TORONTO - It's hard to clear your name when you're forced to box with shadows.
For 12 long years, Egyptian refugee Mohammad Mahjoub has been considered a threat to public safety and destined for deportation based on secret CSIS intelligence presented to a Federal Court judge. No charges have ever been laid against him, no evidence ever publicly produced. Yet he remains caged by a controversial security certificate, accused by CSIS of belonging to an Egyptian Islamic extremist group with ties to al-Qaida.
He spent more than seven years behind bars -- some of them at Guantanamo North -- and four more under strict house arrest. His bail conditions have been loosened now, but he still must wear a GPS tracking anklet, can't use the subway and needs federal permission to leave Toronto. During this long saga, his wife has left him and he hasn't been able to see his two children.
"It is a nightmare for me," Mahjoub said. "It cost me my children. They destroyed my family."
Now the 51-year-old is back in Federal Court as his lawyers try to fight the "reasonableness" of his security certificate and have it overturned. Yet question after question posed to a senior CSIS official about the case against Mahjoub returned one of two responses: either Paul Vrbanac, director general for Toronto region, said he didn't know the answer, or one of the Crown attorneys leaped to his feet and prevented him from replying, citing national security concerns.
As Mahjoub's lawyer complained at one point, he's left "poking around in the dark."
Justice Edmond Blanchard appeared equally frustrated, warning that it will be a waste of taxpayers' money if the Ottawa hearing is moved to Toronto as scheduled to hear from another CSIS witness if he will also have nothing to say. "It's totally, totally unacceptable," the judge complained. "The public will be outraged and rightly so."
Mahjoub did the math and said Vrbanac couldn't answer 23 questions posed in the morning session alone. "It's very clear they have no case against me," he told reporters outside the downtown Toronto building where he was watching the Ottawa proceedings via video link. "They just try to keep me ... to cover up for their mistake."
But we don't really know if CSIS was mistaken -- their full case against Mahjoub is reserved for the arguments that are slated to go on behind closed doors.
You certainly can't blame the spy agency for sounding alarm bells: Mahjoub was the former deputy general manager of a farm project in Sudan run by Osama bin Laden and had met the terror mastermind on four occasions. "I myself voluntarily gave that information to CSIS, to the government of Canada, and they turned it back on me," Mahjoub argued. "Shame on them."
But he's hardly been forthcoming. The agricultural engineer arrived in Canada in 1995 using a false passport and lived for three weeks in Toronto with the in-laws of Ahmed Said Khadr while later telling CSIS that he didn't know Canada's notorious terrorist family. Mahjoub has denied any involvement in terrorism, but his former boss was once the most wanted man in the world and his Toronto contacts were relatives of a key Bin Laden associate.
We would be aghast if our intelligence service didn't investigate him thoroughly.
What did CSIS uncover? Did his guilt by association hold up? Or was evidence against him tainted because it came from foreign governments that may have tortured their informants, as Mahjoub's lawyers allege? Because these security certificates rely on evidence that remains classified, it's not for us to know.
Millions of dollars and a dozen years later, his case drags on. Mahjoub has managed to stave off deportation by arguing that he'd be tortured in his homeland. Bungling by the feds has also helped him: in June, 11 federal lawyers and assistants were kicked off the case after the judge ruled the government lawyers inadvertently took boxes of his confidential legal files. As well, summaries of evidence used against him were thrown out because CSIS destroyed the original wiretap records.
So is Mahjoub a true terror suspect or persecuted innocent? In the spy world of cloaks and daggers, shadows and secrets mean we'll never really know.