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Canada: Court to hear challenge to ‘religious symbols’ law | US & Canada

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A long-awaited court case gets under way this week in the Canadian province of Quebec, where civil rights groups say a law that prohibits the wearing of religious garb by some public servants violates the country’s constitution.

The lawsuit against Bill 21 was filed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Ichrak Nourel Hak, a Sikh woman, and it will be heard in Quebec Superior Court on November 2.

The law, passed in June 2019, bars some teachers, lawyers, police officers and others in the public sphere from wearing religious symbols on the job, including the hijab worn by Muslim women, kippahs worn by Jewish men, and turbans worn by Sikhs.

The applicants say the law is discriminatory and creates “second-class citizenship” in Canada.

 

People have “lost their jobs simply because of what they wear and what they believe”, Mustafa Farooq, the CEO of NCCM, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.

“People have had to leave the province and change who they are. That is not acceptable. That’s why we will never stop fighting Bill 21.”

Nour Farhat, a Muslim lawyer from Montreal who wears a hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, was working towards a master’s degree in law – in hopes of fulfilling her dream of becoming a state prosecutor – when Bill 21 was passed last year.

The law has since forced her to work at a private firm because she cannot work as a state employee while wearing a hijab.

“(Bill 21) prohibited me from taking a path I always wanted to take,” Farhat told Al Jazeera. The court case, she added, will be one of the “biggest trials of (her) life”.

Anti-Muslim sentiment

Despite staunch opposition, Quebec Premier Francois Legault has defended the legislation, saying it is a moderate measure that does not violate freedom of religion and is supported by a “vast majority of Quebecers”.

A survey of more than 1,200 Quebecers conducted by Leger Marketing in May 2019 showed that 63 percent of people in the province supported Bill 21.

However, according to the poll, which was commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies, only 37 percent of Quebecers had a positive view of Muslims while only 28 percent had a positive view of Islam.

Of those with negative views of Islam, 88 percent supported the ban on religious symbols for public school teachers, the survey found.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has defended Bill 21, saying the law is a moderate measure that is supported by a majority of Quebecers [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

While the Quebec government says the bill is applied to people of all faiths equally, civil rights and community groups say Muslims are bearing the brunt of its effects – especially Muslim women who wear the hijab.

“It is impossible to deny that there are xenophobic parts to this bill,” NCCM’s Farooq said. “There is a reason why this bill is coming from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism.”

Legault has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that systemic racism exists in Quebec, despite numerous reports outlining the problem.

“Whenever the politicians are talking about the bill, they are always talking about Muslim women – and not Sikh men or Jewish men,” Farhat told Al Jazeera.

After Bill 21 was first tabled in March 2019, Justice Femme, a Montreal women’s rights group, reported receiving more than 40 calls from Muslim women reporting hate incidents, including verbal and physical abuse, being spat on and having people attempt to rip their hijab off.

The murder of six Muslim men at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 further brought Islamophobia in the province into the spotlight.

Recent anti-Muslim attacks outside of Quebec have also raised concerns. In September, a Muslim man was killed outside a Toronto-area mosque by a man with ties to a white supremacist ideology, sending shockwaves across the Canadian Muslim community.

‘Uphill battle’ in court

The legal case against Bill 21 “will be an uphill battle”, however, Montreal-based human rights lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Mcgill University Pearl Eliadis told Al Jazeera.

Eliadis said the difficulty lies in showing a legal basis to strike down the law that falls outside the exceptions offered by what’s called a “notwithstanding clause”, which the Quebec government invoked to pass Bill 21.

That seldom-used clause allows governments to override specific parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom for up to five years.

It is impossible to deny that there are xenophobic parts to this bill. There is a reason why this bill is coming from a man (Legault) who refuses to use the term systemic racism

Mustafa Farooq, National Council of Canadian Muslims

In December of last year, the Quebec Court of Appeal rejected a motion from NCCM and CCLA to suspend the law’s application until the case could be heard on its merits, saying the notwithstanding clause left them no choice but to rule against the plaintiffs.

Still, Eliadis said there are some provisions in the Canadian charter that are not touched by the notwithstanding clause – such as gender equality and multiculturalism – that can be used to challenge the bill.

That is what the applicants will do in their case – and they are hopeful the law will be overturned. “We want the bill struck down in its entirety,” NCCM’s Farooq said.



