APRIL 29, 2016
There is a dangerous radiological threat to the West Coast of the United States that puts the health of millions of Americans at risk. It includes dangers to public health, dangers to the food supply, and dangers to future generations from long-lived radionuclides, including some of the most toxic material in the world. It is not Fukushima, it is Hanford. While radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns is reaching the West Coast, carried across the ocean from Japan, the radiation from Hanford is already there, has been there for 70 years, and is in serious risk of catastrophe that could dwarf the effects of Fukushima even on Japan.
Hanford, on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington State, is the site where the United States produced the majority of its plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. These tens of thousands of American nuclear weapons were built as an end product of the high levels of plutonium production at Hanford. The first three nuclear reactors on Earth were built at Hanford, with a total of nine nuclear power plants being built there eventually. Nuclear power plants operated for ten years in this world before they were ever used to generate electricity. Electricity is a secondary purpose for nuclear power plants, they were designed and built as plutonium manufacturing plants.
Hanford was the first of these plutonium production sites. The two worst radiological disasters (besides nuclear weapon detonations) in the first four decades of the Atomic Age were accidents at the plutonium production sites of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, both in 1957. Military plutonium production sites remain among the most contaminated sites on Earth. During the period of operation more than 67 metric tons of plutonium were manufactured at Hanford. Hanford is home to 60% (by volume) of all of the high level radioactive waste stored in the United States. Nearly 80% of the Department of Energy’s inventory of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored just 400 yards away from the Columbia River. (Statistics taken from Physicians for Social Responsibility webpage)
Here is a very brief review of some of the worst impacts and dangers at the Hanford Site.
The Green Run
In December 1949 the United States deliberately released an immense amount of radiation into populated areas at the Hanford Site during the notorious Green Run. It was the largest intentional release of radiation conducted by the U.S. government. While nuclear testing in Nevada exposed many people to significant amounts of radiation, this was a byproduct of the desire to test weapons. In the Green Run the intention was specifically to release the radiation into the Hanford area. The Green Run was conducted in reaction to the test of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in Kazakhstan several months earlier. The first indications that the Soviets had successfully tested a nuclear weapon came when sensors at Hanford picked up the radiation several days later. It was decided to release radiation “similar” to that of the Soviet test to develop and hone detection equipment and better analysis of the Soviet program.
After the end of World War Two the U.S. method of processing the plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel rods involved “maturing” the rods, or letting them cool for approximately 100 days to allow short-lived nuclear isotopes (like iodine-131) to decay. Kate Brown has a detailed discussion of the decisions that eventually led to extending this maturing period at Hanford during this time in her pivotal book, Plutopia. The U.S. assumed that in their rush to produce nuclear weapons as quickly as possible the Soviets were “short-cooling” their plutonium being manufactured at the Mayak Complex, and thus processing the plutonium before these short-lived radionuclides had decayed. The Green Run was a plan to mimic this and process plutonium that had not cooled for 100 days, but instead had cooled only a few weeks and was, hence, “green.” To increase the ability of the radiation detection equipment in the area, and on the airplanes that participated, the filters at the plutonium processing plants that specifically filtered out iodine-131 were turned off for the 12-hour duration of the Green Run.
As bad as this deliberate release of radiation into the downwind communities was, things did not go as planned. The intended amount of iodine-131 to be released was dwarfed by the actual release, which was double what was anticipated. While scientists imagined they would then be tracking a coherent cloud as it moved away from the site, the resulting radiation dispersed throughout a vast area stretching across much of Washington State and into Southern Oregon. Concentrations were found in valleys and lowlands as the radiation distributed irregularly. Internalizing iodine-131 is a direct cause of thyroid cancer.
EPA map of iodine-131 distribution following the Green Run showing both heavy dose area and total distribution
The Tank Farms
Few things pose as great a threat to public health at Hanford than the Tank Farms. The Tank Farms are 177 single and double shelled waste storage tanks sited at two different locations on the Hanford complex. In the early days at Hanford, when plutonium for nuclear weapons was separated from the spent nuclear fuel, the leftover uranium from the process was stored in these tanks. Over the years a wide range of the highest level radioactive and chemical wastes were dumped into these tanks. According to the State of Washington the 177 tanks hold 53 million gallons of the highest level radioactive waste existing in the United States. 67 of the single shelled tanks have leaked over 1 million gallons of this highly radioactive waste which is migrating through the soil and groundwater into the Columbia River. In 2011 the Department of Energy emptied the contents of many of the leaking single shelled tanks into double shelled tanks, however the design of the double shelled tanks was found to be flawed, resulting in further leaks.
