Issam Al-Yamani owns a gray brick house in suburban Mississauga, across the street from an elementary school. A yellow mini school bus is parked in his driveway, awaiting the morning rounds.
The government will not say why Al-Yamani is still in Canada. The Immigration and Refugee Board ordered his deportation in 2005 for having been a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The decision was upheld by the court and a 2014 Canada Border Services Agency report alleged he was a “danger to the security of Canada” who formerly led a terrorist cell that conducted a bombing.
But he’s still here.
And so are a growing number of others under deportation orders for security reasons.
A Global News investigation has found the federal government has become increasingly ineffective at carrying out deportations on security grounds.
The Refugee Board said it issued 25 deportation orders last year for security, a category that includes past and present members of terrorist groups like Al-Yamani.
That was the most in at least five years. But the CBSA, which is supposed to enforce deportation orders, said it conducted only four removals for security in 2017 — the fewest in the past five years.
Since 2015, the IRB said it had issued 70 deportation orders for security, but the CBSA said it had conducted only 14 removals on security grounds during those years.
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“There is something terribly rotten in the immigration system of Canada,” said Ran Shirdan, a Toronto-area resident whose grandfather was killed when the PFLP hijacked a passenger plane in Athens in 1968.
One of the hijackers later settled in Ontario. Following 10 court appeals, he was deported to Lebanon in 2013. “These individuals have continually and flagrantly violated Canada’s immigration laws and this country’s generosity, making a mockery of our legal system,” Shirdan said.
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Al-Yamani has filed nine appeals in the Federal Court. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get a hearing at the Supreme Court of Canada. The government has twice appealed his case in Federal Court. A CBSA report described his deportation as “highly litigated.”
Canada “forced me to go down this path,” Al-Yamani told Global News in an interview about his long experience with the deportation system. “It’s not an easy process, not easy to always be under the threat of deportation.”
His latest court appeal was dismissed on Oct. 18, 2017.
“We can tell you that Mr. Al-Yamani is under an enforceable removal order,” said Derek Lawrence, a CBSA spokesperson. The agency did not explain why the order had not been enforced.
After Al-Yamani gave a speech in downtown Toronto in 2014 that the CBSA interpreted as inciting violence, the agency alleged in a report he “constitutes a danger to the security of Canada.”
The document was filed in court last September but Al-Yamani’s lawyer, Barbara Jackman, said there was still no decision on whether to accept the report’s recommendation.
“There is no way that he poses a threat to anyone,” she said, describing him as a husband, father and grandfather to Canadian citizens. “He was not and is not a terrorist. And he presents no threat to Canada or any other country or person.”
According to federal policy, security cases are supposed to be the government’s top priority, followed by those involving organized crime, crimes against humanity and serious crimes.
“What they, I think, find challenging is that when you start to look at the Priority A category of individuals — the criminals, the terrorists, the severe security threats — those are the people who are least likely to be removable,” said Graham Hudson, an associate professor of criminology at Ryerson University.
“They’re most likely to be at risk of human rights abuses if removed, of being labeled security risks, specifically terrorists. They’re the persons that are least likely to obtain travel documents,” said Hudson, who has been studying the impact of recent changes to the deportation system.
Legislation brought in by the previous Conservative government in 2013 was supposed to speed up these types of deportations. The Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act closed off several avenues of appeal. Those being deported for security, human rights abuses and organized crime could no longer file appeals on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. And foreign citizens sentenced to six months for crimes lost the ability to appeal to the IRB’s Immigration Appeal Division.
Deportations for security risk declining
At the time, the government said the changes would stop “endless appeals and loopholes” from delaying deportations. But removals have instead declined and the backlog of unexecuted deportation orders has grown.
The number of foreign citizens still in Canada despite being under deportation orders for security grew to 20 last year, up from six in 2013.
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In early 2018, that number dropped to 19. In seven of those cases, the deportations were stalled due to problems getting travel documents from the deportees’ countries of origin.
A list obtained by Global News identified the countries that had not issued travel documents for security deportees as Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Pakistan, while one was listed as stateless.
Hudson said trouble getting travel documents from foreign governments was a perennial issue. “Effectively, many countries have this exact same problem,” he said.
Countries may not issue travel documents due to internal turmoil, or because they aren’t enthusiastic about welcoming back citizens being deported for crime and security, he said.
The deportation system “is not working well,” said Hudson. He would like to see a more fair process for determining who gets deported.
“You can’t bypass this fairness. What we’re seeing in the system today is that attempts to cut out procedural fairness don’t work. It actually makes things more expensive, either down the road or immediately, and it doesn’t increase the speed with which individuals are removed.”
