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"They only arrested the Muhammads": Toronto Star story on the travails Pakistani students

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, 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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 30, 2003
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      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.

      Tarek Fatah
      Nov 30, 2003

      "They only arrested the Muhammads"
      23 students falsely labelled "terrorists"
      Failed marriages, lost jobs left in wake

      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
      devastating blow.

      "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
      student visas.

      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
      to Syria.

      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
      a murderer."

      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
      July, 2004.

      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
      immigration officer.

      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."
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