Syrian-born Canadian citizen who spent a year imprisoned in Syria after U.S. officials detained him at a New York airport during a stopover.
Canadian citizen Maher Arar said he was repeatedly beaten and tortured and kept in a cell three feet wide after the U.S. secretly deported him to Syria where he spent 374 days in a Damascus prison without charges. Anonymous officials told the Washington Post that the U.S. knowingly sends suspects abroad to be tortured. During a press conference on Tuesday he said, "I was willing to confess to anything to stop the torture." He added, "I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al Qaeda. I have never been to Afghanistan." The U.S. says Arar’s name appeared on lists of suspected terrorists. But why was he sent to Syria instead of Canada where is a citizen and he has lived for the past 15 years? We go to Canada to speak with Maher Arar. [Includes transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!
MAHER ARAR: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you start off by describing in your own words what happened a year ago. Where were you coming from that you ended up in a New York airport?
MAHER ARAR: I was vacationing with my family and I just decided to go back to Ottawa to prepare for work, basically. I used my air miles, American Airlines air miles to buy the ticket and the only possible route at that time was to go through New York. I arrived in New York on time and I was pulled aside by immigration officials and Two police guys came and they searched my bag. They told me it’s only a routine thing and took my fingerprints, my photos and all of a sudden officials came and started interrogating me.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were they asking you?
MAHER ARAR: Most of the questions they asked, were you related to my frequent trips to the United States, which companies I visited, how much money I made, if I had any family members who live in the states, and about my relationships with other people. The second day of interrogations, they asked me a lot about my political views about Iraq, about Palestine, about Bin Laden and some other issues, too.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
MAHER ARAR: And, of course, I was very surprised. They always told me they’ll let me go and I was cooperating. But when I thought things were getting serious, I asked for a lawyer. And they told me, sorry, you are not an American citizen and you’re not entitled to any lawyer. AndI said let me make a phone call to they let my family know that I being questioned and they would not let me and I asked repeatedly. So I was taken to a different building. I was implicated for another exhaustive day. They basically just arrested me. They shackled me, chained me, and took me to the M.D.C. in Brooklyn.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
MAHER ARAR: At the M.D.C., I stayed there for 13 days and then I stayed there for 13 days in military confinement and again, I asked for a lawyer and I asked to make a phone call, but they just ignored my requests. And five days later, they actually allowed me a phone call. I called my mother-in-law in Ottawa and I told her about what happened and she said she was going to find a lawyer for me. Of course, up until this point, what I was told by them is that my problem was mostly immigration problem and so the lawyer who came to see me later was an immigration lawyer. But at the M.D.C., they hand over this document to me saying that basically that I’m a member of Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization, and basically they can’t allow me in the states, even though I was only going through on transit.
AMY GOODMAN: And, again, M.D.C. is the metropolitan detention center in New York city?
MAHER ARAR: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You were then deported to Syria?
MAHER ARAR: What happened at the airport first, and after the second interrogation, one of the immigration people there, he came to see me and he told me this. He said we want you to go back to Syria voluntarily. I said no way! I said why don’t you lets me go to Canada? He said to me you are special interest. That’s when they took me to M.D.C., basically. They kind of forced me to apply for a visa and they took me to prison. In prison, I spent 13 days. Just two days — Four days before they deported me, they brought me a document saying that saying that the INS director had decided to deport me and I had a right designate a country to where I would be deported. I wrote 'Canada' and the second question was if I had any concerns that I’d like sent back to Canada and I chose 'no' and signed the document. On a Sunday, two days before I was deported, they held a six-hour exhaustive meeting and they asked me questions regarding why I did not want to go back to Syria. So, I explained to them very clearly that if they send me back to Syria, I will be tortured. They accused me of being a member of a terrorist organization and I told them repeatedly that I am not a member of this group and they were just not believing me and I said if you send me back to Syria, the Syrians will try to extract information and the only way to do that is just to torture me.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, by the way, we are talking to Mara ERRAR, a Canadian citizen, who was in transit through the United States after family holiday. New York authorities at the New York airport where he was heading through to Canada took him and then deported him to Syria. Can you explain why you though you would be tortured in Syria?
MAHER ARAR: Basically, the Americans accused me of being a member of terrorist organization, which was not true and I knew from my parents that Syrians used torture with the prisoners. It’s very common place in Syria and so I just raised this concern. I said, listen, when I arrive there and the Syrians will ask me questions, if I am going to tell them the truth, but most likely they’ll not believe me.- You know, I am being send by a country, by a respected country like the United States to another country, which uses torture and they were going to say to me, well, we don’t believe you. If you are innocent, why did the United States send you here? So, it was a very natural reaction from me.
AMY GOODMAN: How long did you live in Syria? You were born there.
MAHER ARAR: I left Syria when I was 17 years old. So, I never came back there, except, of course, when I was deported against my will. I was 17 years old when I left the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And why did you leave?
MAHER ARAR: Why I left the country?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
MAHER ARAR: Well, basically in the early 1980’s, most of my brothers migrated to Canada and my parents and I stayed behind and in 1987, my brother sponsored us. Life here was better and my brothers got the jobs at that time and so they sent us letters and said why don’t you come live with us here? They wanted to take care of my parents. That was the reason. My family and I, we did not have any political or religious associations and we still don’t have any.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you then describe when you returned exactly what happened to you, Maher Arar, when you arrived in Syria?
