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Abousfian Abdelrazik at home in Montreal, playing with his 6-year-old son, Kouteyba. (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)
Abousfian Abdelrazik at home in Montreal, playing with his 6-year-old son, Kouteyba. (Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail)

Human rights

CSIS notes reveal how Canadian was kept in exile Add to ...

In the summer of 2004, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was suddenly faced with a big problem. Abousfian Abdelrazik, the Canadian they suspected of having links to terrorists, was about to be set free after more than a year in prison in Sudan. Worse, from CSIS’s standpoint, he was headed home to Canada and the agency had no legitimate means to stop him.

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Hours after Sudanese security forces hauled Mr. Abdelrazik out of his Khartoum prison cell on July 20 and drove him to a police house to await a prearranged flight leaving on July 22, CSIS’s top counterterrorist chief in Ottawa was on the phone with the head of security at Transport Canada to discuss the matter.

Margin notes on CSIS documents related to the conversation, marked “Secret” and now in the possession of The Globe and Mail, highlight the fact that Mr. Abdelrazik was only on a U.S. no-fly list – insufficient to keep him from returning to Canada. It’s unclear what transpired during the conversation, but soon afterward both Air Canada and Lufthansa abruptly cancelled Mr. Abdelrazik’s ticket home. He would spend another five years in forced exile.

The “Canadian Eyes Only” documents also reveal for the first time officially that U.S. security agents wanted Mr. Abdelrazik shipped to Guantanamo Bay. If CSIS managed to delay Mr. Abdelrazik’s return in 2004, it had the effect of buying time while U.S. agents worked to render him to the notorious camp for suspected terrorists.

The Central Intelligence Agency “from the very beginning … have made it known that their preferred option, and one which they will attempt to negotiate with the Sudanese, is to transfer Abdelrazik to the Guantanamo Bay military facility in Cuba,” according to the CSIS document.

The revelations raise new questions about the scope and legality of CSIS operations abroad and its treatment of Canadian citizens. In the summer of 2004, Maher Arar had only recently returned to Canada after more than a year of torture and abuse in Syria. His $10-million compensation package, a public apology from a humiliated government and the resignation of the RCMP commissioner were still to come, but if there was one lesson Canada’s security services had learned from the Arar fiasco it was that getting caught helping the United States render people for torture abroad was a monstrous mistake and ruinous to their reputations.

The newly obtained documents could bolster Mr. Abdelrazik’s $27-million lawsuit against the Canadian government if CSIS is found to have actively thwarted Mr. Abdelrazik’s return or tried to help the CIA’s effort to achieve its “preferred option” of sending him to Guantanamo Bay.

Other government documents have already implicated CSIS in Mr. Abdelrazik’s arrest and imprisonment in Sudan in 2003 after he left Montreal for Khartoum, ostensibly to visit his sick mother. In a 2009 decision, Mr. Justice Russel Zinn of the Federal Court of Canada ruled Mr. Abdelrazik’s imprisonment in Khartoum resulted “either directly or indirectly from CSIS,” a finding the agency stridently denies, but opted not to challenge under oath in court.

In a series of written questions, CSIS was asked whether it blocked or attempted to delay Mr. Abdelrazik’s return in 2004 or at any other time, and if doing so would violate its mandate and Canadian law. The agency declined to reply. “CSIS does not publicly discuss specific operational interests or activities, including investigative methodology,” said Tahera Mufti, the agency’s spokeswoman. Unlike CSIS’s blunt\and repeated claim that it has never arranged for the arrest or imprisonment of Canadian citizens, including Mr. Abdelrazik, overseas, CSIS would offer no such assurance about blocking their return home.

After his 2004 flights were mysteriously cancelled, Mr. Abdelrazik ended up spending another five years in forced exile – more than two in prison and more than a year in the lobby of the Canadian embassy in Khartoum – while the Canadian government refused to give him a passport to fly home. Only after a court ruling did he return in 2009 to his children in Montreal.

The new documents, coupled with thousands of previously disclosed papers, reveal a nasty, long-running battle between CSIS and consular officials. In the spring and summer of that year, a bitter bureaucratic struggle was waged between Canadian diplomats and Canadian spies. “Cda speaks [out]of both sides of mouth” is the frank, handwritten margin note on one of the documents.

At the time of the flurry of activity between CSIS and Transport Canada, Canadian diplomats backed by the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa were helping Mr. Abdelrazik. They regarded it as their consular duty to assist a citizen imprisoned aboard. They knew Mr. Abdelrazik had never been charged with a crime, although he had been a target of CSIS surveillance for years. They knew his wife had bought him a ticket home via Frankfurt on Lufthansa and Air Canada. And they were getting ready to issue the temporary passport so he could return home, as is the constitutional right of every citizen. They had even assigned a diplomat to fly home with him as an escort – a strong hint that they knew just how badly Canadian and U.S. counterterrorism agencies wanted to spirit him off to Guantanamo.

But if Mr. Abdelrazik made it back to Canada, there was no chance the CIA could talk the Sudanese into handing him over or spirit him off to Guantanamo, so the problem facing CSIS in July of 2004 was both urgent and delicate. Mr. Abdelrazik was on the verge of release, he had a paid-for airline ticket for July 23 from Khartoum to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, connecting to an Air Canada flight home.

There’s no public record of the July 20, 2004, conversation between Charles Coghlin, then CSIS’s acting director-general of counterterrorism, and Transport’s Canada’s top security official at the time, David Guimond. But a careful reading of the CSIS documents confirms the basic points. Mr. Coghlin provided a lurid case that Mr. Abdelrazik posed a danger. Handwritten margin notes make clear that the U.S. no-fly list wasn’t enough to block Mr. Abdelrazik’s return.

But over the next 24 hours, both airlines suddenly decided to cancel Mr. Abdelrazik’s reservation. Lufthansa’s station manager in Khartoum unexpectedly called the Canadian embassy and said the airline wouldn’t carry him. Air Canada followed. Air Canada declined to respond to written questions, saying it doesn’t comment on security issues. Lufthansa has not responded to the same questions.

The raft of CSIS allegations against Mr. Abdelrazik remain unproven and untested in court. He has never been charged, in either Canada or Sudan. By November, 2007, CSIS admitted in a formal letter to cabinet that it had no objection to Mr. Abdelrazik’s ongoing attempts to be removed from the UN terrorist blacklist. By then, CSIS said it had “no current substantial information regarding Mr. Abdelrazik.” The RCMP delivered a similar letter. Those admissions of an empty file stand in stark contrast to the unproven but damning descriptions CSIS was circulating in the 2004 documents as they apparently sought to prevent his return. Then CSIS disparaged Mr. Abdelrazik as an al-Qaeda operative “completely devoted to Islamic extremism” seeking “to die a martyr’s death.” It said he had plotted to blow up airliners and claimed to have found traces of powerful plastic explosives in his car, but didn’t explain why that hadn’t led to an arrest.

Not until 2009, after the Federal Court ruled that Ottawa had violated Mr. Abdelrazik’s right to return, did Ottawa finally issue him a temporary passport and send an RCMP officer to escort him home from Khartoum. Even then, there were fears at the highest political levels in Ottawa that U.S. counterterrorism agencies might attempt to intercept the plane and divert Mr. Abdelrazik to Guantanamo.

Washington was alerted to “Canada’s intense interest in knowing whether the U.S. would actively or passively obstruct Abdelrazik’s boarding in Sudan or in subsequent connecting flights,” according to secret U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks dated only days before his return in June, 2009.

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