The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Torture Survivor Fights US, Canada for Railroading to Jordan, Syria

by Kari Lydersen

For Maher Arar, who underwent beatings and prolonged captivity when US officials deemed him dangerous, quiet exoneration is not compensation. He wants nothing short of an end to the practice that led to his ordeal.

Feb. 14, 2005 – Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen and computer programmer, cut short a family vacation in Tunisia in September 2002 when his employer said they needed him for a project.

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Never in his worst nightmares could Arar have guessed that two weeks later, he would find himself held captive in a virtual grave in Syria, leaving the tiny filthy space only to be repeatedly tortured and interrogated to extract information about things of which he knew nothing. Nor could he have known that later, the US would seek to avoid compensating him for his suffering or issuing a declaratory judgment clearing his name, all on the grounds that doing so would compromise "state secrets."

"This has ruined my life," Arar said in a recent telephone interview with The NewStandard. "For them to avoid talking about what they did to me because of state secrets is ridiculous. They need to be held accountable."

Arar’s tale is one of numerous stories of gross mistreatment, errors and overzealousness in the war on terrorism. When he changed planes at JFK International Airport in New York on September 26, 2002 on the way back to Canada from visiting Tunisia, Arar’s name showed up on a watch list compiled by US authorities. Agents proceeded to interrogate him, detain him and send him first to Jordan for interrogations and beatings, and then to Syria. There more agents -- this time Syrian specialists -- brutally tortured and questioned him for a year before he was finally released without charges, his interrogators having found no links to terrorism.

“I just want to send the message to any country that if you torture people or are complicit, you will be held accountable.” --Maher Arar

Arar’s treatment is an example of extraordinary rendition, a practice which the CIA considers an important tactic in the so-called "war on terror," wherein people who are believed to be terrorists or to have knowledge about terrorism can be extradited for interrogation in countries known to practice torture. Human rights and civil liberties proponents as well as law enforcement officials have criticized this practice as inhumane, illegal and ineffective in obtaining credible information, even if the person is a terrorist or has knowledge of terrorism. In Arar’s case, he was neither, as all governments concerned have now admitted.

Just over a year ago, with backing from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Arar filed a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials in the US government, including former homeland security director Tom Ridge, former Immigration and Naturalization Services commissioner James Ziglar and FBI director Robert Mueller.

Arar has also filed separate lawsuits in Canadian federal courts against the governments of Syria and Jordan. On February 9, a Canadian judge said he has no legal basis to sue Jordan, since Canada’s State Immunity Act prevents someone from suing another country. There has been no response yet to his lawsuit against Syria.

To finally end the torture, Arar “admitted” he had trained with terrorists in Afghanistan. In truth, there is no evidence that Arar has ever been to Afghanistan or been involved in any terrorist activity.

An inquiry into his treatment is ongoing in Canada.

Arar’s civil suit in the US asks for punitive and compensatory damages and a public declaration that his arrest and extradition were unlawful, unjustified and without probable cause. The suit alleges that the defendants violated Arar’s Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent and face formal indictment, as well as the Torture Victims Protection Act and treaty law.

"I just want to send the message to any country that if you torture people or are complicit, you will be held accountable," said Arar, 34, who has lived in Canada since 1987. "What happened to me is clearly criminal activity. In Western countries, if someone is murdered and the police find out who the conspirators were, they are charged."

However, in filings this winter the US moved to drop his lawsuit on the grounds that a trial would compromise state secrets.

"The classified information in this case… contains numerous references to intelligence sources and methods," reads a declaration by James Comey, Deputy Attorney General of the US, filed in response to Maher’s lawsuit. It argues that the disclosure of evidence "could be expected to cause exceptionally grave or serious damage to the national security of the United States and its foreign relations or activities."

Jeffrey Fogel, one of Arar’s attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights, calls this a chilling and potentially precedent-setting move.

"I’m not surprised by it, but it’s a frightening proposition that people could hide behind secrecy laws to violate other people’s rights," Fogel told TNS. He suggests that rather than dropping the case, a judge could insist on seeing the documents in question or rule that the lawsuit can proceed without those documents.

Though the torture largely stopped after about twelve days, Arar remained captive in horrible conditions for about ten months.

"We think the judge will insist on looking at them," he said. "There’s also the question of whether we need those documents to make our case. I don’t think we do."

It remains largely unclear why Arar ever became the subject of investigation by Canadian intelligence and why his name was passed on to US authorities.

For reasons that are still murky, Canadian intelligence officials had decided to place Arar under surveillance and later handed the US government what turned out to be faulty intelligence on him, resulting in Arar’s placement on the US watch list, even though the Canadians’ own reports said he posed no threat to the US.

One of the only concrete intelligence details to emerge is the fact that in 1997, another Syrian native named Abdullah Almalki signed the lease to Arar’s apartment as a witness. Almalki has since been accused of membership in a terrorist organization. Arar has said that when authorities questioned him, he did not even remember the incident, and that he barely knew Almalki, whom Arar says was the relative of another casual friend.

According to the lawsuit, at JFK airport Arar was interrogated by an FBI agent who "constantly yelled and swore" for five hours. He was told he had no right to a lawyer since he is not a US citizen. Next, an immigration agent questioned Arar for three hours, inquiring about membership or affiliation with terrorist groups.

"Mr. Arar was then chained and shackled, put in a vehicle, and driven to another building at JFK, where he was placed in solitary confinement," the claim reads. "There was no bed. The lights remained on all night. Mr. Arar did not sleep at all."

