A Vancouver Provincial Court judge has reserved decision on whether to sentence a Pakistani climate change protester to jail for repeatedly blocking traffic in Vancouver and Richmond and reneging on his promises to stop.
Muhammad Zain Ul Haq, 22, pleaded guilty to five charges of mischief for his role in illegal Extinction Rebellion road and bridge blockades in 2021, and one charge of breaching a release order for the August 2022 Stop Fracking Around protest on the Cambie Bridge.
Crown prosecutor Ellen Leno asked Judge Reginald Harris last month to send Haq to jail for 90 days and impose 18 months of probation. On Thursday, Haq’s lead defence lawyer, Ben Isitt, argued for a conditional discharge.
Isitt urged Harris to be lenient and heed the words of B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson, the judge in the Fairy Creek contempt hearings. Isitt said Thompson called the anti-logging protesters “altruistic and compassionate” people who were not oblivious to the importance of the rule of law, but “decided that these desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Isitt, who is based in Victoria, was joined in court by another of Haq’s lawyers, John Kingman Phillips of the Toronto firm Waddell Phillips.
Haq briefly addressed Harris, explaining that he wanted to change tactics and be involved in legal protest campaigns. He cited his involvement in the Simon Fraser University (SFU) hunger strike threat in late 2021 that prompted the university to commit to divesting from fossil fuels by 2025.
“Moving forward, my intention is to limit my actions to those types of activities, in order to bring about change,” Haq said.
Haq briefly mentioned his climate change doomsday theory, but did not, as other guilty protesters did, apologize to the court.
Leno told the court that Haq minimized his role in the pre-sentence report when he claimed to be a spokesperson rather than a protest leader. She said he did not take responsibility for his full culpability and made a “bald assertion” that he has gained some insight, after three times in custody in 2022. The first of which was nine days in North Fraser Pre-Trial Centre in February 2022 for contempt of court after an anti-Trans Mountain Pipeline protest.
“He had an opportunity to speak to the court today, he did not, which many of the others have, take the opportunity to acknowledge and address the harm to the community or to the rule of law,” Leno said.
Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) held Haq in custody last June for violating the terms of his visa to study at SFU. He faces deportation and a one-year ban on returning to Canada.
A pre-sentence report by probation officer Kim Kirby concluded that Haq took responsibility for his actions and recognized “that radical activism is not productive on many levels.”
The report said Haq’s mother Haida is a doctor and father Aijaz a newspaper employee. He attended private school for Grades 10 to 12 in Pakistan. He became an outspoken atheist and was compelled to protest after 2013 monsoon floods in Pakistan, which officially killed 80 and left tens of thousands homeless.
Haq began studies at SFU in 2019 in economics, but switched to history. He was employed by Save Old Growth from December 2021 until the June 2022 CBSA arrest, currently resides with activists Quetzo Herejk and Janice Oakley and receives “a couple hundred dollars a month from family for incidentals.”
Haq’s student visa was to expire on Feb. 13. He has been unable to study or work and is required to report to CBSA twice a week.
“Zain relates that although he continues to be passionate about the ‘environmental movement,’ and ‘climate emergency,’ he now recognizes that it is not wise to be engaged in civil disobedience. He conveys that he lost sight of his academic pursuits and prioritized climate issues,” said Kirby’s report.
The court heard that should Haq succeed in overturning his deportation on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, he has a job waiting for him at a prominent environmental charity.
In a letter to the court, Tzeporah Berman from Stand.earth said she would “personally … facilitate Zain’s acceptance into my organization/campaigns that are lobbying governments via legal means.”
Berman turned her activism against Clayoquot Sound logging 30 years ago into a career and is one of 56 people on staff with the organization, which reported US$8.67 million in revenue to U.S. tax authorities in 2021.
“He would be a valuable member of our team in a position as an organizer of public events, doing research and developing strategic plans on critical environment issues that need to be brought forward,” wrote Berman.
In January 2022, Haq and four others incorporated Eco-Mobilization Canada, a federal not-for-profit behind the Extinction Rebellion splinter group Save Old Growth. Haq had boasted last August in The New York Times that Save Old Growth received US$170,000 in grants from the California-based Climate Emergency Fund.