(AP) A newspaper executive condemned the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for searching the home and office of a reporter who wrote about a Syrian-born Canadian suspected of links to al-Qaida.
Wednesday’s search involving Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill “smacks of a police-state mentality,” said Gordon Fisher, president of news and information for CanWest Global Communications Corp., which owns the newspaper.
Sgt. Jocelyn Mimeault of the RCMP said O’Neill is being investigated for allegedly breaking Canada’s government secrecy laws in a story on the case of Maher Arar that quoted a leaked document. The reporter could face criminal charges.
Arar, 33, a computer engineer who lives in Ottawa, was detained by U.S. authorities in New York in 2002 while on his way home from a visit to Tunisia after intelligence officials raised suspicions he had al-Qaida connections.
He was deported to Syria, where he says he was tortured. Released Oct. 5 and now back in Canada, Arar vehemently denies being a terrorist and has not been charged with any crime.
The Mounties searched O’Neill’s home for more than five hours and left with a box of materials in an attempt to find the source of a government information leak in the Arar case. They also searched the Ottawa Citizen’s city hall bureau.
O’Neill’s Nov. 8 story cited “a security source” and a leaked document offering details of what Arar allegedly told Syrian military intelligence officials during his incarceration. She reported that Arar told the Syrians he attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in 1993.
After his release, Arar said he was tortured for months by the Syrians, who pressed him about links to al-Qaida. He insisted he made up a bogus confession under torture and denied any involvement in terrorism.
Arar also has called for a public inquiry into any role Canadian police and intelligence officials played in his deportation. The federal government has rejected those calls.
Stephen Watt, an attorney for Arar, has said he will file suit against the United States for wrongfully expelling him to Syria.
The Arar case has caused a storm of controversy in Canada over whether information provided to the Americans by Canadian authorities led to his detention. Prime Minister Paul Martin has vowed to track the information trail.
O’Neill, a journalist for 30 years, looked drained as she emerged from her house with her lawyer and said she was “deeply offended” by the search.
“It was a five-hour invasion of my privacy and it felt like I was stripped naked,” she told CanWest News Service. “They took my address books, contact books, Rolodex, and my ability to do my work has been seriously handicapped as a result.”
A conviction under the security law carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
The search and the prospect that O’Neill may be charged under the federal Security of Information Act are disturbing signs of police intimidation, Fisher said.
“It is clear to us that the actions of today are meant to divert us from our attempts to inform the public of any role played by the RCMP, CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) or the federal government in this matter,” he said.
Ottawa Citizen Editor-in-Chief Scott Anderson said the searches were conducted in relation to a section of the Security of Information Act, which contains broad prohibitions against distribution or unauthorized possession of sensitive government materials.
The newspaper has asked that anything taken from O’Neill’s house be sealed in court “so that we can pursue action against this search warrant if necessary,” Anderson said.
The law, based largely on the former Official Secrets Act, was passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. In recent years, the Mounties have investigated how classified documents ended up in the media.