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By Adrian Morrow

Zakaria Amara spends nearly 24 hours a day in a six-by-ten-foot cell in the Don Jail. There’s nothing to do all day but read, sleep and memorize the Qur’an. He can only see his visitors from behind glass. When his family comes to see him, he can’t touch them. He hasn’t seen the sun in nine months.

“The isolation touches every aspect,” he says. “You kind of forget how to physically interact.” The former Ryerson student has been in solitary confinement for nearly two years, after he was arrested in June 2006 and accused of leading a terrorist cell, plotting to bomb government buildings in southern Ontario and behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

This week, the first of his co-accused pleaded not guilty to the charges in a Brampton courtroom. Amara, however, is still waiting to go to trial. Meanwhile, Ryerson students are campaigning for him to be released from solitary and be allowed to continue his studies behind bars. At least one top administrator wants to make it happen.

“Among basic human rights, the right to education is one of them,” says Zouheir Fawaz, Ryerson’s VP Students. “Definitely, we will help any way we can.”

Amara was born in Jordan to a Cypriot Christian mother and an Arab father who had stopped practising his Muslim faith. As a child, he lived in Saudi Arabia and Cyprus before moving to Canada 11 years ago. At Meadowvale Secondary School in Mississauga, he was known as the class clown. “Every class he was in, everyone would be laughing at him, joking with him,” says his wife Nada, who met him in grade 10. “He’s very goofy.” As he grew older, he and Nada became more devout. Shortly before finishing high school in 2004, they married. In the fall, Amara enrolled in information technology classes at Ryerson. In January 2005, the couple moved into a one-bedroom apartment together and in September, their daughter was born. Faced with the need to support his family, Amara dropped out of school and took a full-time job at a Canadian Tire gas station. He started taking night classes in engineering at Humber College. “I was busy all the time between school, family and work,” he says. “It wasn’t the regular 20-year-old lifestyle.”

What he didn’t know was that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service were spying on him and 17 other young men in Toronto’s suburbs. After allegedly selling him three tonnes of ammomium nitrate — a fertilizer that could be used for building a bomb — the police moved in. Amara and Nada had just moved into her mother’s basement and spent the night of June 1, 2006, playing Lord of the Rings on Xbox. The next day at 5:30 p.m., Amara was getting ready to go to work when the police arrived. They smashed open the glass door of the house, spreading shards of glass as far as the kitchen. In the basement, Amara and Nada could only hear the footsteps pounding on the floor above.

Wearing masks and toting guns, the police ordered everyone to the ground, handcuffed them and, Nada says, took her eight-month-old daughter away from her. Amara was arrested, while Nada and her sisters fled to her mother-in-law’s house, where they found out what was happening on TV. Amara and his co-arrested were taken to Maplehurst prison. He accuses his guards of unnecessary brutality during those first three weeks. “They throw me on the floor, they put the shield on my back. [The guard] boots me in the face,” he says, adding that guards would slam his head into the door while cuffing him, and pull him around by the cuffs. “Our wrists were bleeding, our ankles were bleeding.”

Since he was arrested, Amara has been transferred from Maplehurst to the Don Jail. He’s been to court, but last fall, the pre-trial was stopped by a judicial order. The evidence in the case is protected by a publication ban. His case probably won’t go to trial until later this year and will take three to five years, says David Kolinsky, Amara’s lawyer. “If the allegations weren’t so sensational, I think they would’ve been treated differently,” he says. Muhammad Ali Jabbar, president-elect of the Ryerson Students’ Union, knew Amara and was friends with Saad Gaya, one of the other men arrested with him. He says the arrests have cast a chill over his neighbourhood, where Amara grew up. “Some of my friends won’t hang out because they’re scared CSIS will listen to them. It has created such an atmosphere of fear.”

Jabbar is pushing for Amara to get out of solitary confinement and be allowed to take correspondence courses while in prison.

“Education is the key,” he says. “We need to build awareness and get politicians to act.” For his part, Amara wants know the Crown’s case against him before going to trial. For now, he wants to continue his education and study history or psychology. If he gets out of jail, he thinks he might become a teacher. More than anything, it keeps his mind active as he whiles away his time behind bars. “If I quit, if I give up, insanity will take over,” he says.

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