Charges against a Calgary man whom police accused of using an antisemitic phrase during a downtown rally earlier this month have been stayed, the Calgary Police Service confirmed Friday.
Wesam Cooley, 32, who also goes by the name Wesam Khaled, was arrested after a Nov. 5 rally. He was charged with causing a disturbance, with hate motivation also being applied to that charge.
The hate motivation aspect of the charge — if it had been proven — would have applied as an aggravating factor at sentencing if Cooley was found guilty.
In a statement, Calgary police said that after review, the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service did not support proceeding with the case.
“We recognize that as police, we operate considering reasonable and probable grounds, whereas the Crown’s threshold is higher at reasonable likelihood of conviction,” the statement said.
That news was welcomed by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), who released a statement after the stay of charges was announced.
“The Crown made the right decision to stay these proceedings. The underlying charge had no merit and would not have held up in a court of law. We remain greatly concerned about why the charges were filed in the first place by Calgary police,” the NCCM statement said.
In a statement on Nov. 7 announcing Cooley’s arrest, police said members of their diversity response team and public safety unit met with protesters before their event at Calgary city hall “to ensure the safety of the participants, the public and our police officers, and to discuss some of the language and signage observed at past protests.”
After that discussion, Cooley took to the stage and acknowledged the conversation with police, they said.
“He then proceeded to repeatedly use an antisemitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along,” according to the police release at the time.
Police would not say what phrase was allegedly used by Cooley, but the group that organized the protest — Justice for Palestinians — claimed Cooley was charged for uttering the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
It is “a protest chant that has been a Palestinian call for liberation for decades,” according to the Calgary group’s public statement.
However, Jewish groups have described the phrase as antisemitic, and say it advocates driving Jews out of Israel.
Saba Amro, an organizer with Justice for Palestinians, told CBC News earlier this month that she was at the meeting before the protest with Cooley, as well as another organizer from her group, a Calgary Police Service community liaison officer and another police officer.
Amro said her group was told by police before the protest began that the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” was being looked at by the Crown prosecutor as potential hate speech.
“We asked the question directly, would anyone be charged on that particular day, Sunday, Nov. 5, for saying and chanting the phrase … and the answer we received was no,” Amro said in an interview.
CBC News asked Calgary police last week to comment on the content of their conversation with protest organizers, and about whether any assurances were given to organizers that they would not be arrested for repeating the phrase mentioned.
A CPS spokesperson responded with an emailed statement.
“The circumstances and full context of the behaviour of the individual involved was considered in laying the charge of causing a disturbance and in applying hate motivation to that charge. The behaviour that led to charges was considered in the context of the specific situation, all of which is broader than a single phrase, gesture, sign or symbol in isolation,” the statement said.
In their statement Friday announcing the charge had been stayed, CPS said, “The existing legislation related to hate speech is complex and is balanced against the Charter rights to free speech. We police behaviour, not beliefs, to ensure peoples’ Charter rights are not infringed while maintaining public safety.”