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Welcomed by Canada for defying a dictator, Syrian activist now considered a security risk

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An activist who has been tortured for defying a dictator has been flagged as a national security risk by Canada’s immigration officials, after she participated in international efforts to hold Syria accountable for human rights violations.

Noura Aljizawi, a prominent Syrian human rights defender, was previously arrested for criticizing the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. After leading anti-government protests during the Arab Spring, she was arrested and tortured with electric cables. After the unrest in Syria devolved into civil war, Aljizawi was chosen to represent opposition parties in failed negotiations to end the conflict.

In an interview with CTV National News, Aljizawi, now living in Canada, says she’s being psychologically traumatized in this country. In Syria she understood what she stood for and who she was fighting against, but in Canada, Aljizawi says cannot defend herself if immigration officials refuse to disclose why they consider her a potential threat.

“I survived detention in Syria three times. I survived torture and death threats by the Assad regime -- but this kind of torture is taking a different toll,” said Aljizawi.

“It’s ruining my life.”

HIGHER STAKES

After fleeing Syria to Turkey, Aljizawi moved to Canada after being accepted into the University of Toronto’s scholars-at-risk program in 2017.

The 35-year old is currently working at Citizen Lab and researching how authoritarian states use digital technology to oppress people across the globe.

After years of living in exile, the initial safety she found in Canada gave her the stability to build her personal life. Aljizawi is now married and has a five-year-old child with much more to lose.

She’s concerned that being labelled a security risk will lead to deportation and forced separation from her husband and daughter.

“When I look at my daughter's face, I think, ‘I wish I don't have you. You make me vulnerable.’”

Noura Aljizawi and her husband, Bahr Abdul Razzak, and their five-year-old daughter. The couple’s immigration application is at risk because of suspicions that Aljizawi is a security threat. (Supplied photo)

UNEXPLAINED DELAYS

Aljizawi’s immigration troubles began when she and her husband applied for permanent residency. They decided to apply for express entry since both of them were highly skilled technology workers. According to the website of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), express entry applications are usually processed within six months. But the couple has been waiting for nearly three years.

The couple had no idea why their permanent residency application was taking so long until they received a cryptic email this past January from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). An agent requested an interview with Aljizawi to “clarify some concerns pertaining to s.34 of the Immigration and Refugee and Protection Act.”

“Section 34 relates to national security concerns but it doesn’t tell us what it is,” said Wennie Lee, Aljizawi’s immigration lawyer.

“It could be espionage. It could be subversion of any government. It could be a danger to the security of Canada.”

Lee says section 34 interviews are usually conducted by CSIS officers instead of border agents. The address for the interview was a warehouse-like structure near Pearson International Airport that houses detention cells. Lee requested more information from CBSA so Aljizawi could understand the basis for the concerns and properly defend herself.

A BLACK HOLE OF INFORMATION

Instead, the interview was abruptly cancelled and has not been rescheduled. The status of Aljizawi’s immigration application has disappeared into a black hole.

To get answers, Lee is suing in federal court to make the government turn over information about its security concerns or force it to continue processing Aljizawi’s file.

IRCC says it cannot provide information on Aljizawi’s case because of privacy legislation and that it would be inappropriate to comment while the matter is before the court.

In an email, CBSA says no bureaucratic error occurred in Aljizawi’s file and that the agency is reviewing all relevant factors.

"The CBSA has a legal obligation to remove all foreign nationals and permanent residents who are inadmissible under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act," said CBSA spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé in an email. 

Meanwhile, a network of women human rights activists are mobilizing to protect Aljizawi as she waits for the legal decision.

POTENTIAL TARGET FOR VIOLENCE

“Noura is at risk of assassination. She is a female human rights defender who has had a lot of influence,” said Urooj Mian, the CEO of Sustainable Human Empowerment told CTV News.

Mian says in early June, Canadian and Dutch government lawyers went to the International Court of Justice to prosecute the Assad regime for war crimes and hold it accountable for gross human rights violations. At the Hague, Canada and the Netherlands called on Syria to stop its alleged campaign of torture against people who opposed Assad during the country’s civil war.

Aljizawi’s testimony about her torture was part of the evidence presented in court.

There are concerns about meddling in Aljizawi’s case by people aligned with the Syrian regime.

“We have to take her case public to protect her.” Mian points out that other high profile activists Syrian activists have been murdered in Turkey and Germany.

Mian’s network has sent letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the deputy prime minister and the ministers of foreign affairs, public safety and immigration, alerting them to Aljizawi’s vulnerabilities and has urged them to “protect, not endanger” the human rights defender.

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