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Canada needs a more coherent and consistent policy on terrorism charges
Last week, I published this op-ed in the Globe and Mail. I remain concerned about Canada’s uneven application of its terrorism laws — why some people get charged with terrorism offences while others do not. In my view, it’s very much in the public interest to proceed with these charges. Read on for my reasons why:
Over the course of the past few months, Canada has repatriated a number of Canadian women from Kurdish-run refugee camps in Syria. These women are believed to have travelled overseas to join and participate in building the Islamic State.
Last week, Kimberly Polman, who left Canada in 2014 to join the Islamic State, appeared in a B.C. courtroom after being repatriated in October. It remains unclear whether Ms. Polman will be charged under Canada’s terrorism laws, despite the federal government’s statement that prosecuting terrorism offences is a priority. Few charges have been brought against other women who left Canada to join the Islamic State.
Terrorism charges remain relatively rare in Canada, despite a growing number of Canadians who have been repatriated from Islamic State detention facilities, and increases in domestic incidents of ideologically motivated and violent extremism in Canada. When charges are laid, their application is also uneven: women are less likely to face charges than their male counterparts, and charges relating to anti-Muslim or racially motivated violence are ad hoc, with some facing charges of hate crimes or other criminal offences, while others face terrorism charges. And in the rare cases of women being charged with terrorism offences, they are often released from prison quickly, even, in one instance, after committing a terrorist attack.
It’s not clear why terrorism charges are not being more actively pursued, particularly in cases of women being released from Islamic State detention camps. These women travelled to join a terrorist group, and facilitated and participated in terrorist activity while there – whether that was helping to support and establish the caliphate, or through active participation in things like the Islamic State morality police. By travelling to join the caliphate, these women were participating in the state-building activities of a terrorist group, which included building families with Islamic State fighters.
Of course, it’s possible that the Canadian women in question did little to participate in or facilitate acts of terrorism while in Syria or Iraq, which might make them difficult to charge (although leaving Canada to join a terrorist group remains a criminal offence). It’s also possible that the RCMP or prosecutors don’t see these women as a threat and won’t be pursuing an investigation or charges, despite what the government said about “facing the full force of Canadian law.” There might also be insufficient evidence about their departure to charge them with leaving to join a terrorist group. But if this is the case, we should ask ourselves why: is it because they were not under surveillance or investigation at the time of their departure? This is a question that begs other follow-up questions about our investigative priorities and resources when it comes to terrorism.
Canada needs a more coherent policy on charges and prosecutorial decisions when violence rises to the level of terrorism. This should not be subjective: when the basic criteria are met, terrorism charges should be pursued, because these charges have public policy ramifications.
How individuals are charged, and for what crimes, has second-order effects: this ranges from the types of services they’re offered in prison, to parole decisions, to how they are perceived publicly. It also affects whether they’re referred to special programming (i.e. social services) upon release from prison, all of which can impact their decision to abandon (or not) their extremist ideology.
These decisions also affect how we track recidivism, as well as how we track increases or decreases in terrorism offences and activities. As importantly, they affect how funds are allocated, and the level of priority placed on countering violent extremism. Without criminal charges and prosecutions, it’s difficult to explain the full extent of terrorism and violent extremism in Canada to the public, or to public policymakers. As a result, we have uninformed public debates, with some falsely claiming that ideologically motivated violent extremism isn’t a big issue in Canada, or that few women participate in terrorist activities.
It’s in the public interest to have extremist violence charged and prosecuted as terrorism. Even when these prosecutions fail to produce a conviction, we find out why, which in turn can help us design better public policies, whether that is legislative reform or better tools for law enforcement.
We shouldn’t be afraid to fail – we should be afraid of not trying.
Regardless of the reasons why, Canadians are owed an explanation about how terrorism charges are laid in Canada, why there is a lack of consistent policy, and how not charging acts of violence as terrorism is in the public interest. Because there are compelling reasons why every act of terrorism should be prosecuted as such, regardless of who perpetrates it.
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