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U.S. visitor questions treatment by CBSA, police DART team

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What should have been a routine traffic stop turned into a nine-day nightmare for Mahad Islam, who recently flew here from his home in Virginia to visit relatives. The Somali-American claims he was the victim of racial profiling and unlawful detention.
Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen

A Somali-American who often visits family in Ottawa believes he is the victim of racial profiling by Ottawa police and unjust confinement by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Mahad Abdulhamid Islam, 32, was held for nine days at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre on Innes Road where, he says, he was roughed up and called many obscene names.

Islam arrived at Ottawa airport on Oct. 10. About two hours later, after dropping in on some relatives, his cousin was driving him and another cousin to visit more family when the Ottawa police DART unit pulled them over on Bank Street, near Cahill Drive, in South Keys. He says there was no apparent reason why police stopped them other than, he believes, their colour. Although Islam provided police with his passport as identification, the DART team, which targets gang crime in Ottawa, called in the CBSA.

According to a CBSA report, filed by an agent at the scene, police asked for assistance in identifying Islam after he produced a U.S. passport but refused to tell them his name or date of birth when he was asked. CBSA agents arrested Islam after determining he had a criminal conviction in Virginia, and eventually took him to the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, where he was held Oct. 10 to 19. He was freed by an immigration judge, who expressed concern over his treatment, but was ordered to leave Canada by Friday.

Islam says he drank out of the toilet in his cell on the second day because the water taps of the cell’s sink had been turned off and no one at the jail heeded his calls that he was thirsty. To preserve the water in his toilet, he defecated and urinated on the cell’s floor. He says a group of guards entered his cell on the fourth day he was there, took him to another area, handcuffed his wrists and ankles, and punched and slapped him as he lay face down. He says he was called a “terrorist.” He says he was ordered to take a shower with his wrists still bound.

Islam, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, says he was denied his prescription medicine for the ADD until the fifth day of his incarceration. He says he becomes anxious and confused when he doesn’t take the medicine. He says he repeatedly yelled and banged his hands on his cell door for help during the first four days, but was generally ignored. He says the water taps were turned on the same day he was finally given his medicine.

Islam says U.S. Embassy staff visited on his fifth day in jail, but offered little support.

Ottawa police Sgt. Mark MacMillan, who called the CBSA to say police were holding Islam and needed assistance to determine if he was here legally, did not return calls to The Public Citizen. Meanwhile, an Ottawa police media spokesman said he would check the file but was unsure whether he could comment. The CBSA was looking into the matter before commenting, as was Ontario’s Community Safety and Correctional Services Ministry.

A report by CBSA agent Marc Yelle, who with his partner was dispatched to the scene of the traffic stop, says when they asked him for his passport, he “immediately became confrontational and argumentative in provide (sic) his document to us. After arguing with us the passport was provided.

“ISLAM had a stamp in his passport indicating he had entered Canada on this day. When we began to ask him about his purpose in Canada, how he would support himself, if had a criminal record, ISLAM was adamant that he had rights and that he did not have to answer my questions.”

Islam readily admits he refused to speak to the police or the CBSA without a lawyer being present. Under Canadian law, Islam has that right.

After Yelle asked a CBSA office to do a background check on Islam, the misdemeanour conviction came up. Islam was arrested and taken to a CBSA building on St. Laurent Boulevard. His cousins were allowed to leave. Islam says his passport, Virginia driver’s licence, suitcase, jacket, belt, and iPhone were seized.

He was taken to the detention centre and placed in a cell with other prisoners before he found himself in solitary confinement.

Islam’s relatives were kept in the dark about his whereabouts until Oct. 12. When his brother went to visit him with Farah Aw-Osman, head of Canadian Friends of Somalia, they were told to come back because Islam had been acting strangely. “They told us this was not a good time to visit,” says Aw-Osman.

Though the immigration judge agreed to have Islam deported at a hearing last week because of the criminal conviction in the U.S., he was released from custody while he awaits to return home to Range, Virginia, on Friday. The judge determined that Islam should not have been in jail and indicated that he did not pose a flight risk, was not a danger to the public and his identity was known to authorities. The judge didn’t buy Yelle’s claim that Islam “is associating with criminals while in Canada.”

Islam’s lawyer, Rezaur Rahman, who was hired by the man’s Ottawa relatives, says police had no reason for alerting the CBSA because Islam’s U.S. passport indicated that he had entered Canada legally and been granted visitor’s status by a CBSA agent at the airport. Rahman says CBSA agents also disregarded that information when they arrested his client.

While Canada does generally deny visitors with criminal backgrounds entry unless certain conditions are met, a new policy allows people who have not served jail sentences to enter Canada on a visitor’s permit. Islam was convicted in 2007 of assault and battery, a misdemeanour in Virginia, and fined $1,026. He was not jailed. Islam says the conviction stems from pushing a man during a dispute, and he hardly considers himself a criminal. Islam, who moved from Somalia to the U.S. with his parents in 1996, says he is a frequent visitor to Ottawa where he has many relatives and friends, including a brother.

Islam says he plans to complain to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., about his ordeal and ask that he be allowed in Canada again. “I have to see my family.”

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