"They only arrested the Muhammads": Toronto Star story on the travails Pakistani students
Today's Toronto Star carries a front page feature story on the case of the
Pakistani students arrested in Toronto on August 14 and accused of being
part of a terrorist network.
Read and reflect.
Nov 30, 2003
"They only arrested the Muhammads"
23 students falsely labelled "terrorists"
Failed marriages, lost jobs left in wake
By MICHELLE SHEPHARD AND SONIA VERMA
The Toronto Star
When the motorbikes suddenly appeared on the deserted road, Khalid Jahinger
knew he was in trouble. He was near his home in Lahore, Pakistan, and forced
to stop his bike and then slowly dismount, thinking maybe this would be the
way it all ended. The four masked men wielding sticks and cricket bats
pushed Jahinger and gave him a few whacks before delivering the most
"You should have stayed in Canada," they yelled before driving away. "We
know you're a terrorist and if you go to the police, we'll kill you."
Jahinger says he then drove home. He didn't call anyone, worried that
reporting the attack would just attract unwanted attention.
In Canada, Jahinger is classified by officials with the Department of
Citizenship and Immigration and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as one of
23 Project Thread "targets."
He was the foreign student who triggered a massive multi-jurisdictional
investigation last January into a possible Al Qaeda sleeper cell in the
Toronto area. But what started out as a sensational terrorism case has
devolved into one of simple immigration fraud, with officials now backing
away from their initial claim that the men posed a threat to national
The men, however, continue to feel the aftershocks of the investigation.
In Pakistan, they live under the shadow of suspicion - marked men who are
unable to shake the terrorist label. Here in Canada, many struggle to
rebuild their lives.
Jahinger was the first Project Thread detainee to be deported, on Oct. 5,
for misrepresenting himself on his student visa. So far, 12 others have
followed. Those who remain here - nine Pakistani students and an Indian
pilot, all now released from an immigration detention centre on bonds - are
claiming refugee status to avoid such a fate.
In a series of interviews with Star reporters this month, the men both here
and in Pakistan revealed a series of problems they've encountered following
the terrorism allegations.
They talk about broken marriages and engagements. Most have lost their jobs
and worry about their prospects for future employment. Most are estranged
from their family and friends. They no longer feel free to travel.
Before their arrests, none of the 23 men had ever spent time in a prison,
and the weeks - or for some, months - spent behind bars with jeering inmates
and guards also took a psychological toll.
Amina Sherazee, a Toronto lawyer representing several of the claimants, says
their cases demonstrate how Canada's pursuit of terror suspects can sweep up
innocent bystanders. "The Canadian government has put them in this position.
In falsely labelling them as terrorists, they have created refugees out of
people who came here as students. Their nonchalance about this is absolutely
astonishing," she said.
"We deserve some answers and for someone to be held accountable," said Tarek
Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and host of the TV show
Muslim Chronicle. "If anything happens to these men, the blood is on our
But repeated attempts to interview a variety of RCMP and immigration
officials elicited either a "no comment" or a uniform answer. "It is still
an ongoing investigation and I know sometimes that puts us in a negative
light, which is unfortunate, but we make minimum comments for a reason and
that's to protect the integrity of the investigation," said RCMP Staff
Sergeant Paul Marsh.
Marsh said he has advised RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli not to give
interviews concerning Project Thread.
Zaccardelli has spoken only once about the case, at a Halifax conference
earlier this year, where he told reporters: "(There's) absolutely no
evidence to suggest that there's any terrorist threat anywhere in this
country related to this investigation."
Immigration officials are equally vague on the security allegations and will
only say that Project Thread was a success, since it "did reveal a clear
pattern of immigration fraud."
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre was "unavailable" to
comment this past week, a spokesperson said.
At the centre of the case lies Scarborough's Ottawa Business College,
attended by many of these men, who used school documents to extend their
The school occupied a second-floor space in a Markham Rd. office building.
The operation was run by Luther Samuel, who charged students $700 for an
acceptance letter for courses in computers and business. Thousands of
dollars in remaining tuition was payable in instalments.
The students were taught in six classrooms by a handful of professors.
Samuel kept irregular hours and often students would show up for class to
find the front doors locked.
If the students raised questions about the school's legitimacy, Samuel
brushed aside their fears. "He said the reason the school was so small was
because the main campus was downtown. I never thought the head of a college
would lie like that," recalled Fahim Kayani, one of the Pakistanis arrested.
The school was not registered and was found to be handing out documents
after its doors closed, so students who had relied on those documents for
their visas could be declared "inadmissible" to the country. New powers
granted under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which came into
effect in July, 2002, also allow authorities to prolong detainment when "the
minister is taking necessary steps to inquire into a reasonable suspicion
that they are inadmissible on grounds of security."
Those security allegations - contained in a four-page document submitted at
the hearings for these men - called the men a definable "group" because,
among other factors, they were of similar age, came from the Punjab province
in Pakistan (except for one), resided in "clusters," and many were in the
United States between May, 2001, and January, 2002. The document also stated
that some of the men had unexplained fires in their apartments or an
interest in Pickering's nuclear power plant.
One immigration representative labelled the "group" a sleeper cell for Al
More than 400 student files were seized from the Ottawa Business College,
but only 23 men were detained - prompting those accused to ask what happened
to the other students or the school's director, Samuel, who admitted to
fraudulently issuing documents but was never criminally charged.