Hudson suspects the 2013 changes had pushed more cases into the courts, which may explain the slowing of removals. While he may be right, that is not apparent from statistics. Last year, 5,572 appeals of immigration-related decisions were filed in the Federal Court — 77 per cent of the court’s total caseload. But that was less than in 2014, when they numbered 8,404. In 2012, there were 12,968.
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Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale declined repeated requests for an interview. His spokesman, Scott Bardsley, would not comment on specific cases, citing privacy.
“In all cases, the person is subject to due process, including full judicial procedures. It is only once criminal and judicial proceedings are concluded that the CBSA may proceed with the removal,” Bardsley said.
Stockwell Day, who dealt with Al-Yamani’s case when he was the public safety minister in the former Conservative cabinet, said that once the evidence supported a deportation for safety and security reasons, it came down to government resolve.
“There is really only one factor that stands in the way of a person being removed. Political will,” he said. “And, allowing for permissible appeals, in such evidence-based cases at the end of the day, there is only one person who has the final veto on an individual being removed. The Prime Minister.”
The deportation of Al-Yamani has now spanned the terms of six prime ministers.
“Mr. Al Yamani does not deny having been a member of the PFLP for many years, including the first six or seven years that he was in Canada,” reads a 2007 Federal Court decision on his case. “However, he submits that his involvement in the organization was limited to political activities, and there is no evidence in the record that was before the minister that Mr. Al Yamani himself had any involvement in any violent activities associated with the PFLP.”
In Al-Yamani’s living room, there are photos of his wife, two sons, granddaughter and father, who was known as Comrade Abu Maher and, in 1967, helped found the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The PFLP’s aim, according to the RCMP’s terrorism awareness guide, was to “destroy the state of Israel and establish a communist government in Palestine.” The group soon became notorious for hijacking planes.
“During the 1970s,” according to the Public Safety Canada website, “the group took part in some of the boldest terrorist attacks of the period, such as hijacking three civilian airliners in one day and storming the Vienna headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.”
Al-Yamani initially entered the “youth ring” of the PFLP, then formally joined when he turned 18. Citing intelligence that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service obtained from unnamed third parties, the 2014 CBSA report said he was “tasked to recruit members and raise funds” in the United Arab Emirates.
Al-Yamani denies allegations
Not true, said Al-Yamani.
“I was in United Arab Emirates working with a petroleum construction company called NPCC, and was not there to recruit members,” he said. “At that time wherever there was a Palestinian-community, there was members or supporters of all kind of Palestinian factions. And there was an official office for the PLO.”
He returned to Lebanon in 1976 and, according to the CBSA report, “served in the PFLP ranks in the Lebanese Civil War.” He visited Beirut and Baghdad “frequently in order to attend PFLP meetings,” the report added.
“Of course I visited Lebanon during my vacation for two weeks every time,” Al-Yamani responded, but he said that was “too short to get involved in any activities other than enjoying my time with my family, however at one point I helped through my Lebanese friends to set up a medical clinic.”
He called the allegation he was involved in the Lebanese civil war speculation by CSIS and said while he did attend a meeting in Baghdad in 1976 it was to discuss the “Palestinian issue.”
On Dec, 14, 1977, an early morning explosion damaged the Egypt Air office in Al Sharjah, UAE. Nobody was injured but it was interpreted as a rebuke of an Egypt-Israel peace conference taking place in Cairo that day.
The CBSA report said two PFLP members named Mu’een Abdel Rahman Ibrahim and Taysir Rubah Mustafa were arrested and “confessed to placing the bomb on instructions from Al-Yamani.”
Twenty-one at the time, Al-Yamani had supplied the car they used to get to the airline office, the report said. “Al-Yamani confessed to issuing instructions to Mu’een and Taysir to carry out the operation,” the report added.
Al-Yamani and the other pair were held for two months but were not charged due to “the direct intervention of the ruler of Abu Dhabi,” the report said. They were eventually deported.
“This information from third parties is credible,” the CBSA wrote.
According to the CBSA report, Al-Yamani initially told Canadian authorities he was having a relationship with a companion of the Emirates minister of interior, who cancelled his work permit when he found out.
But the report said he later recanted and acknowledged his expulsion was a result of the bombing investigation. His lawyer said Al-Yamani was one of 50 Palestinians arrested by the UAE security service following the explosion but that he was not involved.
“There is no evidence linking me to any violence,” he said in an interview. He said he was never convicted and was only brought into the case through association with two men involved. “I challenge them to bring any written evidence or document to link me,” he said. “This is only speculation.”