The next morning Arar was questioned for hours about topics including Osama bin Laden, Iraq and Palestine. He continued to "vehemently" deny any knowledge of or connections to terrorist activity and asked again to contact a lawyer, but his requests were denied. He was given a cold McDonald’s meal after nearly two days without food. That evening, he was asked to "volunteer" to be sent to Syria.

Although he is exhausted from being asked to talk about his harrowing ordeal, Arar thinks his testimony is needed to increase awareness of the measures different governments are taking in the name of the anti-terrorism.

"Mr. Arar refused, insisting that he be sent to Canada or Switzerland," says the claim. "Angered by his response, the officer stated that the US government had a ‘special interest’ in Mr. Arar."

Over the next few days, immigration officials informed Arar that he had been deemed an Al-Qaeda member, according to the affidavit. They lied to him about his lawyer refusing to attend his hearing and lied to his lawyer about his whereabouts.

On October 8, 2002, Arar reports, he was taken in a private plane to Jordan, despite his begging not to be taken anywhere that he feared he would be tortured. Arar underwent interrogation and beatings in Jordan. Then after a day or so he was turned over to Syrian officials and detained at the Palestine Branch of Syrian Military Intelligence.

"For the first 12 days of his detention in Syria, Mr. Arar was interrogated for 18 hours per day," the lawsuit continues. "He was also subjected to physical and psychological torture. Syrian security officers regularly beat him on the palms, hips and lower back, using a two-inch thick electric[al] cable. They also regularly struck Mr. Arar in the stomach, face and back of the neck with their fists. The pain was excruciating. Mr. Arar pleaded with them to stop, to no avail."

To finally end the torture, Arar falsely confessed to charges, "admitting" he had trained with terrorists in Afghanistan. In truth, there is no evidence that Arar has ever been to Afghanistan or been involved in any terrorist activity.

When he wasn’t being tortured and interrogated, Arar was kept in a damp, cold and tiny cell six feet long, seven feet high and three feet wide, which he compared to a grave. The only opening was a grate in the ceiling through which rats and cats sometimes urinated onto him.

Though the torture largely stopped after about twelve days, he remained captive in these conditions for about ten months. Canadian consular officials visited him seven times, but Syrian officers threatened him not to tell visitors about his treatment.

Finally, in August 2003 Arar yelled out to a Canadian official about his treatment, and five days later he was transferred to an investigation branch where Syrian agents forced him to sign a confession, then to an overcrowded prison where he stayed for six weeks. After another week back in solitary confinement in a Palestine Branch "grave," in October 2003 he was finally released to Canadian officials with no charges against him.

"Syria now considers Mr. Arar completely innocent," the lawsuit says.

A year and a half since his release, Arar is still suffering severe emotional, psychological and financial challenges from the ordeal. Even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing or suspicion, he has been unable to find a job. He has said he has trouble relating to his two children and his wife, Monia Mazigh, an economist who had run for public office in Canada and who worked tirelessly to obtain information about Arar’s situation and secure his release.

"The nightmares are still there," he said. "I don’t take planes anymore, even domestically, I have scary thoughts of them being diverted to the US. I lost trust in the system as a whole. At first I thought I would get over this in a few months, but more and more I realize how long it will take."

After his release, Prime Minister Jean Chretien told the Canadian House of Commons that the US government’s deportation of Arar was "unacceptable," and said he had asked US Secretary of State Colin Powell for an explanation. And although Chretien stated he wanted to find out what role Canadian intelligence played in the deportation, he refused an independent inquiry into the case.

Last December, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, an external review board that reports to Parliament on intelligence activities, announced an investigation into how Canadian agents handled the case.

November 2004 saw the head of the inquiry release more than 1,000 pages of documents from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national civilian police force, but about half the content was blacked out for security reasons. The files include an internal RCMP memo admitting "the force lacked experience to conduct national security investigations into Arar," according to CBC News reports on the case; and showing that in September 2004 the US State Department refused to cooperate with the inquiry.

Arar says one of his main goals is to discover what role the Canadian government played in his detention and torture, and why it turned over the information about him to the US. Halima Mautbur, a member of the Maher Arar Support Committee, points to an RCMP memo released as part of the inquiry that poses a list of questions and answers about his case. One question is, "What was the level of threat relating to ARAR’s presence in the US?" The answer, according to the documents: "The RCMP has no information concerning any threat associated with/by ARAR."

Mautbur said Canada’s records were devoid of any indication that Arar posed a threat. "From the memo listed above, there was no Canadian information saying that Maher posed any kind of threat to the US, making his placement on the US watch list absolutely ridiculous," she said.

"I’m interested in what kind of information they sent, and why they didn’t deal with it here, publicly, instead of sending it to the US," said Arar. "Why was my case treated differently from anyone else’s?"

Although he is exhausted from being asked to talk about his harrowing ordeal, Arar thinks his testimony is needed to increase awareness of the measures different governments are taking in the name of the anti-terrorism.

This includes the practice of usually secret extrajudicial renditions to foreign countries, often, if not usually, to bypass the US’s own stated policies against American agents engaging directly in torture.

Arar believes that once the American people know what is being done in their name, it is their responsibility to try to put an end to "injustices" like the prolonged one he suffered.

"The American people have a duty," he said. "They really have to stand up for the truth, they have to stand up for justice. I’m sure most people don’t agree with what’s going on, but they need to voice their opinions more loudly, to bring about change."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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