14 July 2015

Going to jail for words

One morning in early June, Aaron Driver was walking to his bus stop in Winnipeg's Charleswood neighbourhood when a white, unmarked van pulled up, armed men got out, forced him into the van and drove away. This is Canada, so of course the men were police officers and they were taking Mr. Driver, or Harun Abdurahman as he calls himself on twitter, to jail where he spent the next eight days.

He has since been released subject to 25 conditions, including wearing an electronic monitoring device, taking part in religious counseling, obeying a 9 pm to 6 am curfew, not possessing any desktop, laptop or tablet computer, having his cellphone approved and monitored by the RCMP, and avoiding social media websites. The police confiscated his computer, phone, flash drives and Koran.

Driver had not committed a robbery, assault, rape or murder. In fact, he hadn't committed any crime. He had simply said some ugly things. Driver is a Muslim who supports the Islamic State. I hasten to add he supports it in words only. Words, however, that are not pleasant to hear. He has, for example, said the victims of the Islamic State deserve what they get. He has said that the killing of two Canadian soldiers late last year was justified. To quote the man himself: "I think if a country goes to war with another country, or another people or another community, they have to be prepared for things like that to happen. And when it does happen, they shouldn't act surprised. They had it coming to them. They deserved it."

Not a comment most Canadians want to hear, even though it has a certain logic to it. And even though it is not that far off our prime minister's comment that the slaughter of Palestinians, including over 300 children, by Israel during Operation Cast Lead was "appropriate." In any case they are only words and we have, in this country, the right to use words freely. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms tells us we enjoy "freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression ...." Furthermore, Canada is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads in Article 19, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

It's hard to see how the police and courts are not interfering with Driver's freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression by jailing him and subjecting him to the conditions listed above. The harassment has also cost him his job. His tormentors almost seem to be pushing him into violence.

And he is not alone. Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, claims that reaction to Muslim students expressing their opinions has ranged from a failure to pass classes to public ridicule. She said young Muslims have told her, "We keep our heads down and we pass the course." This chill on speaking freely is not only tragic for these young people but for society—there is a powerful need in the West to understand the abuse Middle Eastern populations have suffered at Western hands. This quite aside from the erosion of a basic human right.

Defending freedom of speech when nice people say nice things is easy. The challenge comes when unsavoury people say ugly things. In persecuting Mr. Driver, our justice system has failed the test. Keeping an eye on him may be justified—harassing him is not.

1 comment:

  1. You're right. It is now freedom of sppech when I like what you say.