From the Emirates, Al-Yamani traveled to Ghana, where he worked at a factory, and then returned to Lebanon and served as personal secretary to PFLP general-secretary George Habash, according to his deportation decision.
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The Israeli army entered Beirut in 1982 and Palestinian groups were forced out. Al-Yamani’s wife and son immigrated to Canada without him. Al-Yamani joined them in 1985 and soon resumed his PFLP activities.
In 1988, he traveled to Algeria, where PLO leader Yasser Arafat asked him to help move money, the CBSA report said. Funds were transferred to Al-Yamani, who redistributed them to Palestinian areas in 20 transfers. The CBSA said some of the money went to “PFLP entities.”
“As a Canadian-based financial operator for the PFLP, he moved over a million dollars to the Occupied Territories in a way that would circumvent Israeli controls, thereby contributing to the establishment and consolidation of the PFLP’s leadership on the Intifada,” the CBSA alleged.
His lawyer said the money was for non-profit groups and charities. “Israel at that time was not allowing anyone, any Palestinian to get into the occupied territories more than $1,000 cash so because they don’t want money to reach the Palestinian NGOs or the Palestinian organizations,” Al-Yamani explained, according to the CBSA report.
Al-Yamani has said he left the PFLP for good in the early 1990s when he found out CSIS had taken an interest in him and he could be deported. “I wanted to cause no further problems,” he said in an affidavit. The government has said it has no information suggesting he ever resumed any PFLP activities.
Deportation proceedings got underway in 1992, beginning a series of legal challenges that would span the next quarter-century. The IRB deportation decision in 2005 said there were reasonable grounds to believe he had once been “a member of an organization that there are reasonable grounds to believe has engaged in terrorist acts.”
Although the PFLP had conducted terrorist attacks before he joined, he “nonetheless embraced the ideology of the group, gained a trusted position within it, and participated in activities on behalf of the organization.” He appealed to the Federal Court but lost.
During a demonstration at Toronto’s Dundas Square in July 2014, Al-Yamani took to the stage and spoke angrily about “an immediate Palestinian third Intifada, popular resistance in the West Bank and in Gaza, in the refugee camps and in the diaspora.”
“That is the only way,” he said.
In the CBSA’s view, Al-Yamani’s speech went too far. A non-Canadian with a history of terrorism was effectively “calling for violent action,” not only in the Middle East but also among the Palestinian diaspora, the report said.
“This is in fact inciting the importation into Canada, as well as in other countries where Palestinians live, of political violence that is stemming from a conflict that takes place abroad,” the CBSA wrote.
Al-Yamani said he was emphasizing a popular resistance.
“I did not incite violence. I was directing my speech to [Palestinian Authority leader] Mahmoud Abbas, asking him if the negotiations are not getting us anywhere, give the keys to the UN (not to Hamas or any other violent organization),” Al-Yamani responded. “The pro-Israel media outlets intentionally amplified and exaggerate what I did mean.”
The Ontario Civil Liberties Association wrote in a letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale that the CBSA’s take on Al-Yamani’s speech was unreasonable and it would be “obscene” to deport him. “Mr. Al-Yamani is a model of civic and political engagement.”
But Canada’s largest Jewish advocacy group said Al-Yamani’s “call to import a Palestinian uprising” was disturbing. “It is time for the government to finally enforce his deportation,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
The CBSA has concluded that Al-Yamani can be safely removed to Lebanon. He traveled there in 2002 without any trouble, and once told a conference audience he could live there happily if he returned, the CBSA wrote.
“Much like his father did until he passed away from what appears to be natural causes, Mr. Al-Yamani could live in Lebanon without risk,” the agency wrote.
Al-Yamani argues it is not safe for him to go back.
Asked if he could see how his “third Intifada” speech could be interpreted as advocating violence, he responded, “If you are pro-Israel you’ll have this view.”
“They are still occupying land, building illegal settlements,” he added. “What do you expect people to do? Throw flowers?”
He later sent a reporter a passage from the CBSA report that said the agency had “no information indicating that Mr. Al-Yamani has maintained membership” in the PFLP and that until recently his activities had not raised national security concerns.
He said he was weighing his options since losing his last court appeal.
“I’ve lived in Canada 33 years. Thirty-three years is more than half my life,” he said.
“I truly consider Canada my home.”
The government has now been trying to deport him for 26 years, which is also how long it took to remove Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad, who carried out the PFLP attack that killed Shirdan’s grandfather, Leon.
Shown the CBSA’s conclusions about Al-Yamani’s involvement in the PFLP, Shirdan said he should be deported.
“He should have been gone long ago.”