Getting Away with Torture

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Kevin Wolf/AP Images
Maher Arar, right, testifying by video conference at a House Joint Oversight hearing on ‘Rendition to Torture: The Case of Maher Arar,’ Washington, D.C., October 18, 2007

In the fall of 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen on his way home from Tunisia, was pulled out of line by US officials while changing planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He was locked up for twelve days, much of that time incommunicado, and harshly interrogated. When he was finally allowed to make a phone call, after a week in captivity, he called his mother in Canada, who found him a lawyer.

The lawyer saw Arar on Saturday. The very next night—a Sunday evening—immigration officials held an extraordinary six-hour hearing starting at 9 PM, orchestrated from Washington, D.C. When Arar asked to have his lawyer present, they told him that she had chosen not to participate in the hearing. In fact, the only “notice” they had provided was to leave a message on the lawyer’s office voice mail that Sunday night. She got the message Monday morning, and immediately called the immigration service. They told her, falsely, that Arar was being transferred to New Jersey, and she could contact him the next day. In fact, that night federal agents took him on a federally chartered jet to Jordan, and from there to Syria.

In Syria, Arar was handed over to intelligence officials who imprisoned him in a cell the size of a grave, three feet by six feet by seven feet. Syrian security agents tortured him, including beating him with an electric cable, while asking the same questions that FBI interrogators had been asking at JFK—was he a terrorist, was he linked to al-Qaeda, did he know various other persons thought to be associated with al-Qaeda? (The Syrian security forces are widely known for their use of torture, as the US State Department reports every year in its annual Human Rights Country Reports.) After a year, the Syrians released Arar, concluding that he had done nothing wrong.

Arar returned to Canada—this time bypassing JFK. Canada launched a major independent investigation, which concluded that he was wholly innocent, and that Canadian officials had erred in providing the Americans with misleading information about him while he was in US custody. The Canadians erroneously told US officials that Arar was a target of a terrorist investigation; in fact, he had merely been identified as someone who should be contacted to see if he had any information about the target, and was not suspected of any terrorist activity himself. The Canadian parliament offered Arar a unanimous apology, and Canada paid him CAD $10.5 million in compensation.

But the Canadians were unaware that the US intended to send Arar to Syria, and they had no part in that decision. It was the US, not Canada, that locked up Arar without charges, blocked his access to the courts, spirited him off to Syria …

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