Mohammad Mahjoub is hoping for an end to his lengthy detention after a major court victory this week, but the impact on his personal life has been devastating.
On Monday evening, Mohammad Mahjoub was at home when one of his lawyers, Yavar Hameed, called to give him some good news: a Federal court had removed most of the conditions of his house arrest. This meant the 51-year-old Egyptian refugee, who has now spent nearly a quarter of his life in detention without charges under a federal security certificate, would soon be able to remove the GPS tracking device he wears on his ankle, own a cell phone, and access the internet. The federal judge who removed those conditions ruled that any threat Mahjoub posed to society “has significantly decreased” over the last year.
“I was home and I was preparing some food for myself, then I received a call from my lawyer,” Mahjoub told us Tuesday night at the Toronto premiere of “Doctors of the Dark Side,” a documentary that examines the role of doctors in cases of U.S. government-sponsored torture. Mahjoub—who was himself once detained and tortured by agents of the government of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak—was a guest speaker at the screening.
There was a time during his house arrest when Mahjoub, rather than preparing a meal for himself, might have been making food for his wife and sons. Today, after 12 years of detention as a suspected “Islamic terrorist,” Mahjoub is divorced, and has not seen his children in over two years. He was initially detained by Canada’s federal government because he was suspected of being a member of a terrorist group with links to Osama bin Laden.
“To be honest with you, I’m very very affected, mentally, emotionally, about my situation,” Mahjoub told us in the lobby of Bloor Cinema before the screening. “I went to detention in 2000. My two little boys, one of them was two and a half years, the other was a few months old…they grew up without their dad. They don’t know exactly what ‘dad’ means for them.”
Mahjoub recounted something horrifying that happened while one of his young sons was visiting him at the West Toronto Detention Centre: “The eldest one, the first time when he saw me behind the glass, because he can’t touch me, he started hitting his head on the glass,” Mahjoub said.
Mahjoub’s family’s trauma did not end when, in 2007, he was transferred to house arrest at his Toronto home. He said of his children, “It was very difficult for them to accept me as a dad…they didn’t grow up with me.” Mahjoub described what he called the “double role” of his wife and eldest stepson, who lived with him. “At the same time, they played as jailer,” he said, “because they can’t leave me alone at home.” Mahjoub claims that during his house arrest, officials with the Canada Border Service Agency tracked his family’s every move, even when he wasn’t with them.
The bail conditions proved so strenuous that, in 2009, a frustrated Mahjoub convinced officials to return him to prison. This drastic move ultimately led to his separation from his wife, and eventual estrangement from his children. “Finally, my family broke down completely,” Mahjoub told us. “My kids didn’t feel secure…my wife gave up.” Mahjoub made it clear that he holds the CBSA and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) responsible for his domestic strife.
Mahjoub’s decision to go back to jail is particularly striking given that he was returned to the Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, a facility dubbed “Gitmo North” for its tight quarters, regular strip searches, and lack of medical treatment for prisoners. He went on several hunger strikes to protest those conditions. The facility was ultimately closed at the end of 2011.
Tuesday’s packed movie theatre, with its buttered popcorn scent and buzz of anticipation, is one of countless small pleasures that had been forbidden to Mahjoub these past dozen years. But he seemed relaxed, even as he spoke of his connection with the film’s theme of torture. “It is not justifiable to torture someone and to use his or her word against other people,” he said. “CSIS is still, until today, relying on information obtained by torture.” Former Conservative public safety minister Stockwell Day seemed to confirm this last year in court while discussing evidence the federal government had used against Mahjoub himself.
Mahjoub said a judge’s decision to remove the most severe restrictions of his house arrest indicates to him that he’s won his case. “[It] gave me a signal the case is over,” he said. “And CSIS and CBSA, they lost the case already.” But he’ll have to wait at least a few more months for a ruling on the validity of the security certificate that has changed his life forever. He smiled as he told us of his plans to ride underground transit, an activity the court prohibited during his ordeal. “I will take the subway soon, insha’Allah [that is, God willing],” Mahjoub grinned. “CSIS and CBSA, they claim they can’t track me while I’m underground…I doubt it.”
Mahjoub credits his steadfast adherence to Islam—which has been used by the government to bolster its dwindling case against him—as a source of strength. “I believe in Allah,” he said, “this is a test from Allah to me. I have to be patient. Whether you are angry or not doesn’t change the subject, doesn’t change the circumstance. If you believe in justice, even if there is no justice, you have to fight to the end. If you start something, don’t give up. This is my strategy.”