Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Students allege police harassment at rally ~ The Link (Concordia)

Students allege police harassment at rally

Plainclothes officers asked student "what side are you on?"

Sikander Hashmi, The Link

A handful of Concordia students at last Tuesday's freedom of speech rally are accusing Montreal police of harassment, claiming they were singled out on the basis of their faith and appearance. The six students involved are of Muslim, Arab, Indian or Pakistani descent.

As spectators at the rally organized by Concordia Hillel in response to the University administration's decision not to allow former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to speak on campus, they were approached by police.

"The four of us were standing near the group of demonstrators on the street when we were directed by a policewoman to stand on the sidewalk instead," said computer engineering student Anas Al-Khatib. The students said they complied.

Saad Syed, another engineering student, said they were listening to the speeches and discussing the strengths and weaknesses amongst themselves. They were asked to step aside by a plain-clothes police officer in a very firm tone.

According to student Shujaat Wasty, the police were interested in knowing where their sympathies laid.

"We were shocked. We asked them what the problem was. They asked us which side we were on. We were even more shocked by this," said the 22-year-old. "I asked them why they were asking us this question, and why only us, while there were many others standing around. They said they wanted to keep things peaceful."

Wasty said he told police that their actions were unconstitutional and that it was racial profiling.

"I asked them if it was my skin colour, or my friend's beard that made them approach us like this. I told them I know the Constitution of Canada and I know my rights, and my standing in front of my school is not illegal, nor does it warrant them harassing us, and only us," said the Pointe-Claire resident.

Lissia de Bellefeuille, head of communications and media relations at the Montreal police, refused to comment on the students' allegations.

"Unfortunately, we receive too many requests from the national media and do not respond to any university's publication," she wrote in an email.

Aisha Khan, a first-year political science student, said police had no problem with where she and a friend were standing until a Muslim woman wearing a face-veil came to speak to them.

"That's when the cops realized we were Muslims," she said.

"As we were talking, a policewoman came up to us and said, 'You can't stand here anymore, go there‚' and she pointed to the sidewalk," said Naurin Malick. "The girl with the face-veil moved but my friend and I didn't comply because we knew we were being moved because they realized we weren't Jews." She also said that neither she nor Khan are visibly Muslim.

"About a minute later, the policewoman came back and started shoving me off the street and telling my friend to leave again. I turned around and told her not to touch me," said the third-year economics student.

Khan said she and Malick then did as they were instructed to avoid confrontation. The women then left the rally.

"The cops were completely fine with us as long as they thought we weren't Muslims. They had a problem with us being on the street only after they found out we were Muslims," noted 19-year-old Khan.

"They were completely racist," she said. "We should not have to face racism and harassment by those who are put into place to protect us."

Al-Khatib feels the police action was unwarranted. "We were standing next to at least four uniformed policemen who were all within earshot of us; we were all talking loud enough for them to know we weren't planning anything. And they were close enough to keep an eye on us if they wanted," he said.

Syed found the presence of plainclothes officers at the rally disturbing.

"I have major issues with plainclothes police officers walking amongst a crowd of university students, on campus and pulling them aside and intimidating them. How is this supposed to make me feel? he asked. Am I supposed to feel welcome as a member of a community that places importance on freedom of assembly?"

Although Syed admitted he can't be sure of what drove police to pick him and his friends out of the crowd, he said, "I still have a hard time believing that we weren't picked out because the police perceived us to be different from a crowd of people who are apparently in support of Israel."

Wasty said this was the first time he was subjected to "blatant racism" of "this magnitude". He described it as being "honestly disgusting".

When filmmaker Michka Saäl released her documentary Zero Tolerance last March about the relationship between Montreal police and ethnic minorities, the police department reiterated that racial profiling is against its official policy and would not be tolerated.

Some of the students involved said they will file a formal complaint against the police, as well as demand an apology from the force.


(Web edition is missing quotation marks for some reason. Note: I'm aware of the fact that there's no such thing as 'Muslim descent', as stated in the first paragraph. An editor did that by changing around my original words.)


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