Habeas what? Harper government set to renew controversial clauses in Anti-Terrorism Act

Stephen Harper

If anyone tells you that Stephen Harper’s gang of neo-cons subscribe to some sort of libertarianism, you can spit in their eye for me (to quote the great Barney Gumble)!

The libertarian school, though I strongly disagree with it, basically calls for less government (if not abolishing it entirely!) intervention in our lives. Yet the basic premise of the Federal Anti-Terrorism Act including the sunset clauses (legal jargon for elements of a law that automatically expire on a certain date) that is currently being championed by the Conservatives, represents a major threat the civil liberties in this country and should be opposed by freedom loving Canucks everywhere.

The omnibus bill that was passed by the Grits hastily in ’01 under Chretien, brought about a variety of profound changes to the Canadian Criminal code (among other federal statutes):

• It allows suspected terrorists to be detained without charge for up to three days.

• It makes it easier for the police to use electronic surveillance.

• It allows for preventive arrests.

• It allows judges to compel witnesses to give evidence during an investigation.

• It allows for the designation of a group as a terrorist organization.

As you can see, this is some extremely important shit! Even if we accept how great the supposed threat of terrorism might be, these provisions infringe on some of the most ancient and sacrosanct principles of our legal system.

Perhaps you have heard of the legal doctrine of habeas corpus (literally show us the body, in Latin)? This concept has its roots in the British common law dating back to the 12th century, according to some scholars and has subsequently been enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights & Freedoms (section 10, 11[a]).

Allowing the state to detain anyone for a period of 72 hours or longer without charge is arguably a blatant disregard for both the fundamental rights espoused by the Charter well entrenched and norms of international human rights law. However, with a Conservative majority in Ottawa, we can expect the proposed amendments to pass with virtually no serious debate in Parliament.

Compelling a witness to testify against their wishes is potentially another assault on Canadian legal values, as well as being an affront to common sense, especially if it leads to witnesses giving false evidence in court. Although Canadian law has always allowed for the subpoenaing of witnesses to testify against their will, this would be an unprecedented use of that power in the context of police investigations which do not subscribe to the same high judicial standards and restrictions regarding the treatment of a witness’ testimony at trial.

Finally, perhaps the best reason not support these dramatic changes to the law, is that both terrorist plots thwarted with the help of the Act, the Toronto 18 and Mohammed Mormin Khawaja, were managed without recourse to any of these contentious clauses, suggesting that our law enforcement and criminal justice officials are quite capable of carrying out the difficult task of fighting terrorism effectively under the legal status quo.

Here’s hoping that the resulting inevitable court challenges to the amended Anti-Terrorism Act strike down these excessive provisions on the grounds that they contravene the Charter, or else our country will be headed down a slippery slope towards some kind of police state.

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