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Algerians celebrate but scars still sting: Some in limbo after vindication by court

Posted in

Wednesday 08 March 2006
JEFF HEINRICH
Montreal Gazette

Tears came to Fawzi Hoceni's eyes yesterday as he watched and listened to TV footage of police using tough tactics to arrest him and 11 other unarmed Montreal demonstrators in an Ottawa office tower three years ago.

Along with two non-Algerian supporters, eight of the 10 Algerian men, including Hoceni, were acquitted last month on charges of mischief for occupying the waiting room of Denis Coderre, who was citizenship and immigration minister, on May 29, 2003.

The sit-in lasted almost 10 hours before police attacked the the demonstrators with electric stun guns and hauled them away to spend the night in jail.

The trial is over, but for the Algerians the emotional - and in some cases, physical - scars remain. They and others who've fled the North African country want Canada to recognize what they consider their right: to stay here indefinitely.

Their two next steps: Lobby Canada's new immigration minister, Monte Solberg, and maybe sue the police for brutality.

"Now that we've finally been acquitted, our struggle makes more sense," Hoceni, 25, said at a news conference held yesterday by the Action Committee of Non-Status Algerians to celebrate their Feb. 24 court victory.

"The way we were treated is the way immigrants are criminalized in this country," said Hoceni, who has lived here since 2001 and is married to a British Columbia woman, but has no official residency status.

In a police videotape shown during the 25-day trial, Ottawa police tactical-squad officers were seen and heard zapping Algerians with Taser guns and punching one or two of them after forcing them to the floor in the waiting room of Coderre's offices in downtown Ottawa.

Photos taken after the incident show burn marks on two of the Algerian mens' necks; one man also had a bloody forehead.

A language barrier may have made the arrests worse, said Denis Barette, a lawyer for the group. Though led by a francophone, police barked commands to the French-speaking demonstrators only in English, a language the protesters could barely speak, the video shows.

In her ruling, Ontario Court Judge Anne Alder didn't address the demonstrators' complaints of police brutality, but did recognize the sit-in had been conducted calmly and non-violently and hadn't disrupted the activities of Coderre's employees.

Coderre was not present during the demonstration. He was shifted seven months later to another cabinet post and was dumped in 2004.

The protesters wanted Coderre to restore a moratorium on deportations to Algeria he had lifted in 2002 and to grant permanent residency to them and 1,060 other Algerians denied Canadian refugee status.

Since then, because of new procedures allowing Algerians to stay, only seven per cent are still without status. The most vocal - including those acquitted in Ottawa - are still in legal limbo.

Two protesters - Mohamed Cherfi and Djamel Maziani - had their mischief charges dropped and were deported. Cherfi was jailed in upstate New York. Granted U.S. refugee status on appeal, he wants to return to Canada as a permanent resident.
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