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Charge against Calgary pro-Palestine protester stayed as debate rages over chant

A person holds up a sign during a pro-Palestine rally in Montreal, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. A debate is raging over a phrase being chanted by pro-Palestinian activists at rallies across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

CALGARY — Prosecutors have stayed a charge against a man who was arrested in Calgary after he repeatedly used a phrase heard at pro-Palestinian rallies across the country, as a debate rages over the contentious chant.

Police charged Wesam Cooley, also known as Wesam Khalid, earlier this month with causing a disturbance. A hate motivation was applied.

"The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service independently and thoroughly reviewed the material once it was provided to us," spokeswoman Michelle Davio said in an emailed statement Friday. 

"The ACPS determined there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction on the charge laid. As this matter did not meet the ACPS threshold for prosecution, the matter was stayed."

Cooley's lawyer, Zachary Al-Khatib, said earlier this week that it appeared his client was arrested for chanting "from the river to the sea, Palestinians will be free."

He said there's nothing hateful about calling for freedom and equality for Palestinians from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

"It is unfortunate that a Calgary police officer acted as he did in this situation," he said in an email before he was notified of the stay. 

"None of us — no matter our stance on this conflict — should want our society to be a place where political speech is criminalized. Ideas and political slogans should be debated and decided in the public square."

Al-Khatib said Friday he was heartened the prosecution service acted swiftly.

"It shows me that after considering the evidence and public interest a decision was made that this case has no merit," he said.

"Charges like these need careful consideration."

Police had said two groups of protesters gathered at Calgary City Hall on Nov. 5 to show support for Palestine and Israel amid the conflict in the Middle East. Officers met with each group to address the safety of participants and discuss some of the language and signage from past protests.

Police alleged Cooley took to the stage, acknowledged the conversation with officers then repeatedly used an "antisemitic phrase" while encouraging the crowd to follow along.

Cooley, Al-Khatib said, was apparently told police had discouraged the use of the chant.

No one from Calgary police immediately responded to a request for comment Friday.

They said earlier in the week that the charge considered the full context of the individual's behaviour and was "broader than a single phrase, gesture, sign or symbol in isolation."

Police had recommended the court consider using a section of the Criminal Code that allows for an increased sentence if the suspect was convicted and there's enough evidence the offence was motivated by hatred.

The phrase "from the river to the sea" has become a battle cry to roil Jews and pro-Palestinian activists since the deadly attacks by Hamas across southern Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel's later bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

It has been used by protesters at rallies across the country, including in Montreal, where gunshots have been fired at Jewish schools.

Protesters who surrounded a Vancouver bar Tuesday night when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there also chanted the phrase.

Many pro-Palestinian activists have said the chant is a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East added in a statement that it's a simple call for freedom.

"We are appalled at the shocking overreach … in carrying out this arrest, which is an example of anti-Palestinian racism," president Thomas Woodley said before the charge was stayed.

Jewish activists, however, said they hear a clear demand for Israel's destruction in the chant.

Yair Szlak, president and CEO of Jewish advocacy organization Federation CJA, said he considers it an example of hate speech.

"Israel is bordered … on one hand by the Jordan River and on the other side by the Mediterranean Sea," he said earlier this week. "When you have … people chanting 'from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,' the question I would pose is: Where do the Jewish people go?

"Going into the ocean is not an answer. That is hate speech, that is targeting a group of people and saying you don't belong in that country."

Szlak said the chant creates "psychological terrorism" for Jewish people.

James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the phrase is considered hateful to many in the Jewish community and aspirational for many Palestinians.

"People hear it different ways, people mean it different ways," he said.

Speaking before the stay was announced, Turk added that he would be surprised if prosecutors allowed the charge to proceed to trial.

"Even if it's the hateful version of it, I don't think it's illegal speech in Canada," he said Wednesday.

On Friday, Turk said the Crown's decision reflects Canadian courts' recognition that democracy rests on robust public discourse.

"Allowing the police to determine the limits of public discourse or permitting a majority to suppress expression they find to be hurtful, hateful, offensive or wrong — although legal — is taking us down the road to authoritarianism," he said in an email.

"The proper response to legal expression we dislike or detest is counter-speech, not censorship."

— With files from Thomas MacDonald in Montreal and The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 17, 2023. 

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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