The use of peace bonds in cases where police suspect someone will commit a terrorist offence has received little scrutiny over the years because the process has been rarely used and is shrouded in secrecy to protect the privacy of the accused, experts said Wednesday after an arrest in Prince Edward Island.
Typically, peace bonds have been used by judges as preventative measures to stop domestic violence and neutralize organized-crime gangs.
The federal government adapted the law in 2001 under the Anti-Terrorism Act to say that anyone who has a reasonable fear that another person “will commit a terrorism offence” may seek a peace bond from a provincial court judge with the consent of the attorney general.
If the judge agrees, the peace bond could subject the accused to conditions, including limits on their movement and restrictions on who they can meet and how they can communicate.
“Peace bonds are meant to be a more flexible tool so that you don’t end up putting someone behind bars who shouldn’t be put behind bars,” said Wesley Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert in national security.
“There will be cases where you have reasonable grounds to suspect a person might engage in terrorism, but you don’t have all the evidence to bring to court to lead to a successful conviction.”
In such cases, charges are not laid. As a result, the allegations are shared with the accused, but not with the public.
“The reason for not releasing that information is really wrapped up in privacy protection,” said Wark. “It has a rights dimension to it.”
The RCMP arrested Amir Raisolsadat, 20, of Stratford, P.E.I., on Tuesday, alleging in a sworn information filed with a court that an officer in Charlottetown has reasonable grounds to fear that Raisolsadat will commit a terrorism offence. The police released no other details about the case.
The process, covered by Section 810.01 of the Criminal Code, has been used in terrorism-related cases at least six times, Wark said. Virtually all of those cases involved the Toronto 18 terror plot, in which a group of young men were arrested in 2006 and accused of planning to bomb high-profile targets. Eleven were convicted of terrorist offences.
Critics say the provision could be open to abuse because restrictions on liberty are being imposed on the basis of suspicion rather than concrete proof.
Wark said he understands the concern, but it’s important to note that the process typically includes a judge’s review of a peace officer’s work.
“In that sense, you have two checks on the use of something that people might fear would be a kind of rogue power,” he said. “And there’s fear that judge’s will look the other way when granting the power, which I think is extremely unlikely. … There is a place for peace bonds.”
Cara Zwibel, a lawyer and spokeswoman for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the law includes a significant safeguard in that the consent from the attorney general is required.
Still, Zwibel said the law must be used with great care.
“Any time you have restrictions on individual liberty being placed on an individual — absent a criminal charge and just based on a fear — there is a concern about due process,” she said.
Zwibel said the real concern is the Conservative government’s plan to make it easier to obtain peace bonds under its latest anti-terrorism proposal, Bill C-51.
Under the bill, the law would be changed to say that anyone with reasonable grounds to fear that a person “may commit” a terrorism offence could seek a peace bond.
“The current standard is more appropriate,” Zwibel said. “Substituting the word ‘may’ suggests that it’s a much looser standard.”
Wark said the government wants to improve its law enforcement tool based on the RCMP’s suggestion that a lower threshold could have made a difference in the case of Martin Couture-Rouleau, who was killed by police after he fatally rammed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent with a car in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., last October.
The RCMP later confirmed they had been monitoring the man for months, but investigators said they did not have enough evidence to arrest him or further limit his movements, saying his jihadist sympathies were not a crime.
Wark said there’s not enough evidence for lowering the threshold.
“I think it’s up to the government to make the case because it’s very difficult for critics to probe this without much access to any evidence that would make the government’s case.”