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Liberal candidate Lesley Hughes says the controversy over her statements in an old column amount to 'the theatre of the absurd,' but apologized for any perception of anti-Semitism in her writings. ((CBC))

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has asked Winnipeg-area candidate Lesley Hughes to step down over an old column in which she suggested Israeli companies were given a heads-up about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

"I have reviewed the past comments of Lesley Hughes and it is clear they do not meet [our] standard," Dion said in a Friday release. "While I appreciate her apology, I cannot condone those sentiments in any way. I have therefore asked Ms. Hughes to step down as the Liberal party candidate in Kildonan-St. Paul."

Hughes, who learned of Dion's request from CBC News in Winnipeg, said she was stunned.

"It's a major shock to my faith in the party and the whole system," said Hughes, who defended her track record by citing her biography about a leading figure of the Jewish community and the Holocaust education that she taught in classes at the University of Winnipeg for more than a decade.

"It's the theatre of the absurd," said Hughes.

"I have no time for conspiracy theories about the Jewish population whatever," she said. "The article that I wrote — for anyone who reads it carefully — is very clearly innocent of any kind of anti-Semitic feeling. I am just absolutely stunned by this.

"I guess that's how soldiers die in the trenches. This is how it must feel."

Since the Sept. 22 nomination deadline has passed, Hughes name will still appear on the ballot and she could technically win, though not under the Liberal banner. Hughes said she hasn't decided yet whether she will continue campaigning.

CJC applauds Dion decision

Hughes faced intense criticism for a column she wrote in 2002 as a freelance journalist, in which she suggests that Israeli intelligence warned the U.S. in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks and that Israeli businesses vacated the World Trade Center before two passenger planes struck the buildings.

Hughes, a former CBC journalist, also referred readers to websites that assert "CIA foreknowledge and complicity of highly placed officials in the U.S. administration around the attacks on the twin towers."

In an interview with CBCNews.ca following the announcement, Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said Dion did the right thing by demanding Hughes withdraw from the race.

"He did exactly what had to be done," Farber said. "Lesley Hughes crossed a line which just simply cannot be crossed under any circumstances. There is no room in Canada or anywhere for these modern-age twists on the age-old anti-Semitic calumnies with these odious and dangerous conspiracy theories."

Earlier on Friday, Dion refused to discipline Hughes and repeated his calls for a Tory MP to be fired for his comments linking immigrants to crime.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper told reporters in Calgary he believed each case has to be looked at on its own merits, adding it's a "very serious thing" that Hughes wasn't immediately disciplined after refusing to retract her comments.

"Is this the kind of political discourse that is tolerated in the Liberal party?" he said.

Dion message sidetracked

Dion's news conference alongside former leadership rival Gerard Kennedy at a Toronto seniors home became heated as journalists questioning the Liberal leader were shouted down by party supporters attending the event, the CBC's Susan Bonner reported from the campaign.

Dion was pitching his party as the best to help seniors and protect Canada's economy in times of economic uncertainty, while Stephen Harper's "right-wing agenda" would hurt the economy.

But his message was quickly sidelined when he was asked about the controversial statements in the column by Hughes.

In a statement Thursday, Hughes described herself as a "lifelong friend and supporter of the Jewish community in Winnipeg" and said she finds it "personally offensive" to be accused of anti-Semitism. However, she "heartily" apologized for any perception of anti-Semitism in her writings.

Dion initially said there was an "ongoing process" between his party and the CJC over Hughes's comments and apology. 

But Farber said while he spoke personally with senior Liberal officials late Thursday and early Friday, he added Hughes herself had not contacted his organization.

"Never," Farber said, while adding her column "spoke eloquently for herself.

"There could be no mistaking for what she was doing. Anyone could see that."

Dion grilled over demanding Tory MP's firing

At the same news conference, Dion demanded Harper remove Calgary Centre Conservative MP Lee Richardson for comments he made in an interview with a local weekly newspaper.

"You have an MP who insulted all Canadians in pretending there is a link between newcomers and crime," Dion said. "This is unacceptable and he should be fired."

In response to a question about recent shootings in the city, Richardson told an FFWD reporter that Canada has been too soft on crime.

"Particularly in big cities, we've got people that have grown up in a different culture," he said. "And they don't have the same background in terms of the stable communities we had 20, 30 years ago in our cities … and don't have the same respect for authority or people's person or property."

He later added: "Talk to the police. Look at who's committing these crimes. They're not the kid that grew up next door."

Richardson later retracted his comments, saying he regretted his remarks and has always been a strong supporter of immigration.

Supporters heckle media

At one point during Friday's session, Liberal supporters yelled at a reporter for suggesting Dion was employing a double standard, calling the line of questioning over Hughes irrelevant.

But Dion raised his hand to silence them, saying the Liberal party believed in freedom of the press and not in "handcuffing reporters" — a likely reference to an incident earlier in the campaign when RCMP agents removed comic Geri Hall of CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes from a Harper press event.

Dion denied it was a double standard to call for Richardson's dismissal, saying the Tories had "no process" to show they were taking the controversy over his statements seriously.

The emotional outcry from the supporters could show the frustration some Liberals are feeling in the campaign as the party is struggling to sell Dion's leadership and his Green Shift carbon tax plan, the CBC's Bonner said.

"We may see more of this," she said.

But Dion himself declined to criticize the media's coverage of his campaign.

"The media cover me, and I don't come at the media," he said.