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Indigenous man faces up to 10 years in prison for Facebook posts | Black Lives Matter News

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An Indigenous man faces up to 10 years in prison over “threats” allegedly made on social media at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the United States last year, drawing outrage from activists and observers who say the case is part of a “heavy-handed” law enforcement response to the protest movement.

Loren Reed, 26, of Page, Arizona, was arrested on June 2, after the FBI and the Page Police Department (PPD) investigated comments on public social media and in a private group chat surveilled by police.

The complaint against Reed, filed on June 2, outlines the case and accuses him of making “a threat to unlawfully damage or destroy” the Page Magistrate Court Building by “fire”.

Facebook post

The arrest stemmed from a Facebook status posted on Reed’s account on May 30 asking people to “React to my status if you didn’t get my invite to the Page riot happening tomorrow”.

Someone responded asking him not to “torch the bars”, to which he replied: “nah. Just the courthouse”.

Following the post, a “Concerned Citizen” alerted the police about Reed’s public comments on the “Page riot” on May 30, according to documents obtained by Al Jazeera through a public information request, leading to a PPD officer to go undercover and join a private Facebook group, wherein Reed allegedly stated a desire to burn the Page courthouse, “riot” and “loot”.

Reed has been in pretrial detention since June 2. The court ruled he was a flight risk on July 14, citing the length of his possible sentence, his previous non-violent criminal history of failure to comply with court orders and providing false information to law enforcement, and his “unknown” social history.

He was formally indicted on September 29, after prosecutors filed two extensions to indict due to the coronavirus pandemic. Grassroots activist groups have urged for Reed’s release. The Tucson Anti-Repression Crew said his arrest for “organizing a protest” means his “repression is a political act”. Illinois’s Flyover Social Center urged people to “[f]ight for his release, and the release of all political prisoners.”

The conversation in the Facebook group is documented in more than 90 pages attached to the criminal complaint. It is peppered with memes and apparent humour and covers topics like systemic racism in the US, police violence, and comments by Page’s mayor about alcoholism among Indigenous communities, for which he later apologised.

Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program and former FBI agent, reviewed the Facebook conversation referenced in the indictment and said law enforcement took “an overwrought response to” what appears as “a private group of people engaging in shock talk”.

Private chat

The complaint says an undercover police officer received a private message from Reed that read: “I wanna burn down the courthouse” before inviting the officer to the private group. Throughout the chat, Reed expressed a desire to burn down the courthouse, the complaint says.

The publicly available documents do not show that Reed was in possession of fuel or supplies necessary to burn the courthouse.

Hoax threats are also illegal, German noted, “but … this is a private group, so it’s not as if they were articulating a threat that the public could have been alarmed by.”

The complaint says members of the private group also expressed “dislike for police and their willingness to engage in violence” towards police and mentions a “photograph of a box of rocks with anti-law enforcement messages painted on the rocks”.

The document further alleges that a similarly painted rock was found by PPD after being “thrown” at an officer’s house on June 2. Neither the PPD incident report nor officer body camera footage of the rock being collected obtained by Al Jazeera show allegations of it being thrown.

The complaint also mentions Reed going to a bar and yelling anti-police slogans. German noted this and other allegations of anti-police attitudes have “nothing to do with the charge of burning down the courthouse”.

The arrest and investigation came as US President Donald Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr were adopting tough, “law and order” rhetoric against sometimes violent racial justice protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. Trump vowed to designate Antifa – a decentralised movement of far-left protesters – as a “terror” organisation.

German said he feared the “hyperbolic” rhetoric surrounding “so-called ‘Antifa’” from Trump and Barr “would spark an over-aggressive police response, and this case seems to be an example of that”.

Reed’s lawyer, Doug Passon, declined to comment on the case and said he instructed Reed to do the same.

Al Jazeera spoke with several of Reed’s friends and coworkers, none of whom said Reed posed a serious threat.

One of the allegations included in the complaint covers plans to “loot” during the riot and appears to stem from this exchange in the private chat. A member writes: “people ask, why do they drink? can’t they just go home … it’s trauma at a young age that’s causing these sorts of problems”.

Another member – not Reed – responds “What pharmacies we looting tho?”, to which people responded with laughing face emojis. Reed responds: “There’s only safeway and walmart”, with more laughing reactions.

Johnathan Michael Yellick, 24, has known Reed for 10 years and described him as “spontaneous”, “open” and “talkative”. They bonded through their teen years as parts of a friend’s group, worrying about relationships and school, and going on impromptu hiking trips.

