctional" system in the province.

Greer is on hand to present computer printouts which state the heat
is working in Hassan;s cell. Although there are no probes which actually
record the temperature inside his cell, he says that there is an average
temperature in the general area of his cell which is recorded. The judge
remains skeptical.

"If the HVAC system is anything like it is in this courthouse, we
know that it isn't working," Gans says. "In this building it's too hot, and
I'm going through menopause so I need to strip down."

The government also points out that Hassan has refused to be placed
in the special needs unit or "protective custody," where sexual offenders
and prison "rats" are often sent. If he were there, he would be in a space
with ten other prisoners. While there is a common space, all the prisoners
would have to return to their cells if Hassan were to use the common area.
This would create resentment and hostility towards Almrei.

In conversation with Hassan, he has said that all he wants is to
have a bit more humane treatment in his cell with respect to guarding
against winter cold. Give him that, he says, and he will continue his
lonely vigil in solitary, awaiting his bail hearing at the end of November.
It does not seem too much to ask.

Indeed, the outrage which has arisen over his case is evident in
cards and letters he is receiving from around the world, supporting his
hunger strike.

But to the ministry, it is one voice of resistance too many. In an
area of daily life that is all too hidden, the treatment of prisoners in
Canada, especially of those who are behind bars because they are refugees
without "proper" paperwork, is abominable. Gans' closing remarks must have
sent shivers down the spines of ministry bureaucrats who have been trying
to brush off the issue.

Gans urges Hassan to start eating again, as "you've made a real
beach-head here, sir," he says, noting the issue has received a wide airing
and that he has gathered around him a large group of supporters. Gans
remarks that he is eager to visit the prison and get a peak at the
conditions inside, and asks Geswaldo to promise not to send the judge to
solitary when he visits.

We speak with Hassan from the jail later Tuesday evening,. He is
weak and dizzy, and does not feel up to another trip to court in the
morning. This morning's trip made him horribly nauseous, bouncing around in
the back of a police wagon while handcuffed, falling a number of times in
the van and hurting his back. He is in no state to be hustled about town in
such a manner, and will begin day 24 of his hunger strike Wednesday morning.

Press ask us if we will encourage Hassan to end the hunger strike
given the judge's comments. It's not our role to stop Hassan's hunger
strike, we say, That role belongs to the ministry, whose refusal to act has
forced Hassan into this hunger strike.

One hopes that following Wednesday's hearing, Gans will turn his
attention to the only people who can stop the hunger strike: the
bureaucrats who, it is hoped, he will compel to provide Hassan with shoes,
a jacket, and a guarantee of proper heat for the remainder of his time at
Metro West. Without that victory, Hassan will continue his hunger strike.

It's really not too much to ask, is it?

For more information: Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, PO Box 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0, tasc@web.ca, (416) 651-5800, http://www.homesnotbombs.ca