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Canada court strikes down secrecy law provisions in Arar reporter case

[JURIST] A Superior Court of Ontario judge Thursday threw out part of a secrecy law invoked to search a reporter's home for the source of the story she published on Maher Arar [advocacy website; CBC timeline]. Juliet O'Neill [CBC interview], a journalist with the Ottawa Citizen [official website] newspaper, had her home raided [Reuters report] in 2004 after she published a story in 2003 about Arar, the Canadian citizen who on suspicion of being linked to Al Qaeda was deported from the US to Syria in 2002 and tortured there. The legal authority for searching O'Neill's garbage, monitoring her emails, conducting surveillance, and the search warrant for her house came from provisions of the Security of Information Act [CSIS backgrounder; text] passed as part of a wide-ranging anti-terrorism law three months after the Sept. 11 attacks [JURIST news archive] in the US.

Justice Lynn Ratushny said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) [official website] used the criminal charges as a tool to uncover O'Neill's confidential sources and cast a chill over the entire media, "The RCMP was entitled to enforce the Security of Information Act against O'Neill, but when it did, it's purpose was an abuse. Given the importance of freedom of expression and the press in our democracy, this is conduct that has caused great prejudice to those freedoms." Ratushny also questioned the vagueness of the anti-leakage provisions in the Act, stating: "In their present state, the impugned sections give the state the ability to arbitrarily protect whatever information it chooses to classify as 'secret official' or 'official' or unauthorized for disclosure - and to punish by way of a criminal offence those 'speakers,' 'receivers' and 'listeners' who come within that protected sphere." The court's decision is seen as a landmark victory for the freedom of press in Canada.

Arar [JURIST news archive] was detained in 2002 during a layover at New York's JFK airport on a flight home to Canada from Tunisia; he was detained by US immigration officials for two weeks and then deported on a US government plane to Jordan and then taken to Syria, where he was born. Arar alleged he was deported so that he could be tortured in Syria, where he eventually made false admissions of terrorist activity. He was released from Syrian custody in 2003. The official Arar Commission [official website] inquiry concluded [commission materials] in September that the US "very likely" acted upon inaccurate and misleading information [JURIST report] about Arar provided by the RCMP. AP has more.

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