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Atlantica and the Criminalization of Dissent

A Dissenter's Encounter With Canadian Justice

by Ron Sawlor

An billboard in Halifax advertising the Atlantic Gateway, a project that critics say poses a serious threat to labour and environmental rights.
An billboard in Halifax advertising the Atlantic Gateway, a project that critics say poses a serious threat to labour and environmental rights.

Over two and a half years ago, Halifax, Nova Scotia hosted Atlantica 2007 – Charting the Course, a three-day conference organized by the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce and the Nova Scotia Chamber of Commerce. Despite high-profile speakers such as then Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald and Canada's current Defense Minister Peter MacKay, few people in Halifax know what the conference was about or why it took place. Media coverage focused with near exclusivity on the protesters, rather than the content of the conference itself.
            Asaf Rashid was one of those protesters. On June 15th, 2007, he was one of nearly two dozen protesters arrested by police. Rashid was subsequently charged with “Possession of a weapon dangerous to the public.”
            The 'weapon' was a single marble.
During a chaotic scene at the Halifax protest, Rashid was scooped up with several others in a mass arrest. He felt like the police actions were an attempt to end the protest quickly by “trying to arrest as many people as possible.”  Despite offering no resistance, Asaf was “taken down” by three police officers and searched. From one of Rashid’s pockets, a police officer withdrew the marble and announced he was arresting him on the 'dangerous weapon' charge.  He spent three days in jail after his arrest.
            Rashid’s interest in Atlantica began over a year before his arrest.  “I was part of a pretty large group of several hundred that showed up to protest the Atlantica conference [in St John, New Brunswick in June 2006] and demonstrate that workers, students [and] people in communities did not see eye-to-eye with Atlantica.”
            Atlantica, or the Atlantic Gateway project, is supposed to make it easier for good and services to flow in and out of Atlantic Canada, but Rashid and other opponents say it presents a serious threat to labour and environmental standards.
            Rashid says his decision to demonstrate against something he believed threatened social and environmental rights– and the fallout of that decision – provide a warning about the criminalization of dissent.
            Rashid explains the term ‘criminalization of dissent’ as actions designed to stop or discourage people from challenging the structures that oppress them.   “We're talking about poor people, people that are in marginalized positions, that are trying to raise their voices, that are trying to take actions to try to change their conditions,” he says.  Their dissent “could take the form of a speech or a protest, it could take the form of people organizing events to educate about the poverty or about the environmental injustice.”
According to Rashid, the criminalization of dissent can take many forms, from creating ‘free speech zones’ (also called ‘protest pens’) during demonstrations to police going to the homes of organizers to intimidate them.
            According to Rashid, the criminalization of dissent in his case took the form of conditions after his arrest that limited participation in protests and public demonstrations.  He also points to the ‘trumped up charges’ of possession of a weapon.  “If the average person is walking around with a marble in his or her pocket and they're arrested, that's not going to be considered a weapon...it would be ridiculous; but it's the political nature of the arrest that leads to treating every single possible thing that this person has on them or is doing as a crime, in order to make sure that they're more restricted.”
After his arrest, the restrictions Rashid faced made further participation in public protest impossible and denied him the right to communicate with his fellow accused. This restriction affected the construction of his legal defense as he awaited his day in court - a wait that consumed two years and eight months of his life. Rashid was finally sentenced on February 24 a conditional discharge that included an 18-month period of probation, 100 hours of community service and $100.00 in fines. Additionally, Rashid’s record of discharge will continue for 3 years after the period of probation ends.
Despite his experience, Rashid continues to organize around causes he believes in, most recently, resistance to the G8 ministers’ meeting in Halifax.


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669 words


a marble!?

This country is a disgrace. Viva Rashid!

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