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Are Intelligence Agencies Targeting Civil Rights Defenders?


The Toronto Star, Dec. 5, 2003

On the face of it, Rocco Galati's claim that U.S. and Canadian intelligence agencies want to kill him sounds too weird for words. His evidence is scanty. All that the 44-year-old constitutional lawyer produced for reporters yesterday in his crowded College St. office was a recorded telephone voice-mail message. In that message, an unidentified man chides Galati for aiding 'punk terrorist' Abdurahman Khadr, the 20-year-old Canadian imprisoned by the United States without charge in Cuba, who just made it back to Canada this week. 'Now you a dead wop,' the voice advises the Italian-born Galati. What's obvious is that this is some kind of a threat. What's less obvious is that it came, as Galati claims, from an 'unspecified intelligence agency or agencies.' He and his lawyer, Paul Slansky, provided no proof to back their suspicion that the caller represented a U.S. or Canadian security service.

Galati said only that he had heard the man's voice twice before, from similar recorded telephone threats uttered against a former client who subsequently disappeared. Which client? What case? Neither Galati nor Slansky would say. 'I'm not at liberty to discuss the case,' Galati said. So the whole thing sounds nuts. Right? Showboat lawyer works too hard, gets too paranoid, loses it. Right? And yet . . . and yet . . .

The world of security and intelligence in which Rocco Galati has been living for the past two years is weird. Spooks do strange things. In the 1970s, a Canadian royal commission laid bare R.C.M.P. security service practices that, on the surface, seemed unbelievable - like burning down barns. U.S. congressional investigations around the same time uncovered even stranger practices and plots, such as the C.I.A. plan to blow up Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar. If, prior to these official revelations, a College St. lawyer had announced that the C.I.A. was using exploding cigars and the Mounties were burning barns, he would have been dismissed as a loon.

So let's look at this from Galati's point of view. He is one of the few lawyers willing to publicly defend people who, in the post-9/11 world, are most unpopular. He doesn't just take on the clients that are demonstrably innocent, such as torture victim Maher Arar. He takes on those whose situation is far murkier. The media are all goo-goo over Arar now (they weren't when he was first arrested in the U.S. and deported for torture to Syria). The media are not all goo-goo over the Khadr family, even though they, like Arar, have never been charged with any crime. Galati, to his great credit, chose to defend the difficult ones.

And back in 2001, he and Slansky defended another unpopular man in another very murky case. The man was Delmart Edward Vreeland, an American locked up in the Don jail who was wanted in his own country for credit card fraud. What was unusual about Vreeland was his claim that the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, as the [Toronto] Star reported at the time, Vreeland handed over to his guards a sealed envelope in August, 2001, that predicted the attacks. Unfortunately, the guards didn't get around to opening it until September 14.

Vreeland also made other claims. He claimed he had been working for U.S. naval intelligence. He claimed that a Cuban immigrant named Nestor Fonseca, in jail in Toronto on drug charges, was plotting to kill Canadian and U.S. police officers. He claimed that a Canadian Embassy worker in Moscow named Marc Bastien had not died from natural causes in 2000 as the government said but had been poisoned. Vreeland's allegations against Fonseca were initially supported by Toronto police, who said they found a hit list in the Cuban's cell.

But by November, 2001, two months after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, everything changed. Crown prosecutors dropped the attempted murder charges against Fonseca, saying they had been based on the testimony of an 'unsavoury witness.' Three months later, prosecutors dropped a bevy of other charges against Fonseca, including extortion, and instead extradited him to the U.S. The apparent collapse of the Fonseca case also had the effect of destroying any credibility Vreeland may have had with regard to his more intriguing allegations about September 11 and the death of Bastien, the Moscow embassy worker.

Until January, 2002. That's when Quebec coroner Line Duchesne concluded that Bastien, described as an information systems handler, had indeed been poisoned - probably by someone who slipped a concentrated anti-schizophrenic drug into his drink in a Moscow bar. Vreeland's credibility suddenly shot up.

But eight months later, while out on bail awaiting an extradition hearing, he just disappeared. At the time, Slansky told the court he had gone to Vreeland's apartment to pick him up but found it ransacked, with key evidence related to his client's 9/11 claims missing. Did Vreeland skip town? Slansky argued no. He said he believed his client had been 'killed, kidnapped or harmed' because he had evidence that the U.S. government knew ahead of time about the September 11 attacks. Now Galati and Slansky are talking of similar threats. They say they recognize the voice of the man who said he wants to kill Galati. They don't say it was Vreeland that this man threatened before. They don't say it wasn't.