MAHER ARAR: When I arrived in Syria, of course they took me on a private jet to Jordan where I spent an hour. Then I was sent to Syria. I arrived over there. There were three people waiting for me. They just started questioning me. The first day, it was only routine questions about my family, why I left the country, why did I go back for a visit, the names of my brothers, their wives, and whether there were religious people or not. I mean, really when I arrived there, I just couldn’t believe it. I fell at first it was a dream. I was crying all time. I was disoriented. I wished I had something in my hand to kill myself because I knew I was going to be tortured and this was my preoccupation. That’s all I thinking about when I was on the plane. I arrived there. I was crying all time.
One of them started questioning me and the others were taking notes. The first day it was mainly routine questions between eight and twelve us and the second day is when the beatings started. The first day they did not find anything strange about what I told them and they started to beat me with a cable and they would beat me for three, four times. They would stop again and they would ask questions again and they always kept telling me, you are a liar and things like that. So, the beating continued for the first two weeks.
The most intensive beating was really the first week and then after that, it was mostly slapping on the face and hitting. So, on the third day when they didn’t find anything, third or fourth day either, In my view, they just wanted to please the Americans and they had to find something on me because I was accused of being an Al Qaeda member, which is nowadays synonymous with Afghanistan. They told me you’ve been to a training camp in Afghanistan. I said no. And they started beating me. And I said, well, I had no choice. I just wanted the beating to stop. I said, of course, I’ve been to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything just to stop the torture.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for 60 seconds.- We’ll come back with you then. Maher Arar detained by U.S. officials as he was traveling through the United States airport trying to get back home to Canada, deported secretly to Syria and describing his ordeal in a Syrian prison. We’ll be right back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!: The War and Peace Report as we return to the man detained by U.S. officials last year during a stopover at New York airport, repeatedly tortured after he was secretly deported by the United States to Syria where he had lived until he was 17 years old, lived in Canada for about 15 years where he was married and has as family.
So, you described your first days in the prison. You then said that you told them, after they asked you whether You’d been to Afghanistan to stop the torture, you said yes, and then what happened?
MAHER ARAR: After I told them this, the beatings started to become less and less severe and the interrogation actually ended after two weeks and the worst of all of this is the cell that they put me in. It was an underground cell. It was dark there. There was no light in there. It was three feet wide, six feet deep and seven feet high with an opening in the ceiling and that’s where a little bit of light came in. There was no heating in the winter. There was only two blankets on the floor, the hard floor. [sighing] It’s a disgusting place to be. There were rats. Cats above the cell and the cats peed from time to time in that opening. There was no hot water, especially no toilets. So basically just to describe it in two words, it was a torture chamber. And I stayed in that place for 10 months and 10 days before I was transferred to a better place.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to have any contact with your family?
MAHER ARAR: When I was in Syria, I received visits from the Canadian consulate and he brought me a letter from my wife and I also dictated him some letters and that’s how I kept contact with my family. But, again, those visits were in the presence of Syrian officials and my wife and I could not exchange, any information. So, it has to be limited to thing like "how are you doing?" and things like that.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the "Washington Post" piece on your case. It says "officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the Maher Arar case fits the profile of a covert C.I.A. extraordinary rendition", quote-unquote. The practice of turning over low-level suspected terrorists to foreign intelligence services, some of which are known to torture prisoners. I’m wondering your response to that. And also what Canada told you as the Canadian consulate was visiting you.
MAHER ARAR: The Canadian consulate did not tell me anything. Basically everything was controlled by Syrian officials and I just still can’t believe what Happened to me. A country like the United States, which is supposed to be a country that praises democracy and respect human rights, to do this kind of thing to me.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you finally get out?
MAHER ARAR: Get out of prison?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
MAHER ARAR: Basically, there was so much pressure here, especially my wife. She started a very aggressive campaign with human rights groups, civil rights groups, and she put a lot of pressure on the Canadian governments. At the beginning, the Canadian government did not have a consistent position for some reason. But at tend, the foreign affairs minister here for Canada, Mr. Graham, he relayed that and the Syrians did not charge me and they still kept me there. He actually put pressure on the Syrian foreign affairs minister when he met him in New York and he told him either charge this guy or release him and let him go back home and that is when things started moving in the right direction. And I was finally released with no charge.
AMY GOODMAN: You returned to Canada, as we wrap up this discussion, how are you physically and what are your plans now?
MAHER ARAR: I’ve been suffering from post traumatic stress. I’ve had many nightmares where I see people come and beat me and they want to take me back to Syria. I have sometimes pain in parts of my body and I’m still suffering actually from my hips. It is a very consistent pain I’m going through medical examinations now. I’ve had done many x-rays and I have not received the results yet. So, I’m seeing psychiatrist. I think the healing processes is going to be long and, frankly, my life and future have been destroyed even though I’m working right now to clear my name. But it is just the accusation to label someone as a terrorist, it’s not going to be easy to make people believe that I was not a terrorist. I’m just very worried if I’m going to be able to get back to my normal life. One thing for sure, I don’t think I’ll go back to the same career because I relied on so many important things that basically there’s so much injustice out there in the world. And I don’t know, I’ll probably become a human rights activist.
AMY GOODMAN: Well Maher Arar, thank you for being with us. Welcome home to Canada. A Canadian citizen, traveling through the United States, just in transit, back to Canada after a family vacation, pulled off out of the airport in New York and secretly deported to Syria where he was held for more than a year and tortured.