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“We knew he was being tortured.”

Photo: Julia Riddle

Thirteen years ago, Monia Mazigh was catapulted into the world of human rights activism as she fought for the release of her husband, who was being tortured and held without charge in a Syrian prison.

While returning to Montreal from a vacation in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, Mazigh’s husband Maher Arar was detained in the United States and eventually shipped to Syria—a country where he had not lived for a decade and a half—on suspicions of terrorism-related activities.

Mazigh shared her story as the keynote speaker for the Conflict Studies and Human Rights Association’s (CHRA) ECH Week, describing the incredible frustration she felt knowing she was powerless to help her loved one.

“We knew he was being tortured,” she said. “We knew, since they sent him to Syria, this is what they were sending him for.”

Mazigh also discussed the experience of being a Muslim Arab in the post-9/11 world and the continuing relevance of her husband’s story in 2015. She spoke to the importance of balancing security concerns with a respect for democratic and due process.

“Democracy goes with logic, rationality—but not with fear,” she said.

Canadians need to speak up against measures that allow the government more and more control over the lives of individuals, she said.

“Someone like me understands the results of these new powers,” she said. “We have to denounce, denounce, and keep denouncing.”

Mazigh, who was born in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada at the age of 21, has a PhD in financial economics from McGill University and worked at the University of Ottawa as a research assistant and French-language instructor. She ran in the 2006 federal election as the NDP candidate for the Ottawa–South riding, but lost to the Liberal candidate.

She recently published a novel, Mirrors and Mirages, that tells the story of six Muslim women living in Canada who cross paths, as each one explores her religious and cultural identity. She previously authored the memoir Hope and Despai,r which recounts her fight to free her husband.

Mazigh was an “easy choice” to kick off ECH week, said Moh Mousa, the CHRA’s vice-president of university affairs.

“I was touched by her story. I think that it’s pretty rare to find someone who has been through as traumatic of an experience as her that’s willing to speak so openly about it,” said Mousa. “She went through something most people could never recover from and she’s done an amazing job since to ensure it doesn’t happen to more people.”

The week’s events also included a workshop about homophobic language, a panel on sex work under the Canadian law, and documentary screenings and discussions.

Mousa said the turnout and interest at this year’s event pointed to it being the most successful ECH Week the association has held thus far.