A section of the Tank Farms at Hanford. Photo: D0E.
Dealing with the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste is a multi-billion-dollar effort designed to manage the waste by 2050, or roughly 100 years after it was first manufactured. Currently almost nothing has yet been accomplished towards this goal besides the paying out of the contracts to design plans and begin the construction of the “Vitrification Plant” that is intended to encase the waste in glass. In recent years’ numerous whistleblowers have come forward from among Hanford employees to describe the flawed design and safety protocols of the Vit Plant. Most of these whistleblowers have been fired by the contractors running the Hanford cleanup. One, Walter Tamosaitis, the research and technology manager of the Vit Plant, was vindicated and awarded $4.3M to settle his wrongful termination suit, however other whistleblowers have been dismissed from their positions since that award. While the liquid waste has been extracted from the tanks the remaining high level waste in the tanks remains largely untreated.
Hanford employees who work maintaining the Tank Farms have suffered serious and unexplained health problems in recent years. Each year numerous workers have been exposed to “vapors” and have become sick or lost consciousness and required hospitalization. Many have suffered ongoing health problems as a result of these exposures. In 2014 over 40 workers suffered from such exposures including a two-week period in late March that saw 26 workers hospitalized. According to KGW news in Portland, a 1997 study conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory warned that workers exposed to vapors from specific tanks would have significantly increase risk of cancers and other serious diseases, but the conclusions of this report “were never made public, shared with Hanford workers or members of the federally chartered Hanford Advisory Board.”
On 29 September 1957 a tank containing waste similar to the waste in the Hanford Tank Farms exploded at the Mayak plutonium production site in the former Soviet Union, known as the Kyshtym Disaster. The cooling system for one of the tanks at the Mayak site failed and the temperature inside the tank rose eventually causing a chemical explosion that sent a radioactive cloud for over 350 km downwind and heavily contaminated an area near the plant with catastrophic levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90. This was one of the worst radiological disasters in human history at the time, and remained so, along with the fire three weeks later inside a nuclear reactor core at the Windscale facility (now called Sellafield) in Cumbria in the United Kingdom, until the Chernobyl meltdown and explosion in 1987. The Kyshtym Disaster, which a Soviet study concluded resulted directly in 8,000 deaths (not to mention illnesses) was the consequence of an explosion in one tank. At Hanford there are currently 177 such tanks, each containing similar disastrous potential, and located beside one another.
Contaminations and Dangers
The EPA has identified between 1,500-1,200 specific sites on the Hanford grounds where toxic or radioactive chemicals have been dumped. The ambiguity of that number speaks volumes about the lack of record keeping and functional data for addressing these problems. If plans for remediation of the waste in the Tank Farms at the Hanford Site are carried out as intended, there remains massive contamination of the soil and groundwater under the site, leeching into the Columbia River and surrounding countryside. That is if things go well. Things could go badly. The Kyshtym Disaster shows the dangers of an explosion in one of the tanks storing waste such as that stored in the 177 tanks at the Hanford Tank Farms. An incident in which multiple tanks experience problems could be catastrophic beyond our imagination. What’s more, there is not effective containment or security at the Tank Farms to face the threats of current times. While the countries around the world worry about the dangers of flying airplanes or drones into nuclear power plants, or of cyber attacks on the power supplies to such plants, those sites have at least some effective containment around the toxic materials they hold. The Tank Farms are open air and unshielded. The amount of deadly radiological materials contained in these tanks is far beyond that contained at any single nuclear site in the United States.
Hanford is Here, Fukushima is There
The triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi was a horrible disaster that has released massive amounts of radiation into the environment. The daily passage of tons of water through the watershed below the plants where the melted nuclear cores (corium) sit smoldering will continue to release radiation into the ocean for decades to come. The health toll that this will take, especially on the children of Northern Japan is horrifying. Already a much higher than expected incidence of thyroid cancers have been reported in area youth. This is the first of the cancers to present and is the tip of the iceberg of health impacts on those in the area. The release of long lived radionuclides such as cesium-137 and uranium into the ecosystem presents dangers to people all around the world as these particles cycle through the biosphere. But the largest and most tragic impacts of Fukushima will be on people in Japan. The plumes from the explosions of March 2011 deposited the bulk of their fallout within a few hundred kilometers of the plants. Radiation from the regular releases of contaminated water into the ocean, and the passage of groundwater across the corium will continue to bring radioactive particles into the Pacific Ocean where they will work their way up the food chain much as the fallout deposited by atmospheric nuclear testing did in the Pacific during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of that radiation is reaching the West Coast of the U.S., and this will continue as long as the site hemorrhages contaminated water into the ocean, which will likely be for some decades. This disaster should not be discounted. But it should also be remembered that it is the people of Japan, and specifically the children of Japan who live in the areas where the fallout plumes deposited that face the direst of these consequences.
There is currently a great deal of awareness about the arrival of Fukushima radiation on the West Coast. There are many people who say they will not eat fish from the Pacific Ocean, or eat food from Japan. At the same time, there is no discussion about eating Salmon from the Columbia River, drinking wines from the Columbia Valley, or fruit from the orchards that fill the downwind area around Hanford. The amount of radiation in the Hanford area dwarfs the amount arriving on the West Coast of the United States on a scale that is mindboggling. What is arriving from Fukushima is the result of the meltdowns of three nuclear cores, and it is crossing an ocean. What is stored at Hanford and leeching into the Columbia is resultant from 2/3rds of the high level nuclear waste of the United States, and is from production that began decades before Fukushima was built. This is not just contamination that is arriving today, or this year, it has been saturating the groundwater and ecosystem of the Northwest for more than 70 years.
Furthermore, the impacts from Hanford are not only what may happen, but what has already happened. Hanford downwinders have suffered generations of cancers and other diseases across a wide area of Eastern Washington and beyond. There is a legacy of death and illness that spans generations downwind from Hanford, and the source of those diseases percolates away in the tanks and waste sites that sit along the Columbia River, spreading deeper into the surrounding ecosystem. The radiation from Fukushima may slowly seep across the vast Pacific, while at Hanford we have the threat of a radiological explosion or terrorist act that could release volumes more radiation than was released by Fukushima and deposited in Japan any day of any week, and spread radiation across the West Coast and mountain west.
By all means we should be vigilant and monitor the levels of Fukushima radiation that arrives on the West Coast of the United States, while remembering that the most profound victims of Fukushima are children living near the site. But we should turn our attention and concerns to the radioactive wound that seeps radiation into the ecosystem of the American and Canadian West every day and threatens it with a radiological disaster that would dwarf the worst that Fukushima has done even in Japan. Stand up for Hanford whistleblowers. Demand transparency on waste management practices and plans at Hanford. Stand up for the health of Hanford workers who are being exposed to dangerous vapors in their workplace. And demand support and compensation for the downwind families and workers whose health and wellbeing has been devastated by the most radioactive site in the United States.
Robert (Bo) Jacobs is a historian at the Hiroshima Peace Institute and Graduate School of Peace Studies at Hiroshima City University. He has written and edited multiple books and articles on nuclear history and culture including, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age, and Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future: Art and Popular Culture Respond to the Bomb. He is a founder and a principal researcher of the Global Hibakusha Project, studying radiation exposed communities around the world. His book, Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha, will be published by Yale University Press in 2022. His Global Hibakusha blog can be found here.
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Sadly, the BPI is not able to organize an event this year but we do look forward to the opportunity next year. We are posting this announcement of some international events. If you are able to attend any of them, please do so. Or at the very least add your thoughts to those who are able to gather to stop the madness of nuclear weapons on August 6th and 9th.
|Following an appeal to members to send us information on events to mark Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days 2021, here’s a parial list that we have compiled of events received:|
|Events around the world and online|
|Peace Memorial Ceremony Live Stream Japan and online 6 August, 6:50 to 8:50 (JST) Watch the ceremony from Hiroshima on this link: https://www.city.hiroshima.lg.jp/site/english/175828.html The 2021 World Conference against A and H Bomb Japan and online 2-9 August, 2021 “With the Hibakusha, Let Us Achieve a Nuclear Weapon-free, Peaceful and Just World – for the Future of the Humankind and Our Planet” http://www.antiatom.org/english/ A minute’s silence during the Olympic Games to remember the victims of nuclear weapons In an effort to have at least a small, but significant, gesture for peace included at these Olympics, Tadatoshi Akiba, former Mayor of Hiroshima has appealed to the IOC to hold a minute of silence on August 6 in commemoration of the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and in support of a nuclear-weapon-free world.|
You can support the appeal as an individual (appeal in Japanese) or as an organization (appeal in English). Peace Wave 2021 International Actions around the world, from New Zealand to California http://www.antiatom.org/english/world_conference/peacewave.html International Fast to Commemorate Hiroshima-Nagasaki International 6-9 August, 2021 Vigils, workshops, speeches and demonstrations in support of the International Fast are being planned currently in France, Germany, New Zealand, Togo, U.K. and U.S.A, on the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th August 2021. Call of the international fasters can be found: http://tridentploughshares.org/call-of-the-international-groups-of-fasters-2021/ Hiroshima/Nagasaki Week in Massachusetts Massachusetts, USA 2-9 August, 2021 https://masspeaceaction.org/76-years-after-hiroshima-and-nagasaki-a-call-in-memory-and-hope/ Tri-Valley CAREs “Nuclear Weapons and Climate Change” United States 6 and 9 August, 2021 We invite you to participate in a virtual rally with Daniel Ellsberg, Nobuaki Hanaoka, Nell Myhand, Tsukuru Fors, John Burroughs, Marylia Kelley, Marshallese climate activists and more! Betsy Rose and Benjamin Mertz will provide the music. You will find more info, links, and bios in the link below. http://trivalleycares.org/new/Join-Us-on-August-6th-and-9th.html Physicians for Social Responsibility calendar of events USA and online August 2021 https://www.psr.org/get-involved/upcoming-events/ Citizen Festival “Disarm to live” Saintes, France 6 – 9 August, 2021 Concerts, conferences, debates, films, exhibitions… https://www.acdn.net/spip/spip.php?article1252&lang=en Memorial events in Germany Germany August 2021 From the website of the Network of the German Peace Movement https://www.friedenskooperative.de/termine/hiroshimatag Memorial event in Austria Vienna 6 August Memorial for the victims of the military and economic usage of nuclear materials http://www.hiroshima.at/ Memorial events in Spanish Online 5/6 and 8/9 August (depending on time zone) Events organised by the Sadako Foundation. Register to participate in Spanish language ceremonies here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdpY73vTdpKI0l37Flj4-QrAuJ83itRQ1zDCRsVOx3IvG7Drw/viewform Events in the United Kingdom Online and in person August 2021 CND’s events calendar can be found here: https://cnduk.org/events/
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His Own Private Stasi: How Canada’s Police State Occupies the Harkat Home
When Ottawa-based refugee Mohamed (Moe) Harkat tries to enjoy the quintessentially Canadian experience of visiting a family cottage, he has to stage an elaborate dance to satisfy the requirements of one of the most intrusive and insidious state interventions into anyone’s private life in Canadian history.
Each day spent at the cottage, Moe has to check in with a surveillance team of officers from the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), who have been following him since 2006. That’s when Moe was transferred to the strictest house arrest conditions in Canadian history after being held 3.5 years without charge on secret state security allegations he has never been allowed to see, much less contest.
The dystopian dance works like this: three times a day, Moe walks out of the cottage and up a hill. Parked at the top of the hill is a car with dark-tinted windows, and inside are two fully-kitted CBSA officers (bullet proof vests, weapons at the ready) who sit there all day to confirm he is at the cottage. He waves at them and they wave back. Moe heads into town to search for a pay phone — never easy to find in an age dominated by the cell phone — because he has to “report in” from a landline. Once at that pay phone, he calls the guys in the surveillance car he waved to a few minutes earlier, to confirm he is at the cottage. They thank him, he hangs up the phone, drives back to the cottage, waves at the men in the surveillance vehicle he just called to confirm he is at the cottage, and tries to relax from this maddening bit of spirit-breaking repression. He has to do this two additional times that day. It’s a cruel exercise straight out of the legendary film Cool Hand Luke, where such repetitive, degrading punishments are meant to make someone’s “mind right.”
This is but a fraction of the daily repression faced by the Harkat’s, who married in 2001 and had never heard of International Human Rights Day until Moe was arrested on that landmark occasion, December 10, 2002.
As self-described human rights superhero and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler proudly rose in the House of Commons that day to bloviate about the Magna Carta, “the lifeblood of a democracy,” the “right to life, liberty and security of the person,” and celebrations of “not only of who we are but what we aspire to be.”
Moe wasn’t exactly basking in the self-congratulatory glow of the foggy platitudes that normally pepper the House floor with a nauseating odour. Instead, he had entered a made-in-Canada twilight zone, a darkened room in which any attempt to brighten his surroundings meant an endless search for a light switch that had long ago been removed.
In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the “security certificate” regime under which Moe had been held was unconstitutional, but in a page out of Kafka’s The Trial, Ottawa simply reworded the state security allegations against Moe, and has carried on with its persecution of him ever since.
The Supreme Court heard another challenge to the endless violation of Harkat’s rights in 2014, but in a poorly written, illogical decision, reversed itself from its 2007 findings and upheld the star chamber proceedings. That judicial rubber stamp opened the door to the current proceedings designed to deport Moe to torture in Algeria.
Having lived with such a collection of multi-layered traumas would make relaxing at the cottage a significant challenge under the best of circumstances. But added to the fear and trauma faced by Moe and his wife Sophie is the permanent insertion of a surveillance regime reminiscent of the Stasi (the notorious former East German secret police) that operates like a nightmare from George Orwell’s novel 1984.
In day-to-day terms, that humiliating regime involves constant attacks on Moe and Sophie’s dignity, including things most of us take for granted: the ability to use a laptop, purchasing a cell phone, making a U-turn without being reported to the police, getting a job that does not need pre-approval from the CBSA, not having to explain to neighbours why unmarked (but clearly obvious) police cars are constantly parked outside of their residence. The CBSA has Moe’s online passwords so it can check his email account and log any websites he visits.
Moe was held first in solitary confinement for over a year in 2003 at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. He was designated a terror suspect by an alarmist media that was willing to take Moe’s accuser, the scandal-plagued spy agency Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), at their word. Long before Harkat’s arrest, CSIS was well known for exaggerating the scale of alleged threats (documented for years by the Security Intelligence Review Committee) , withholding exculpatory information, acting on information from torture, and relying on the word of untrustworthy informants who failed lie detector tests and sometimes engaged in sexual relations with their CSIS handlers (as Moe was later to learn occurred in his own case).
Moe was denied a toothbrush for 10 days, prevented from walking and breathing fresh outdoor air for six months, not able to shave or enjoy any reading material (not even a Koran) for over four months, allowed only one shower per week, and prevented from any contact visits with Sophie. The only human touch he knew was a violent one: strip searches and handcuffing.
He was then transferred to the infamous “Guantanamo North” compound in Kingston, ON, where other Muslim men subject to “security certificates” were also held under brutal conditions. These led to lengthy hunger strikes and protests that became the focus of then prime minister Paul Martin’s cabinet meetings and intensive House of Commons debates. At that time, it seemed like anything would be better than the indefinite, arbitrary detention these detainees and their families were suffering.
The prison moves in
In June, 2006, Moe was transferred to a house arrest regime that moved the prison to his home, and made his wife, Sophie, both captive and jail guard. As a “surety,” Sophie had to promise the Federal Court that she would monitor every move Moe made and ensure his compliance with a lengthy list of degrading conditions. If Moe wanted to start up the barbecue, he could not go outside unless Sophie went outside first and monitored his walk outdoors. He was forced to wear an uncomfortable GPS monitoring unit strapped to his leg for almost 8 years, and had to pay for a phone line connected to the system. He was not allowed to ever be alone inside or outside the home. In what could only have felt like the most humiliating infantilization, Moe had to apply in advance for his allowed three weekly “outings,” which could include doctor’s visits, groceries, or anything else that was subject to final approval by a CBSA bureaucrat who had the power to arbitrarily deny any outing.
When Moe and Sophie’s “outings” were approved, they could only last four hours, and they would be closely followed by clearly identified CBSA officers who, in all of their gear, looked just like police officers. This ensured all onlookers that the Harkat’s were a source of suspicion. Any minute beyond four hours could lead to an allegation of breached conditions and a return to prison. The notion of an evening out for dinner and a movie — again, taken for granted by so many — would necessitate ensuring the movie was under a certain length, the restaurant had fast service, and enough sureties were available to accompany the couple so someone could monitor Moe in the event Sophie had to use a public restroom. Eventually, in its magnanimity, the Federal Court did allow Moe and Sophie to use public washrooms and change rooms, but only as long as they went into them together.
Staying in was no picnic either. Two surveillance cameras were installed inside the couple’s home to monitor entrances. All of their mail and phone calls were intercepted by CBSA (including solicitor-client calls, which CBSA regularly recorded despite this clear violation); no wireless devices were allowed; Sophie had to keep her computer under lock and key; the couple were the subject of a curfew; and any visitors to the house required pre-approval from the CBSA. In practice, that meant no one with uncertain immigration status or who came from a country with a secret police would be comfortable visiting the Harkat’s. Among those the Harkat’s needed to submit for visitor approval were a newborn nephew and Sophie’s 80-year-old grandmother.
CBSA would call at all hours of the night if the GPS were not working or show up at their door. They parked for hours in front of the Harkat home and also on their personal driveway. Many of their immigrant neighbours were fearful of the Harkat’s as a result, and several filed complaints or ended up calling police with their concerns about the sinister-looking, dark-tinted vehicles always idling their motors.
No birthdays for Moe
When Moe turned 40, a church basement birthday party was organized with 80 people, all of whom submitted their biographical details to the CBSA. All were approved, but Moe was still denied entry because attending his own birthday party was deemed “too political.” Instead, he had a more modest supper with Sophie’s mother, followed to and from the restaurant by 4 CBSA vehicles and 8 officers.
On a number of occasions, officers raided the house, usually in advance of a court review where the Harkat’s sought to remove some of these conditions. One of those searches was deemed illegal by the Federal Court: Sophie was in the shower at the time as 16 CBSA officers, two Ottawa police, and three RCMP agents with sniffer dogs conducted a massive operation, the fruits of which they were forced to return.
One summer, Sophie’s mother was kicked out of a campground after CBSA entered and told the property manager that a “terrorist” would be visiting the site.
Maintaining a two-decade relationship under such circumstances is, needless to say, tense. Often, Moe tries to over-compensate, doing things to ensure he is seen by those surveilling him to reassure them he is in compliance with his conditions. Whenever family are gathered, Sophie says she gets upset with Moe, because he is constantly reminding everyone of the conditions he has to follow.
“He’s reminding people constantly,” Sophie told the Federal Court in 2017.
“It’s a headache. It’s a source of conflict between the two of us. Try to go out and have fun when you have two CBSA agents following you. I’m upset or he’s upset.”
Federal Court rubber stamps racism
Despite all these indignities and rights violations, the judges hearing Harkat’s appeals for some basic human decency continue buying into the racist myths that underlie a deeply embedded Canadian hatred of Muslims.
Indeed, the degrading conditions are based on the racist notion of Super Muslim: that Moe, like his fellow detainees, was so desperate to communicate with terrorists or do something awful that he had to be monitored every second of every day, despite the fact that no allegation has ever been made that he has even considered being involved in an act of violence. Things that happen in the normal course of a day for most of us — driving through a yellow light or speeding up to pass someone on the roadway, for example — are attributed to nefarious purposes and labeled “counter-surveillance techniques” by the cunning detainee and his wife. The racism shown by the Federal Court in always deferring to CBSA and CSIS and never looking at Moe’s consistent compliance with 15 years of impossible conditions was on display last year, when Judge Roussel wrote an appalling decision in which she noted that Harkat had “complied with his conditions of release since 2006 and that, in order to fully embrace the values of his adopted country, it was important that he be given the opportunity to obtain gainful employment.”
Of course, it is impossible for Moe to get full-time work when any job in which he could be employed — working at Home Depot, for example, or an auto parts supplier — would require him submitting to the CBSA the make and model of every cashier’s computer or hand-held device he needed to use as part of the job. It’s not easy to get hired when you have to explain to your potential employer that a government agency requires this information to ensure that following up on a customer’s inquiry about toilet fittings would not somehow be a ruse to communicate with some terrorist halfway around the world.
The courts and CBSA are not just needlessly afraid of Moe. They also don’t like Sophie, who happens to be a very outspoken woman who has been crystal clear that her husband is innocent and that the system that continues to oppress them is simply wrong. In other words, the psychological torture which has been so oppressive to both of them has ultimately not worked, because they are not broken. They are still fighting, largely due to the rock that is Sophie Harkat. Her poignant testimony in court is regularly ignored or dismissed. Because she simply stands up for her rights while complying with conditions anyone would consider ridiculous, CBSA has told Sophie that she is “difficult” and “too feisty.”
When in court, Sophie has discussed the humiliation of her work as a crossing guard when little children she is helping get safely to school ask her why the police always seem to be at her house. She has also asked why, if the court has already approved her and trusted her to supervise her husband, there needs to be constant physical monitoring of the couple whenever they are at home or go out.
But even for a couple as solidly in love and dedicated to one another as Moe and Sophie are, there must be so many times when one or both is at the point of breaking. While many of the most oppressive conditions have since been eliminated due to lengthy and costly court reviews, their effects have been life-changing. The couple who wanted to raise a family suffered numerous miscarriages and severe declines in mental and physical health. Sophie, formerly a well-paid marketing worker, was forced into poverty as she fought for her husband and also dealt with potential employers who, upon Google-searching her last name, were suddenly no longer interested in hiring her. The last costly court review of conditions took over two years of litigation, leaving the couple still having to deal with unique challenges like finding a cell phone that does not act as a GPS tracker for the government but which still needs the approval of the CBSA.
Court’s deference to injustice
Meanwhile, the judges of the Federal Court refuse to admit their preferential option for the powerful and their clear bias against this couple. They give a free hand to the incompetent bureaucrats and paper pushers who make a fortune in overtime enforcing the conditions. In a 2017 hearing, Harkat’s lawyer Barb Jackman asked a CBSA supervisor whether he had ever seen the outdated 2009 threat assessment on Moe (which concluded he was at the low end of risk). The supervisor admitted he had not seen that, nor the court decision on Moe’s security certificate.
“How would you know if Mr. Harkat presented a threat to the security of Canada when you’re monitoring him, if you don’t know what the threat is?” Jackman asked. “How can you say the risks are neutralized by compliance with the conditions when you don’t know what the risks are…You don’t really know what the risk is.”
The sheepish supervisor replied, “I agree I don’t really know.”
Nowhere in the ultimate court decision keeping the Harkat’s living in this dystopian nightmare was there any acknowledgement of such brazen incompetence.
At the same hearing, Jackman presented a list of names of individuals with whom Moe is not allowed any contact. The supervisor in charge of protecting the free world from Moe had no idea who any of the individuals were, had never seen pictures of them, and did not know where they lived or whether or not they were alive. How, Jackman asked, could the CBSA ensure compliance with these conditions if they had no clue about these people? Again, the answer was a sheepish admission that they could not.
When asked why CBSA tends to monitor the Harkat’s on the weekends when they should be able to enjoy themselves, the CBSA supervisor conceded that it had nothing to do with national security and everything to do with overtime pay. The supervisor also agreed that nowhere in the conditions of release does it state that Moe is to be followed by CBSA officers, but that it’s “a part of our job, to monitor people released on conditions.”
“Is that in writing anywhere?” Jackman asked.
“No,” replied the supervisor.
The supervisor was asked whether, if the court were to relax the bail restrictions, CBSA would continue to follow the Harkat’s to family funerals, weddings, and the cottage. He replied that they would.
“And why would that be, if the court believes that it’s not necessary to put him under those kinds of restrictions any longer?”
The supervisor had no answer, but it served as another reminder that the agency is one of the few federal bodies without a proper oversight body. CBSA is a law unto itself, just like its Gestapo-like cousin ICE in the U.S., which regularly flouts the law in testosterone-fueled attacks on the rights of refugees.
White-framing of repression
This thumbnail overview of the Harkat’s’ daily life illustrates how easily mini police states akin to the former East Germany are inserted into a self-described democratic system. They persist and grow because they are very clearly targeted at racialized individuals and communities who, in a racist society like ours, are automatically deemed suspect. And the benefit of the doubt always goes to government agencies, no matter how often they lie, cheat, deceive, and exhibit sheer incompetence.
Those with lengthy post-9/11 memories will recall that many marched and spoke out vigorously against so-called anti-terrorism measures when they were first introduced, but most of that was within a white, middle class framework. White environmentalists, church groups and unions feared being tarred with the terrorist brush, but once it became obvious that they would not be impacted, most public opposition to such measures disappeared. That white-framing was in evidence from the former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, who in 2002 was speaking out against the proposed no-fly lists. When the late Senator Ted Kennedy found he was on a no-fly list, there was outrage that such a match could have been made by airport officials. When things settled down and it was almost exclusively Muslims who were being pulled aside for secondary questioning, those concerns largely vanished. Nonetheless, in opposing no-fly lists, Radwanski ultimately betrayed a white Ottawa bureaucrat’s incapacity to see beyond his world to, for example, the streets of Toronto, where privacy protections never existed for racialized communities.
“We’re not a society where the police can stop you on the street and say ‘your papers please,'” he told the Toronto Star, blithely unaware that this was exactly the daily experience for Black, Indigenous and South Asian people. Indeed, as the Star noted in 2013, “in a city of less than three million people, police filled in 1.8 million contact cards between 2008 and 2012, with details on more than a million people.”
Because Moe, a Muslim man, has been baselessly demonized as a terror suspect, there remains a reticence to speak out against the fact that his every waking moment (and many of his dreams) are occupied with his own private Stasi. A psychological assessment of Moe, which was provided to the Federal Court, dovetails with similar evaluations of those who lived in the former East German dictatorship.
“There are times when Mr. Harkat has experienced recurrent visions on a virtually daily basis over several months of being arrested, incarcerated, deported and tortured,” the report reads. “Sometimes he has visions of being shot by CBSA due to a misunderstanding, minor misstep or accidental violation of his bail conditions. Often, he has been troubled by insomnia and recurrent nightmares with the same themes as his daytime visions. Energy has been chronically low and concentration impaired such that reading is limited to no more than five minutes at a time. Appetite is chronically poor to a point where he has to force himself to eat even one meal a day.”
Such devastating findings are never considered when reviewing Moe’s conditions. The conditions must, the Federal Court insists, remain in place until he gets his mind right. There remains no real acknowledgement that, as Moe’s assessment finds, “he is frustrated around secret sources of information being used against him, including of an informant who failed a lie detector test. He has been frustrated that phone-tap evidence was used against him even though the recordings were destroyed and only summaries of the transcripts presented, including of conversations that he was supposedly involved with for which the details are not remotely familiar to him.”
The risk to Moe is significant, with the expectation of “further permanent neurobiological changes that will be more refractory to treatment and recovery the longer they continue. This risk is not only to his mental health, but his physical health as well. Chronic stress is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular events (heart attacks and strokes), and suppressed immunity, including susceptibility to infections and cancer. There are also costs to his wife and family, financial costs, including to the Canadian taxpayer, and loss of Mr. Harkat’s potential contributions through work.”
The danger here is not to Moe and Sophie alone. Rather, their case illustrates only one of the most extreme examples of repressive governmental responses to the justifiable demands to release refugees, immigrants, and anyone else held in the incarceration complex. Recall that in 2006, anything seemed better than Guantanamo North. It turned out that the cure was just as bad as the illness.
When jail comes to you
Instead of sending people to jail, we now bring the jail to you. Such a solution is often introduced as one that results in significant cost savings. The CBSA, which has no hard caps on the indefinite detention it is allowed to hold refugees (often extending for years), has established an “alternatives to detention” framework that, as described by Constantine Gidaris in Rethinking confinement through Canada’s alternatives to detention program, creates a paradigm in which “the mind is subject to confinement without the confinement of the body…the deprivation of liberty, mobility, and autonomy that is experienced within conventional carceral enclosures is also experienced outside them, albeit in different degrees.”
Gidaris examines the electronic monitoring program of CBSA which collects and analyzes “real-time location data” of detainees released with the kinds of tracking monitor that was strapped to Moe for eight years. Every movement is recorded and uploaded to a monitoring centre “while seemingly providing detainees with a greater sense of freedom, mobility, and autonomy.”
The CBSA also celebrates its surveillance programs including voice recognition, which “uses biometric voiceprint technology to enable individuals to report to the CBSA through a cellular telephone or by using a landline telephone, at agreed upon intervals.” As part of its National Immigration Detention Framework, the CBSA’s initial enrollment capacity of the program — which should be renamed “extension of detention by other means” — is 800 for its “Community Case Management and Supervision” program, built with the cooperation of a number of social service agencies, 10,000 for voice recognition (a massive piece of data collection and retention with profound privacy rights issues), and 20 for electronic monitoring.
Electronic monitoring is standard for immigration detainees stateside. It’s part of a larger expansion of the prison into the community documented by Michelle Alexander in her must read book on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow. She refers to it as “e-incarceration,” which “turns entire communities into open-air digital prisons,” peopled by a racialized caste of outsiders who represent big profit margins to the companies involved in developing these technologies of control. Often, it is the individuals themselves who must pay for the “luxury” of not being held behind real prison bars. While Alexander notes that for most people, the concept of house arrest is preferable to the penitentiary, “what does it mean for the future of our communities to celebrate reforms that convert our homes into prisons? Or that turn our neighbourhoods into digital concentration camps patrolled by drones?”
The digital concentration camp that is the home of Moe and Sophie Harkat is not being staffed and enforced on some secret remote island. It happens in broad daylight in one of Canada’s largest cities. It is well documented in approving decisions of the Federal Court of Canada. It is covered occasionally in the media. And it is opposed by over 67,000 people who have signed a petition calling for an end to this nightmare. Yet it will remain in place, and serve as the precedent for expanding those camps, without our concerted, continued resistance. The Harkat’s are planning further legal challenges to their indefinite detention as well as the illegal efforts to deport Moe to torture.
To learn more about how to offer political and financial support, visit www.justiceforharkat.com
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.
Image credit: Justice for Mohamed Harkat/Used with permission.
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