Yellick said Reed was a reliable friend and recalled driving with him for up to four hours to visit sites in Arizona and Utah like Hite Marina and Lake Powell, talking for hours about issues in their personal lives.

He said that Reed “loves making people laugh” and that dark humour was a part of Reed’s sense of humour.

Loren Reed is seen during a hiking trip in this undated photo [Al Jazeera courtesy of Johnathan Yellick]

When portions of the chat included in the complaint were described to Yellick, including the section about “looting” a pharmacy, Yelick said “that was definitely dark humour.”

Yellick was not involved in the Facebook conversation, but from his experience speaking to Reed, when serious topics arose, Reed was “talking with emotion more than anything”.

When asked if he thought Reed would engage in “terroristic threats”, Yellick replied: “Absolutely not. It would come down to the dark humour kind of thing. Never have I thought Loren would do that kind of thing.”

Reed was quoted by Forgive Everyone, an artists’ collective that does advocacy work for prisoners, as saying that the summer’s uprising opened the door to discussing issues around race and policing.

“It gave me an opportunity to say what I’ve wanted to say for years … If I tried to have these arguments beforehand, I would immediately get shut down. These things never really got brought to light until recently,” he reportedly said.

Other threats

Reed is not the only person to be arrested for comments made on social media during the racial justice protests that swept the US last year.

In July, Ebon Ellis, 25, an organiser in Evansville, Indiana, was arrested after posting a video on Facebook threatening the lives of local police and elected officials, motioning with his hand as if it were a gun and pulling the trigger.

Ellis, who is Black, was sentenced to two years’ probation and a psychiatric evaluation on November 13 after pleading guilty to three counts of felony intimidation.

Samuel Mara, a Black man reportedly commonly seen at Black Lives Matter protests in Buffalo, New York, was arrested on July 11 and accused of threatening to kill a person related to a rumoured racist counterprotest during a live video on social media. He faces a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.

When compared to other charges related to making threats and their maximum sentences, including the five-year penalty for mailing the US president a threat, Reed faces “really serious charges, a potential 10-year sentence for essentially mouthing off on the internet”, James Clark, a member the progressive National Lawyers Guild, told Al Jazeera.

Clark noted the statute under which Reed is charged, colloquially known as the federal arson statute, “is one of a series of federal criminal statutes that came out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s” used to discourage protests.

“The Federal Riot Act was passed in 1968, as part of the Civil Rights Act, after [Martin Luther King Jr] was assassinated. The civil disorder statute was passed in 1968,” Clark said. “Then the federal arson statute was passed in 1970.”

The civil disorder statute was cited in dozens of cases against protesters over the summer.

The federal riot act, informally known as the “H Rap Brown law” in reference to a then-non-violent Black activist who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was cited by Barr over the summer when he promised to arrest “instigators” during the wave of unrest.

A man takes part in a march with veterans to Backwater Bridge just outside of the Oceti Sakowin camp during a snowfall as ‘water protectors’ continue to demonstrate against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016 [Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

Four Indigenous protesters at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were charged with civil disorder and use of fire to commit a federal felony offense, under the federal arson statute. They all agreed to non-cooperating plea deal, which dropped the use of fire charges.

Clark said it appears these laws “sit idle until there’s another really serious … Black and Indigenous protest movement, and then they get weaponised against those movements.”

Courts have recently ruled that portions of the federal riot act, formally called the Anti-Riot Act of 1968, are unconstitutional, including those that make it a crime to “encourage” or “promote” riots, as this is protected speech.

German, who has studied far-right militancy within police forces, raised the example of social media groups on the far right, such as the “Boogaloo bois” where “you’d hear hot political rhetoric like this” with little reaction from the FBI.

German described law enforcement’s response to the summer protests as “heavy-handed”. Regarding Reed’s case, only the discovery of an “actual weapon” could “alter [his] perception”, German concluded.

When asked for comment, PPD said it acted in a “supporting role” to the FBI and directed Al Jazeera to “contact the United States Attorney’s Public Information Office for any questions you have regarding this case”.

Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office handling the case, declined to comment due to it being an ongoing case and referred Al Jazeera to a press release and public documents.

Reed’s trial is scheduled for April 6, 2021, following a January 12 continuance filed by Passon to review documents. He will have been in pretrial detention for 10 months.



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