Islam in Canada – Canadian Muslims Seek Apology for Mistreatment of Visiting Imam
By Faisal Kutty – A prominent imam visiting North America from Egypt was handcuffed, strip- searched and detained without the right to legal counsel by Canadian immigration authorities on Jan. 7, 1998 while trying to enter Canada from Detroit.
The incident has upset and embarrassed Muslims across Canada, who are demanding answers from their elected representatives, from immigration officials and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), “The community has launched a campaign to get answers from Ottawa,” said Hussein El-Henawy, an executive member of the Canadian Chapter of the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA). “We have given them time to respond and we are considering our options,” he added.
The turn of events was a total surprise to Sheikh Abdul Hamid Mohamed Ghoneim. He had just completed a speaking tour of the United States and had been issued a visa by the Canadian Consulate in Detroit only two hours earlier.
“No one told me why I was being detained,” said the 47-year-old religious leader and senior ranking finance officer in the Egyptian government, “I’m not a criminal. I have a valid visa. This is very upsetting.”
The imam, who was invited to participate in a fast-breaking function with Muslims in Toronto, was humiliated. “I was ordered to strip off all my clothes in front of an officer and told to use the toilet in front of an officer,” said Sheikh Ghoneim. His blood pressure pills and sinus medication also were taken from him.
According to Patrick Ducharme, who was retained by members of the Muslim community to act as the imam’s legal counsel, Shaikh Ghoneim was held for 24 hours before being released. Ducharme told the Washington Report that immigration officer Donna McNeil initially prevented him from being present when his client was being questioned. “I had to educate her about sections 10 and 52 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Ducharme. The Charter, which is part of the Canadian Constitution, guarantees an individual the right to counsel.
Ducharme said that in addition to McNeil, who initially told him that his client was detained for further questioning because “he may be a security risk,” an agent from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also participated in the interrogation. Ducharme said that the CSIS agent, Michel Guay, “did not ask him any questions about being a terrorist or discuss the reasons he was detained.” According to Ducharme, the agent was only concerned with “how the Egyptian government operated.” For example the agent asked:
- How does the Egyptian government treat public speakers?
- Have you ever been tortured?
- Does the government torture people who speak out in public?
- Has your family been tortured or have they suffered repercussions because you’re a speechmaker?
Muslims continue to be stereotyped as terrorists.
The imam was released after two hours of questioning and then told that he could go back to Detroit and apply for another visa. Upon his release, the imam met with members of the Canadian Muslim community in his lawyer’s office in Windsor and then went back to Detroit. When asked if he would come back, Sheikh Ghoneim said, “I don’t feel welcome here. If they didn’t want me why didn’t they just send me back to the U.S.? Why did they have to humiliate me?”
Ducharme, who has been practicing law for over 22 years, said that Canadian immigration authorities could not give him any credible answers as to why his client was detained. The lawyer told the Washington Report that he was left with the impression that an employee at Canada’s Detroit Consulate had made a mistake with Sheikh Ghoneim’s name when the visa was issued. McNeil told him specifically that Sheikh Ghoneim was detained because “our officer in Detroit entered the wrong last name, Mohamed and not Ghoneim.” She added that “I don’t want to say that he has done anything wrong but he should go back to Detroit and correct the situation.”
The very next day, however, manager Gerald Belanger of immigration ports of entry operations in Windsor told the Windsor Star that Sheikh Ghoneim was detained on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist groups.
“This is ludicrous,” commented Ducharme. “They are only trying to cover their tracks for their mistake.” The lawyer said he would ask the Canadian government to retract and apologize. In fact, Ducharme said, no suggestion of terrorist affiliation was made by anyone during the imam’s interrogation. If there had been any such suspicion, Ducharme said, then why was the sheikh allowed to leave with him unaccompanied after the interrogation? Why was he granted a visa? Why was he allowed to leave Canada? And how was it that U.S. authorities had allowed him to travel freely and speak all over the United States?
A number of Muslim organizations subsequently issued a joint statement calling on the Department of Immigration and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to disclose the reasons for Sheikh Ghoneim’s detention and to apologize to the imam and the Muslim community for this incident. They also are concerned about what they see as the unfair targeting of Muslims. The statement, endorsed by 11 major Muslim organizations including the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, Al-Shura and the Islamic Coordinating Council of Imams (Canada), said: “In the recent past, law-abiding innocent Muslims have been targeted by Canada’s Customs, Department of Immigration and CSIS for special scrutiny and investigation.”
In a meeting with members of the Muslim community in Toronto, Howard Hampton, leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP), demanded an apology from the Canadian government to the country’s Muslims. “This is no way to treat a guest or a religious leader of Canada’s largest religious community,” Hampton said. He noted that it was regrettable that this incident took place in the holy month of Ramadan. The NDP leader reached to the heart of Muslim concerns when he noted that Muslims continue to be stereotyped as terrorists.
Some Muslims are wondering what the situation of the average person would be if such a prominent Muslim cleric can be so mistreated with such impunity. MAYA hopes to ensure that this and other such instances in the future are opposed and challenged. El-Henawy said that his group plans to set up a fund to deal with such violations and encourages all those concerned with fundamental human rights to contribute.
Contributions may be sent to MAYA, 370 Huntington Ridge Road, Mississauga, Ontario, L5R 1P1, tel. (905) 890-2047, fax (905) 890-0995.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and free-lance writer.
Note: First Published: March 1998 Issue, Page 100
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