A Syrian activist who was subject to torture by Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been flagged by Canada as a national security risk, following her involvement in international legal efforts against Damascus.
Over the past decade, 35-year-old Noura Aljizawi, a prominent Syrian human rights activist and defender, was arrested numerous times for criticising the Syrian regime and its leadership, as well as for leading anti-government protests during the Arab Spring since 2011.
In detention, she was reportedly subject to the common torture tactics used by regime security forces, such as with electric cables. She was then chosen to represent opposition parties in failed negotiations to end the crisis as Syria devolved into armed conflict and civil war.
Aljizawi then fled to Turkiye like many refugees and opposition figures, before moving to Canada when the University of Toronto accepted her into its scholars-at-risk program in 2017. She now works at the university’s Citizen Lab, conducting research on how authoritarian regimes use digital technology to oppress and monitor their countries and people.
Despite the activist and her husband having applied for permanent residency through express entry – as they are both highly skilled technology workers – which should have been processed within six months, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) agency has still not processed them for almost three years.
The confusion was finally partly addressed when they received an email in January this year from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which requested an interview with Aljizawi to “clarify some concerns pertaining to s.34 of the Immigration and Refugee and Protection Act.”
According to the news outlet CTV, Aljizawi’s immigration lawyer Wennie Lee said that “Section 34 relates to national security concerns but it doesn’t tell us what it is”. She mused that “It could be espionage. It could be subversion of any government. It could be a danger to the security of Canada.”
It is thought that the Canadian authorities’ flagging of Aljizawi stems back to the launching of a legal case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to prosecute the Assad regime for war crimes and hold it accountable for numerous human rights violations. Despite the fact that it was being led by lawyers from the Canadian and Dutch governments, Aljizawi is supposedly under suspicion by Ottawa for her testimony about her torture as part of the evidence presented in court. That contradiction has raised concerns of potential meddling in her case by some people aligned with the Syrian regime.
In her interview with CTV, Aljizawi lamented that she has become psychologically traumatised in Canada. “I survived detention in Syria three times. I survived torture and death threats by the Assad regime — but this kind of torture is taking a different toll.”
While her fight against the regime in Syria was clear and direct, she complained that she is finding it difficult to defend herself in Canada as immigration officials refuse to disclose why they even consider her a potential threat.
The case and her label as a security risk has led to concern that it could lead to her deportation and forced separation from her husband and daughter. “When I look at my daughter’s face, I think, ‘I wish I don’t have you. You make me vulnerable,” she said.
For now, her lawyer Lee is suing in federal court in an attempt to make the Canadian government reveal information about its security concerns or force it to continue processing Aljizawi’s residency file.