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Non-Status Quo

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Issue: 35 Section: Features Geography: Canada Montreal, ottawa Topics: migration, NOII

March 23, 2006

Non-Status Quo

Years after being brutally arrested, ten non-status Algerians and two supporters are found not guilty

by Gordie Warnoff

Protesters were Tasered and beaten during arrests almost three years ago. photo CMAQ
"This is a coup," said defense lawyer Yavar Hameed after the non-guilty verdict of 10 non-status Algerians and two supporters was announced in an Ottawa courtroom on February 24th. The group was brutally arrested in May 2003 for occupying the immigration minister's office.

Besides being an obvious right in a free and democratic society -- the judgment -- says Hameed proves that it is not a crime to peacefully wait for a public official in his waiting room. The subtext of the Crown's position was that the broader activities of the Action Committee on Non-Status Algerians in Canada are disruptive and unlawful, says Hameed. The court's decision puts these suggestions to rest. Because all of the accused were acquitted, Hameed continues, the excessively violent and abusive arrests will now become a matter of even greater public concern and scrutiny. In cases like these, the polices' broad powers of arrest lose credibility in the eyes of the public and the courts, he says.

On May 29th, 2003, a delegation of non-status Algerians and their supporters from Montreal were waiting in the lobby of the immigration office in Ottawa. The group was delivering a letter outlining the plight of non-status Algerians in Canada and requesting a personal appointment with the minister and a just solution to those facing deportation to Algeria , a country still marked by extrajudicial killings and civil strife. Because Denis Coderre, then Minister of Immigration, had personally intervened in the past to address the situation of non-status Algerians in Canada, the accused were hopeful that they could secure an appointment with the Minister. They had been there 10 hours when the Ottawa Police Services tactical unit moved in.

A police video shows the police leaping over cubicles, choking protesters, twisting arms, using Taser guns, and insulting the non-status Algerians and their supporters. The police punched out one man's tooth and scarred several others with Taser burns and gashes from beatings. Most of the accused were French-speaking, yet the police shouted profanities and instructions in English. Those arrested were charged with "mischief under $5000" and released from jail the next day.

Crown attorney David El Hadad attempted to prove that by waiting in the lobby, the group was distracting government workers and thereby preventing them from doing work. This, argued the Crown, constituted mischief. After three years of adjudication the judge ruled that it did not.

The trial "stopped my immigration case," says Tarik Abderrahim, one of the accused. "Over the last three years, there has been so much stress." As a non-status Algerian, Abderrahim has faced many barriers to establishing himself in Canada. "Two years ago, I wanted to go to school to study to be a machinist," he explains, "but I can't because I have no papers." Working, studying or receiving social support is almost impossible for anyone in Canada who is not recognized by the government as having status.

"I hope and pray [achieving permanent status] will be faster now," says Abderrahim. If found guilty, Abderrahim would likely have been deported to Algeria.

Human Rights Watch estimates that over 100,000 people have been killed and over 7,000 disappeared in Algeria over the last decade. Several thousand Algerians fleeing state torture and execution have come to Canada seeking asylum.

Canada put a moratorium on deportations to Algeria in March 1997, recognizing that Algeria was not a safe country for people to be deported to. The moratorium was lifted in April 2002 on the heels of then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's trip to Algeria where he was seeking business contracts. Groups like the Action Committee For Non-Status Algerians argue that the moratorium was not lifted because Algeria had become a safer place, but to benefit Canadian corporations. In April 2002, for example, just after the moratorium ended, SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based engineering firm and arms manufacturer was awarded a $150 million contract by the Algerian ministry of water resources.

The Action Committee For Non-Status Algerians has been organizing out of Montreal for several years. After the moratorium on deportations to Algeria was lifted, they launched a hugely successful campaign that resulted in Immigration Canada introducing a special program through which 89 per cent of non-status Algerian applicants were granted status in Canada. Their efforts continue and the group demands a speedy regularization of all non-status Algerians, an end to deportations and a return of the moratorium.

On February 24th, over 70 people crammed into a small Ottawa courtroom for the verdict; people perched on laps and supporters poured out the back doors. The court finally decided to move the verdict announcement upstairs into a larger room--one that required the police to search everyone with metal detectors. The crowd was evenly split between carloads of Montrealers and Ottawa supporters--all of whom stood up and cheered when the verdict was announced. Chanting, applause, embraces and flower offerrings followed the verdict.

Hameed says the victory is significant because it reveals that despite the fact that the group was being peaceful and lawful, it was met with an excessive police response. That leaves the door open to the conclusion that the accused suffered cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of police," says Hameed. The cases implications will "give good direction for the future."

Nourdine Belhadj certainly hopes so. He is one of the acquitted and has been waiting to receive his status for eight years. "It will make everything easier now," he hopes. "Now they don't have any reason to say 'no.'"

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