The Calgary man accused by police of using an anti-Semitic phrase during a downtown protest earlier this month says he should never have been charged and was assured by police before his arrest that he would not be.
Wesam Cooley, 32, who also goes by the name Wesam Khaled, was arrested after a demonstration on November 5. He was charged with causing a riot and was charged with “motivation of hate.” Police announced the charge was suspended Friday.
The hate motivation aspect of the charge, if proven, would have been applied as an aggravating factor in sentencing if Cooley were convicted.
Police have not said specifically what led to the charges against Cooley, but the group that organized the protest rally where he was arrested – Justice for Palestinians – said he was charged for uttering the phrase: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” ”
Cooley spoke to media before leading a protest Sunday afternoon outside Calgary City Hall. He said that’s also what police told him about the reason for the arrest.
“In custody I asked: ‘What was the offensive comment?’ They told me: ‘From the river to the sea was the comment.’ I asked: ‘Anything else?’ and they told me ‘no’.”
According to Cooley, the phrase is “a call for freedom for the people of Palestine.”
Jewish groups, however, have described the phrase as anti-Semitic and say it advocates expelling Jews from Israel.
Cooley told members of the media that Calgary police assured him before the speech that resulted in him being charged that no arrests would be made.
“We explicitly asked the police if arrests would be made that day and they gave us assurances that no arrests would be made that day. And obviously those assurances were not met,” Cooley said.
“These charges were baseless and my only surprise is that they have not been completely dropped,” he added, referring to the fact that the charge against him was suspended, not dropped.
Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University, shares Cooley’s view on the merits of the charge brought forward and said he was not surprised to hear Friday that it had been suspended.
King said the initial charge was surprising for a couple of reasons.
One is the fact that, according to King, the charge of rioting is rarely brought in Canada because very high standards must be met for it to be proven in court. He says it must be shown that the offensive comments interfered with the audience’s use of public property and increased the risk of harm, in terms of public safety.
“That’s a very difficult thing to prove,” King told Breaking:.
Plus, there’s the fact that “hate motivation” was applied to the charge.
“I’ve never seen that in the context of Canadian law. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, it’s just a rare occurrence,” King said.
All of this causes King to question the actions of the officer or officers involved in the arrest.
“I don’t understand the decision-making process of the officer who decided he was going to file this charge… I really don’t understand that type of thought process,” he said.
The speed with which the suspension was issued, which came in a matter of days, rather than the months King says it usually takes, suggests to him that the Crown was also unimpressed by the arrest.
“I think the Crown was ready, when they read it in the media, to say, ‘No. We’re going to have to intervene in this case,'” King said.
“I think if I were the Crown, I would like to reach out to the Calgary Police Service and have a conversation about what their understanding is of the motivation for hate, versus what the Crown’s understanding of it is.”
Different standards or covering tracks?
In a statement Friday, Calgary police said the charge against Cooley was stayed because police and the Crown operate under different standards.
“We recognize that as police we operate on reasonable and probable grounds, while the Crown’s threshold is higher when there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” the statement said.
King doesn’t believe it.
“Those are essentially the same standard. So I can understand why the police are trying to maybe cover their tracks a little bit,” he said.
“In all honesty and in all … transparency, I think the police should be a little more accountable for why they brought this charge.”
When Cooley was asked what he would say to members of the Jewish community who found the phrase he used offensive or anti-Semitic, he said members of the Jewish community have participated in every protest march he has helped organize and have led solidarity demonstrations. with the Palestinian people around the world.
“The Jewish people of this country should not feel threatened by this chant. We oppose all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism,” Cooley said.
Cooley told reporters he would lead the crowd in the chant that led to his arrest at Sunday’s protest.
“And we hope there are no arrests,” he said.