PHOTO: Mohamed Harket said it was a relief to be free after having his ankle bracelet removed, July 18, 2013. Photograph by: PAT McGRATH , THE OTTAWA CITIZEN
OTTAWA — Mohamed Harkat, the accused al-Qaida operative under the unwavering eye of Canada’s security services since 1995, has won more freedom.
Shortly after 8 o’clock Wednesday night in a government office near St. Laurent Boulevard, the 44-year-old Algerian had a GPS tracking bracelet unstrapped from his right ankle by a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer.
For the first time in seven years, Harkat can now walk, sleep and bathe without the bulky electronic surveillance device locked around his limb.
The Federal Court of Canada, in a decision made public Thursday, also gave him permission to own a basic cellphone with a capacity for incoming and outgoing calls and text messaging, an Internet-enabled desktop computer and permission to travel within Canada.
“Yesterday, I saw a sparkle in Mo’s eyes I hadn’t seen in a really, really long time, his face was just glowing,” Harkat’s wife, Sophie, said Thursday.
“He got up this morning feeling refreshed because he actually slept with his two ankles on top of each other rather than crossed. He’s been sleeping with crossed legs for the past seven years.”
The CBSA offered a restrained response Thursday. The federal government maintains Harkat poses a threat to national security and wants him deported.
“The CBSA respects the decision of the Federal Court and remains diligent in monitoring all persons, such as Mr. Harkat, who are under terms and conditions of release,” it said in an emailed statement.
Harkat has not viewed the Internet since at least 2002 when he was first jailed on what remains largely secret evidence under federal security certificate as a suspected al-Qaida terrorist.
After being released on a court order in 2006 and placed under virtual house arrest, he remained off-line as a condition of his bail release.
“He’s never been able to communicate with family (overseas) through email, he has no clue how big the Internet is. For him, it’s (going to be) so new,” said his wife.
The years of constraints have taken a toll: Harkat is under psychiatric care for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia. “He starts two hours every day plugged into the wall recharging the (GPS) unit,” said Matt Webber, Harkat’s lawyer. Harkat’s compliance with all of the bail restrictions, combined with the passage of time and the diminishing risk, left the court with little choice but to ease the restrictions, he said. Meanwhile, on Oct. 10, the Supreme Court of Canada is to hear a challenge of the security certificate system brought by Harkat, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning. His lawyers are to challenge the extreme secrecy of the process and the inability of accused people to see evidence being used against them. Harkat came to Canada as a refugee in 1995, He had been in Pakistan, where the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) alleges he once operated a guest house in the city of Peshawar for Islamic extremists travelling to Chechnya. CSIS monitored his activities upon his arrival and, for at least two years beginning in the fall of 1996, intercepted his telephone conversations. He was arrested in December 2002 on the strength of a security certificate, which accused him of being a sleeper agent for al-Qaida. Harkat remained in detention until June 2006, when he was released on strict conditions, including that he be in the company of a surety at all times, even inside his house. A 2009 CSIS assessment concluded Harkat’s alleged role in the international Islamic extremist movement prior to his arrival in Canada “appears to have been largely logistics and facilitation.” A CBSA threat assessment around the same time concluded the threat posed by Harkat has “diminished over time.” During a federal court hearing in June at which Harkat sought to have some of the restrictions eased, the CBSA also acknowledge Harkat had complied with the previous terms and conditions of his release. Federal Court Justice Simon Noël, in his reasons for order released Thursday, decided it is time to take the next step. “At the time that the first (security) certificate was filed, the danger assessed was high. The present danger is at the low end of the spectrum. This favours a further relaxation of the terms and conditions of release,” he wrote. “There was a time for house arrest, outings with strict supervision and then alone with a GPS and no computer access. The circumstances have changed. The initial danger has diminished considerably. Mr. Harkat has complied through time with the strict conditions. Conditions of release therefore have to be adapted to this new favourable reality for Mr. Harkat. “It is my assessment that the time for a GPS has passed. Since his marriage, Mr. Harkat has adapted to his new environment. He is a well-known person who has developed a stable relationship and new friends. He owes a lot to his family and friends, and he is not in a position to disappoint them by breaching any of the remaining conditions of release. The consequences for him are too important.” With that, Justice Noël also eased Harkat’s travel conditions, allowing him to travel anywhere in Canada provided he gives five working days’ notice and his itinerary to the CBSA. Once a month, Harkat will be required to take his new desktop computer to the CBSA to allow officials to review his online browsing history. He also will continue to make a weekly check-in visit to the CBSA. Sophie Harkat, too, for the first time in years will be allow to use a cellphone and computer in the couple’s east-side home, provided it’s for her exclusive use. © Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen