Canada puts counterterror effort on fast track

Canada's foreign minister is on a five-nation tour of the Mideast to reinforce US antiterror coalition efforts.


While Canada has never been a target of international terrorism, its friendly immigration laws have given haven to cells for raising money, forging documents, and conducting assaults against foreign targets - most notoriously the bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver in 1985.

Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, launched his mission to bomb Los Angeles International Airport from Canada in late 1999, but was arrested by US border guards trying to enter Washington State. In the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, two of the attackers were presumed - wrongly - to have crossed the border from Canada in their journey to Logan International Airport.

Sensitive to criticism of lax border security, Canada is marshaling its laws in support of the international crackdown on terrorism. It has earmarked more than US$190 million to upgrade its security, financial, immigration, and border operations, and is set to pass the most sweeping counterterrorism legislation in its history.

The counterterrorism bill, which is being fast-tracked through Parliament, would establish a new form of inquiry allowing them to bring suspected terrorists - or anyone who has allegedly had contact with suspects - into court without charges for questioning. The judge would be able to jail the person for a year or longer for refusing to comply. The inquiry would have to be connected to a terrorist plot that is being planned or has been executed.

The bill also would give police the power of "preventative arrest" - to jail suspected terrorists before an attack.

Under the bill, Canada's version of the CIA, the Communications Security Establishment, would expand its domestic communications monitoring to include international links, and the government would have the power to keep secret its sources of information on terrorists who are prosecuted in Canada.

For the most part, Canadians support the sweeping changes. But critics say Canada needs to start with better enforcement of existing laws.

"We mustn't turn Canada into a police state" in the name of defending the country's security, says Clayton Ruby, a Canadian civil rights lawyer. None of these changes "would have made us any safer on Sept. 11."

Yet the issue of human rights and security should not be adversarial, says civil rights lawyer Irwin Cotler. The bill "should be seen as people-centered, rather than as state-centered." Terrorism, he wrote in an article, is "the ultimate existential assault on human rights and human dignity, and the struggle against terrorism must be seen as part of the larger struggle for human rights and human dignity."

Even though the bill is moving rapidly through Parliament, Canadian Justice Minister Anne McLellan says it has been rigorously examined to ensure it meets the standards of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's equivalent of the US Bill of Rights. In fact, she says, no other piece of legislation "has gone through as rigorous Charter analysis as this."

Canadians are also taking pains to assure the US that their northern neighbor stands on guard. Foreign Minister John Manley, recently appointed head of Canada's counterterrorism effort, admitted that successive Canadian governments have let foreign aid, intelligence, and military preparedness slide.

Now, in an effort to develop postwar plans and regional cooperation, Mr. Manley is on a five-nation tour of the Middle East to discuss support for the counterterrorism coalition and ways to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Canada's former ambassador to the US, Allan Gotlieb, saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when his just-airborne flight from Washington to Toronto was suddenly called back to Reagan International airport. Bush has "brilliantly" organized his international coalition in the fight against terrorism and improved US relations with a number of countries, he says.

Now, Canada, with "it's deep belief in multilateralism and cooperation," intends to help "on the diplomatic front to lessen obstacles, set an example, and be creative."

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