No Model Prisoner

No model prisoner

By David B. Harris
The Ottawa Citizen
March 13, 2009

Momin Khawajas sentence on multiple terror convictions Thursday seems short: 10 1/2 years on top of the five years served, for an unrepentant devotee of mass bloodshed. In five years, the 29-year-old will be eligible to apply to the National Parole Board for full parole. Although it would seem unlikely that hed be released at that point, who knows?

This is not to say that the Khawaja sentence is outrageous in strict, criminal-law terms. The outcome is plausible, based on the limited precedents available. But it highlights the grave suspicion that current criminal law and sentencing practices might simply not be up to the modern terrorist challenge.

For Khawaja represents a growing movement of Canadian dead-end Islamic extremists whose release into society could have repercussions of a sort generally unknown in more conventional criminal contexts.

By now, most know of Khawajas enthusiasm for electronics, detonators, high-test religion, and the mass-casualty slaughter of infidels. But, in its own way, a possibly bigger story is told by Mr. Khawajas remarkable performance as one observer put it throughout the trial. This was not anything the accused said. After all, he refused to testify on his own behalf, refused to show remorse. Rather, he sat, severe, soulessly-handsome, rigid, giving nothing away, his sleek, carefully-oiled hair parted down the middle. This was the picture and epitome of the disciplined soldier, maintaining the dignity of a righteous cause in the face of a determined but debased enemy a court whose jurisdiction he did not fundamentally deign to recognize. A POW temporarily caged in hostile territory, sworn to return to combat. In sum, this was not a portrait of remorse, and hardly a prospect for rehabilitation. And this is why he is likely to be a menace for the hate he will spread in prison and, possibly, the more lethal hazards he could yet unleash upon society. Yet he will be among us in a decade, at most.

As a further suggestion that self-improvement isnt in the cards, consider the anxiety expressed by those in contact with staff at Ottawas Regional Detention Centre, Khawajas home for the past five years. This anxiety is born of the open secret that Khawaja has been holding court at the centre, sermonizing and spreading his faith, presumably the version that underwrote his crimes.

As far as one can tell, Khawaja is a poisoned chalice now being offered to the prison system, a concoction whose lethality will only likely be concentrated further by the adulation of susceptible prisoners. So, expect more at the penitentiary, and more graduates of his penitentiary lessons.

Meanwhile, if the legal system is unprepared for what Khawaja represents, we must ask if this detention system is truly up to the task. Consider Justice Douglas Rutherfords reference to the pitch on behalf of Khawaja by the director of the Islamic Centre of Ottawa, a man reported to have known the terrorist for 11 years. According to the sentencing report cited by Rutherford, there is the inevitable pre-sentence blather about how the clerics spiritual charge has become a new person, and that he is talking much more and communicates effectively with others disturbing rather than encouraging, given the content of Khawajas past pathologically hateful conspiratorial talk. But then: the director noted Mr. Khawaja has a positive influence on other inmates, helping them transition into the institution and was chosen by the chaplain of Ottawa Regional Detention Centre to represent inmates on their provision of their spiritual and religious care of all denominations.

Those unfamiliar with the niceties of law and chaplaincy but familiar with the evidence and shaheed-like figure cut in the courtroom will be forgiven for asking whether we have gone mad. They will not like to contemplate a psalm-singing killer-aspirant being granted the legitimacy, status and influence of a religious social worker, licensed by officialdom to tend and recruit his highly vulnerable flock. Picture a Brylcreemed Charles Manson in vestments.

Lastly, spare a thought for the millions upon millions of dollars Canadians will spend monitoring Mr. Khawaja through his lifetime, once he is released from prison and among us. A few such cases, and the sheer weight of this on our budget and security manpower would bid fair to be called economic warfare at virtually no cost to the enemy. Our government resources, already overwhelmed by floods of unscreenable immigrants and domestically radicalized youth, might well be too busy to stop other Khawajas, and catastrophe.

Against all this, and increasing warnings about Islamist infiltration of our society and institutions the question must be asked in deadly earnest: are we serious about protecting ourselves and our loved ones? The answer, thus far, should bring us deep shame.

David B. Harris is a lawyer and director of the International and Terrorist Intelligence Program, INSIGNIS Strategic Research Inc., and former CSIS chief of strategic planning. He served as counsel to an intervener organization at the Air India and Iacobucci terror inquiries. He observed the Khawaja trial and attended his sentencing.