The lawyer of a Syrian refugee who was arrested and later released amid an RCMP terrorism investigation in Kingston, Ont., is imploring the public not to malign his client and urging lawmakers not to play politics with the case.
Hussam Eddin Alzahabi, 20, was arrested after RCMP raided the home of his family, refugees who fled to Canada from Syria with the help of sponsorship by four churches. He was released without charge Friday as the investigation continues.
A friend of Alzahabi’s, a youth whose identity hasn’t been released, was charged with terrorism-related offences, RCMP said.
Alzahabi’s lawyer, Mohamed El Rashidy, says the fact that RCMP released Alzahabi back into the community within 24 hours of his arrest proves that his client wasn’t deemed to pose a security threat, and therefore shouldn’t face condemnation.
“That is on top of the fact that even if he was charged — like any other person, they remain innocent until convicted.”
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El Rashidy said it’s crucial that the legal system be allowed to keep its distance from politics, and urged politicians and commentators not to use Alzhabi’s case to malign refugee communities or further any political agenda.
“When I see people playing political football with people’s lives, and really our legal system, it’s very troubling,” he said.
“So it’s very disappointing to then see that when the RCMP is not going there, why are we — in our discussions in the media and other places — why do we go there? It raises a lot of disturbing questions.”
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El Rashidy praised the RCMP for not caving to political and social pressures and for respecting Alzahabi’s rights throughout the process.
“The fact that he’s had a chance to speak to his lawyer, the fact that he’s had legal guidance and the process led to him being released should make everybody view this as a successful process, an unfolding of the legal process before our eyes,” El Rashidy said.
“I see it as a sense of confidence when a police force, in this case the RCMP, is able to release someone after perhaps having a different perspective on the evidence before them. That tells me that they’re not giving into societal influence, political pressures.”
El Rashidy cited the example of sexual assault cases, in which he said police and prosecutors are under increasing pressure “to bring about charges that they normally would not have brought forward,” making them reluctant to withdraw charges that they’re not confident will lead to convictions.
“In this case, I think the fact that we had the individual released tells us that the RCMP are assessing the situation gradually, as they should, and thoroughly,” he said.
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Now that the RCMP has released Alzahabi without charge, it’s important that the 20-year-old not be unfairly convicted in the court of public opinion, El Rashidy said.
He warned that the stigma over being arrested in a terrorism investigation stands to cast a shadow over Alzahabi’s future employment prospects even though he hasn’t been charged, let alone convicted with anything.
“It’s extremely frustrating. As a society, we don’t have a solution for that,” El Rashidy said.
“What we often have — and not just in this particular case — is people end up losing jobs. They’re unable to get other jobs because oftentimes employers will Google their name and that is a serious problem.
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“In terms of how to deal with the damage that’s done to people’s reputation… we need to change our attitude when we hear that someone has faced charges or has been arrested.
“We need to change our attitude regarding that and view it as the legal system — which we cherish — views it, and that is that the person is innocent, they are not guilty until a court of law says so.”
Prior to his arrest, Alzahabi was working on improving his high school grades so that he could get into university, according to Bronek Korcynski, who oversaw the Our Lady of Lourdes church’s sponsorship of the family.
Documents from St. Thomas Church, which was part of the group sponsoring the family, said Alzahabi’s father, Amin Alzahabi, had once been imprisoned for not joining Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s political party.
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The documents also said their home in Damascus was destroyed, and the family would be “vulnerable to arrest and ‘extreme measures’” if they returned to Syria.
The elder Alzahabi told Global News that he believes his son is innocent.
“I know my son. I trust him,” he said.
— With files from Rebecca Joseph and Stewart Bell