POLITICS

Refugee set on life in Canada fights lingering suspicions from 9/11-era arrest

04/15/2014 03:35 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - A Syrian refugee says his efforts to build a new life in Canada are being stymied by the federal government's lingering — but long discredited — suspicions about his past.

In a rare interview, Hassan Almrei said his arrest 13 years ago on a national security certificate continues to haunt him, even though the certificate was tossed out in late 2009.

Almrei, 40, has long sought permanent resident status, and he hopes to become a Canadian citizen. But his application is stuck in the system.

He's had trouble getting a job, finding a spouse or travelling overseas to see his parents. And friends tell Almrei that Canada's spy agency has been asking about him.

"I cannot move on with my life," Almrei said. "It hurts you inside."

Almrei, who lives in Mississauga, just west of Toronto, came to Canada in January 1999 on a false United Arab Emirates passport and attained refugee status the following year.

In the frenzy of October 2001, just after the attacks on New York and Washington, Almrei was arrested under a national security certificate, a seldom-used tool for deporting suspected terrorists and spies.

The government argued Almrei's travel, activities and involvement with phoney documents were consistent with supporters of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

In late 2009 Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley said there were reasonable grounds to believe Almrei was a security danger when detained following 9/11, but there was no longer any reason to cling to that position.

The security certificate system was revamped after the Supreme Court of Canada found aspects were unconstitutional in 2007.

Mosley's ruling said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and federal cabinet ministers breached their duties of "good faith and candour" to the court by not thoroughly reviewing information on file prior to reissuing the certificate against Almrei under the reworked system in February 2008.

In 2010, Almrei filed a lawsuit, citing "egregious failings and errors" on the part of several federal agencies including CSIS.

The government countered that the suit should be tossed out, saying Canadian officials acted in good faith in order to protect the public.

The case is still grinding its way through the courts.

As a rule, the spy agency does not publicly confirm or deny its interest in individuals.

Almrei said he's been unable to find work as a security guard — despite proper certification — because it's difficult to explain the period when he was locked away. "If I said I was in jail, good luck with getting hired."

The security certificate derailed Almrei's first attempt to become a permanent resident, but he has revived the effort with the help of lawyer Lorne Waldman.

Almrei's application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was approved in principle, but he still had to satisfy the federal government that he was admissible to Canada, Waldman said.

"He received all the clearances except the CSIS clearance."

Almrei agreed to let the spy service interview him, but limited the conversation to developments since the certificate was quashed.

Waldman said CSIS once again began asking about his client's distant past.

Now the government is trying to use a different section of the immigration law to try to deny Almrei status in Canada, he added. "If they had some new evidence, they could do whatever they like. But they can't just do it based upon the same facts."

Almrei said CSIS has approached two friends with questions about him in the last year or so.

Waldman is disappointed with the federal stance.

"The government should acknowledge their mistake, accept that Hassan was wronged, give him his permanent resident status, and I think they should also give him compensation," he said.

"It will be for the courts in the end to decide, but I'm certainly going to do my best to see that that happens."

Despite a difficult path over the last decade, Almrei remains optimistic.

"I love life. I love people," he said. "Wherever you put me, I will survive. Why? Because I like everybody."

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