OPCAT is an optional protocol added to the UN Convention Against Torture. OPCAT establishes an international inspection system for places of detention. The system is modeled on that used in the EU since 1987. OPCAT was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December of 2002 and entered into force as of June 2006. There are 75 signatories as of April 2016. Neither the United States, Russia, or China have signed the protocol.
Alex Neve, director of Amnesty International in Canada, said that signing the protocol was only a first step in ending torture and degrading treatment. Neve said:
“Having expert UN investigators poke and prod in jails in those countries is an absolutely essential step in helping to end torture. Once Canada is on board, we can at long last push those other countries to follow suit.” Stephane Dione announced this week that Canada would sign on to OPCAT. Chantal Gagnon, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, says the Trudeau government plans to make good on the commitment.
OPCAT establishes independent bodies who are charged with regularly visiting detention facilities. The aim is to prevent torture and other abusive treatment. Those who sign must commit to allowing inspections of facilities under its control, and to establish a body to prevent torture within the country. The previous Harper government promised twice that it would sign the protocol but never did.
Kuwaiti-born Canadian Naser al-Raas welcomed the announcement by the government saying it was crucial and involved preventing torture rather than “healing the wounds.” He said: “I was surprised because it came after 13 years of continuous calls … for Canada to join the optional protocol. It’s great news for everyone.” Al-Raas had been detained for a year in Bahrain after he had attended pro-democracy protests there. He claimed he was tortured for 31 days, including beatings and mock executions. He was not allowed medications. He claims his present health problems result from his torture. He has to use a wheelchair and requires constant oxygen. He will undergo heart surgery and lung transplants in the near future. Electric shocks during his torture have damaged his muscles.
Another Canadian victim of torture Abdullah al-Maliki a Syrian-Canadian also welcomed the move. At present, al-Maliki is suing the government for $100 million for its role in his arrest and detention in Syria. A commission of inquiry into the treatment of al-Maliki and two others, the Iacobucci Inquiry, found that Canadian officials had indirectly contributed to his mistreatment. He was held for 2 years and subject to torture and other mistreatment. In 2009 a parliamentary commission advised the Canadian government to apologize to all three all three Canadians whose treatment the Iacobucci Inquiry investigated. They also urged that the government correct any misinformation related to their detention, and pay compensation “for the suffering they endured and the difficulties they encountered.” Al-Maki said: “Canada must demand other countries open up their detention facilities for regular inspection visits. Canada can be a new dawn to the elimination of torture around the world.”
Another well-known Canadian, Mohamed Fahmy, tweeted that the signing was “history in the making.” Fahmy was bureau chief of Al Jazeera English. He was arrested with 2 colleagues in 2013. He ended up spending more than 400 days in prison on the basis of what were widely regarded as fabricated charges. He only returned to Canada last December after being pardoned by Egyptian president Abdel al-Sisi. Ensaf Haidar the wife of the jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi along with her son were also at the Parliament Hill protest.
Canada did little to help or object to the treatment of Omar Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was charged with killing an American paramedic in Afghanistan. Khadr was badly injured. He was sent to Guantanamo, infamous for its torture of many held there. Canadian officials visited him and interrogated him without his lawyers being present. The Supreme Court of Canada held his rights were violated.
Another famous Canadian case is that of Maher Arar. Arar has dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship. Many consider his case as one of many extraordinary renditions in which the US rendered terrorist suspects to foreign countries where they would often be tortured during interrogation. Syria was one among several countries favored. In 2002 Arar was returning from a family vacation in Tunisia. He was detained at John F Kennedy airport in September of 2002 when he was on his way home to Canada. He was held in solitary confinement in the US for almost two weeks. He was interrogated while being denied meaningful access to a lawyer. The US thought he was an Al Qaeda member. They ended up not sending him to Canada where he pleaded to be sent but deported him to Syria where he was immediately jailed. He was detained for almost a year during which time he claimed to be tortured. This claim was substantiated by the subsequent O’Connor Inquiry. Even the Syrian government said that Arar was completely innocent. Arar eventually received a $10.5 million dollar settlement and a formal apology for Canada’s role in his torture by then PM Stephen Harper. He is still on the US no-fly list. Little has been said about the case in the US under Obama but US courts have refused to let lawsuits filed by Arar to go forward because it might reveal official secrets.