"I guess we want to know why they only arrested the Muhammads," said
Muhammad Wali-U-Siddiqui. Many of the men maintain they were unaware the
school wasn't legitimate and that they attended classes while the college
was operating. For those who were aware, they were reluctant to talk to
authorities, fearing they'd lose their permits to study.
And while officials maintain Project Thread was about immigration fraud, the
men say hours of questioning by immigration and RCMP officials during their
detainment had little to do with the bogus school.
"They asked us where Osama bin Laden is," Mohammad Akhtar, one of the
accused men, recalled, shaking his head. "Then they said, `Is he alive or
dead?' I mean, how do I know where he is? I've never even been to
Other questions included: What is your definition of jihad? What do you
think of (U.S. President) George Bush? Do you approve of the Sept. 11, 2001
terrorist attacks on the U.S. and what do you think of the war in Iraq?
There were also religious questions: What mosque do you attend? How often do
you pray? Do you give money to the mosque and what charities do you support?
"It's part of the new national-security paranoid method of investigating,"
offered Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.
`It's depressing for me that it was so easy to forget about Project Thread.'
Tarek Fatah, Muslim spokesperson
Waldman is pushing for an inquiry into the case of his client, Maher Arar, a
33-year-old Syrian-born Canadian who was detained by American officials
during a stopover in New York on his way home from a family holiday in 2002.
The Americans, who suspected he had links with the Al Qaeda terrorist
network, ignored his demands to be sent to Canada and instead deported him
The telecommunications engineer spent almost a year in a Syrian prison,
where he says he was repeatedly tortured.
"We called for a public inquiry for Maher Arar because it's important for
everyone. It's not just about Maher, he's always said that; it's so that
this can't happen to anyone else," Waldman said. "The people of Project
Thread are just as much victims as Maher Arar is. It's a tragedy that so
very few people have raised their voices."
A small but committed group of academics, students, lawyers and other
Toronto residents has tried to garner attention about the detained men,
holding protests and weekly meetings. Calling themselves Project Threadbare,
they've marched with placards stating: "Being Pakistani is not a crime."
While the group is not disputing Canada's right to deport if a foreign
student is in violation of immigration provisions, it says that person
deserves a fair admissibility hearing and should not be labelled a terrorist
on what it calls racially biased evidence.
"To depict those people as criminals of the same calibre as people who go
around committing acts of violence on other people is a really inappropriate
way of thinking about them," said University of Toronto law professor Audrey
Macklin. "These people are being deported not because there is any evidence
of terrorism against them; they're being deported for immigration
violations. There is no link between those facts - which are, frankly, not
uncommon - and terrorism.
"To put it in other terms, just because you're a shoplifter doesn't make you
Despite the efforts of Project Threadbare, there has been almost no
political attention to the case, and a spokesperson with the Commission for
Public Complaints Against the RCMP, an independent federal agency, said
there haven't been any complaints.
Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress goes one step further, saying he
believes even the Muslim community ignored the plight of the students while
coming to the aid of other Muslims, such as Maher Arar and Hassan Almrei.
Almrei has been held without charge in a Toronto jail for more than two
years as a security threat.
"It's depressing for me that it was so easy to forget about Project Thread,"
Fatah said. "Another disillusion is that traditional leadership in the
Muslim community did not come forward."
Khalid Jahinger said it was through his application for permanent residency
that Project Thread was born.
He first arrived in Canada in December, 1998, landing in Nanaimo, B.C., to
attend school. After quickly finding the slow-paced coastal life too much of
a culture shock after leaving Lahore, he eventually moved to Toronto. He
studied computer and business courses at a variety of schools, including the
Ottawa Business College. He attended a few classes there before realizing
that the school was a fraud, so he moved on, eventually being accepted at
George Brown - Toronto City College and securing a student visa valid until
Since an application for permanent residency must be filed outside the
country where the person intends to live, Jahinger traveled to Mexico City
to meet immigration officials at the Canadian consulate. The interview went
well, he thought, but what he didn't know was that his bank account balance
of $40,000 and the reference to the Ottawa Business College troubled the
With a few calls to an anti-terrorism squad in Canada created in the wake of
Sept. 11, Project Thread was launched on her suspicions.
One day in May, Jahinger awoke to find immigration and RCMP officers in his
apartment and his roommates ordered to the ground. He explained that his
father had died of diabetes in 2002 and the large bank account in Pakistan
was his inheritance. He pleaded that he didn't have any terrorism ties.
Jahinger and one of his roommates, Aamir Nadeem, eventually spent five
months behind bars in a Northern Ontario immigration detention facility
before finally giving up the fight and asking to be sent home.
He was ordered deported and flown to Pakistan on Oct. 5.
Pakistani officials questioned him for eight hours upon arrival, a letter
from the Canadian consulate in Islamabad sitting on the table as they
interrogated him, he said. He was released when his brother posted bail.
Jahinger said in a telephone interview from his home last week that he was
reluctant to speak out, but the attack last Saturday convinced him to tell
his story for the first time. Life at 26, he feels, is now over.
"My family can support me here for awhile, there's no welfare in Pakistan.
I'm still jobless and trying my best," Jahinger said. "I appeared at an
interview, but as soon as they found out I was from Canada, they asked what
happened. I had to tell them. They didn't call back."