Gov’t Drops Secret Detention Hearings For Migrant Tamils

Government drops secret detention hearings for migrant Tamils
All 76 of the Tamil boat people could be freed in the coming weeks

Jane Armstrong
Vancouver From Friday's Globe and Mail Published
Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 11:23PM EST
Last updated on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010 3:49AM EST

Less than a month after Ottawa announced that it would launch rare, secret hearings to argue for the continued incarceration of 25 Tamil migrants, the federal government[] has suddenly abandoned the plan.

Instead, a government lawyer told a meeting with the migrants' lawyers yesterday that it will no longer argue for the continued detention of the migrant men, who arrived on a freighter last October claiming they were refugees fleeing postwar Sri Lanka[].

The Canada Border Services Agency, the government body investigating the migrants, was unavailable for comment yesterday, however, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board confirmed that the applications were withdrawn.

Some of the migrants' lawyers, whose clients faced the secret hearings which are permitted under Section 86 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act said they were thrilled to learn that the Tamil men will finally be released from custody.

But they questioned why the government launched the expensive, time-consuming hearings in the first place.

At least one lawyer questioned if the government has any concrete evidence to link the migrants to terrorism.

They goofed, said lawyer Robert Blanshay, who represents six migrants facing Section 86 hearings.

These guys [migrants] have been painted and tarred guilty and now we have an 11th-hour hiccup [from the government].

The development means that all 76 of the Tamil boat people could be freed in the coming weeks.

From the outset, the government has argued that it believes that some of the men are linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group that had waged a 25-year civil war with the Sri Lankan government.

The migrants were all incarcerated in a Vancouver-area detention centre.

But increasingly, as the men appeared for regular detention reviews at the Immigration and Refugee Board, the board's adjudicators released them, arguing the government hadn't shown that the men were security threats.

Then in December, the government announced that it would proceed with the Section 86 hearings against 25 of the men.

Unlike ordinary detention hearings, these sessions are closed to the public, to the migrants involved and to their lawyers, and the evidence given is secret. Special advocates, appointed by the government, were to represent the migrants' interests.

The hearings, which are rarely used, have been compared to a watered-down security certificate process.

Last weekend, four government-appointed special advocates flew to Vancouver to meet with their migrant clients.

Under Section 86 provisions, the government must provide the clients' lawyers with a summary of the evidence the government intends to use. Last week, lawyers for the migrants asked to look at the summaries, but were told in a letter that investigators were still gathering evidence, said Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman, who represents more than 20 Tamils, nine of whom faced Section 86 hearings.

It was clear to me the government invoked the provisions prematurely, Mr. Waldman said.

The letter that we got basically said: We're in the process of gathering the evidence, so we'll give you a summary later.'

Mr. Waldman said he and other lawyers complained and requested to meet yesterday with government lawyers. It was at that meeting that the government suddenly announced it was abandoning the Section 86 hearings.