Liberal MP lambasted over Hezbollah meeting
Lebanese group banned: Ottawa's position on terrorism toothless: Alliance
Michael Friscolanti - National Post
"This in no way was a formal encounter," Tony Valeri says.
A Liberal MP from Ontario has come under intense fire for meeting with a key member of Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization that Ottawa banned six months ago.
Opposition critics and human rights organizations are furious that Tony Valeri, who was in Beirut for an international trade conference, made time to meet with Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary caucus.
Mr. Valeri said Thursday's pre-arranged encounter was nothing more than a quick chat between two politicians, but others say the Hamilton-area MP should have never been talking to a man who represents a violent group outlawed by the federal government.
"This is defiance of the law of Canada," said Frank Dimant, the executive vice-president of B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish group that lobbied Ottawa to have Hezbollah branded a terrorist organization. "It's totally unacceptable."
The encounter was reported in Assafir, a Lebanese newspaper, which said the meeting happened at the "persistent request" of Mr. Valeri. But Mr. Valeri, speaking to the National Post from Lebanon yesterday, said the entire episode -- although planned beforehand -- is being blown out of proportion. "This in no way was a formal encounter," he said. "It was in the lobby of a hotel en route to other meetings that had been scheduled."
Mr. Valeri said that during the conference -- a World Trade Organization event that brought together representatives of numerous Arab countries -- he told a fellow delegate how some of his constituents back home were upset that the government added Hezbollah to its list of banned terrorist entities.
Critics of the move have long contended that Hezbollah's political activities are separate from its military wing, which has been linked to countless car bombings, kidnappings and hijackings aimed at destroying Israel and spreading Islamic rule.
That delegate then told Mr. Valeri that Mr. Raad, a Lebanese member of parliament for the Hezbollah party, was also at the conference and was willing to meet. Mr. Valeri agreed. During the three-minute encounter, Mr. Valeri said Mr. Raad expressed his disappointment over Canada's decision to ban all aspects of Hezbollah -- including its humanitarian wing -- from operating in the country.
Mr. Valeri said he responded by saying that some of his constituents were also concerned, but that the government's decision was both warranted and final. "He expressed his view on the listing and I merely reiterated with the Canadian position," Mr. Valeri said yesterday. "Certainly I was not indicating that I was sympathizing with their particular perspective."
The Department of Foreign Affairs yesterday moved to distance itself from the controversy. Rodney Moore, a spokesman for the department, stressed Mr. Valeri, who was invited to the conference by event organizers, was not representing Canada in any official capacity. Even still, critics lambasted Mr. Valeri for consenting to the meeting.
"It makes it appear that our government's positions on terrorism are toothless," said Stockwell Day, the Foreign Affairs critic for the Canadian Alliance.
Elias Bejjani, a spokesman for the Canadian Lebanese Human Rights Federation, said Mr. Valeri's actions show just how hesitant Liberals are to completely condemn Hezbollah. "The ban took place after a great deal of debate in the Parliament," he said. "If he doesn't know why Hezbollah was banned, then he's ignorant and he doesn't deserve to be where he is."
Keith Landy, the president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he intends to write the Prime Minister and ask why one of his MPs felt the need to give Hezbollah the "veneer of respectability."mfriscolanti@nationalpost.com Copyright 2003 National Post.