A speaking tour of Canada by Mustafa Barghouti, a well-known peace activist and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was cancelled last week due to delays in the Canadian visa application process.
Barghouti, who finished second to Mahmoud Abbas in the 2005 Palestinian presidential election, had been set to visit Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal – where he was scheduled to speak at the University of Montreal on March 21 – in a tour organized by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. In Ottawa, Barghouti was scheduled to meet with members of the three Canadian opposition parties, some of whom called the offices of the foreign minister and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in an effort to expedite the visa process.
According to a press release, CJPME attributed the delays to “a broader strategy to muzzle or obstruct any voice critical of the policies of the Israeli government.”
According to Grace Batchoun, a spokesperson for CJPME, the trip to Canada from Barghouti’s residence in Ramallah in the West Bank required that he cross into Jordan before flying overseas, as Palestinians cannot enter Tel Aviv to depart from Israel. When the visa was issued Friday, the night before Barghouti was scheduled to speak at the University of Toronto, Batchoun said, the Jordanian border and the Canadian mission were both closed for Shabbat.
“They decided to sort of trash our plan,” Batchoun said. “They didn’t want his message to come out.”
While Melanie Carkner, a spokesperson for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, would not comment on this specific case, she explained some of the possible reasons for delays in visa application processes.
“Canadian officials do their utmost to complete visa applications in a timely manner when urgent situations arise, but in some cases, such as when information is incomplete or arrives at the last minute, this is not possible,” Carkner said. “A visa can be issued only when the complete application is received – and I’m giving you a hint here.”
Barghouti could not be reached for comment on the specifics of his case, but CJPME and the McGill University chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights both noted that he had received prompt responses to visa applications in previous years, in one case receiving a visa less than 24 hours after applying to enter Canada from the United States. This year, however, he applied March 5 and was not granted a visa until two weeks later, on March 19. In a recent interview with The Toronto Star, Barghouti noted that this was odd, but refrained from blaming Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.
Jamal Daoud, a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at McGill and a member of SPHR, which helped promote Barghouti’s visit to Montreal, said that while the reasons for the delay were unclear, he is worried about opportunities for open discussion in Canada.
“In the past year and a half, there has been a sort of limitation on free speech regarding the Middle East conflict,” Daoud said. “I’m worried. Canada has no problem bringing pro-conservative speakers like Ann Coulter.”
Bob Rae, a Liberal MP representing Toronto Centre who was scheduled to meet with Barghouti, confirmed that his office had made enquiries on Barghouti’s behalf.
“My understanding is that a visa was issued, but came too late to allow him to leave, which is unfortunate,” Rae wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Barghouti has now been issued a three-month visa, which will allow CJPME to reschedule Barghouti’s tour for sometime in May.