After 12 years of detention and house arrest, without charges or trial, Mohammad Mahjoub takes his first subway ride as a free man.
As Mohammad Mahjoub exited the federal court building on Queen West on Feb. 1, he carried in a plastic bag the GPS tracking anklet he’d worn since April 12, 2007. That morning, a federal judge struck down severe house-arrest conditions against Mahjoub, and he was heading to the nearby Osgoode subway entrance for his first ride in 12 years. Government officials claimed the GPS wouldn’t work underground, so Mahjoub had been effectively banned from the subway. But now that he’d been given the freedom to cut the anklet off himself, he wanted to ride.
In 2000, Mahjoub—who entered Canada in 1995 as an Egyptian refugee—was accused by Ottawa of being a dangerous terrorist. Immigration officials claimed Mahjoub had “constant and high-level contacts with members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network all over the world.” He was never charged or tried, however. Instead, he lingered for over 12 years in a variety of prisons and house-arrest situations.
Osgoode Station was an ironic departure point for Mahjoub’s trip: As chief justice of Lower Canada in the late 1700s, its namesake, William Osgoode, oversaw the suspension of habeas corpus—the requirement that a person under arrest must be brought to court.
“I feel at least like a human,” Mahjoub said while waiting on the subway platform, “but before I felt like someone treated like less than an animal by the government of Canada, in particular by CSIS and CBSA” the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Canadian Border Services Agency, respectively).
Mahjoub’s angry eyes softened somewhat as someone in his group of supporters announced that the train was pulling into the station.
It was a new subway train, which Mohammad had heard about but had never seen. His friends hopped inside first and clamoured to snap photos of him stepping on board. A sprinkle of post–rush hour commuters witnessed the grand entrance, the laughter, and seat swapping as the train rolled out and headed north.
Mahjoub, seated by a window, recounted his “Hollywood-style” arrest in June 2000 with a chuckle. He had just stepped off a streetcar, on the way to work, when “vehicles surrounded the area, and people were yelling, ‘Police! Police!’”
He was first jailed at Toronto West Detention Centre, where he went on a hunger strike after being denied treatment for a tooth infection. He also spent time at the now-shuttered Kingston Immigration Holding Centre, dubbed “Gitmo North” by observers critical of the facility, which was created specifically for Mahjoub and four other Muslim men being held on federal security certificates. (A security certificate allows the government to detain a non-citizen indefinitely and without charges, if that person is deemed a threat.)
Mahjoub and his lawyers were never privy to the government’s case, but he believes Egypt’s now-imprisoned former president, Hosni Mubarak, is responsible.
Upon reaching St. Clair West station only 11 minutes after boarding, Mahjoub was stunned. The same trip to and from court had often required a circuitous 90-minute route involving streetcars and buses. There were more pictures, more smiles, and even a thumbs up from Mahjoub as he stepped off the train. “Today. I took underground transportation,” he said. “What is the difference between today and 12 years ago, 12 months ago? Did it make the country more safe?”