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U.S. Claims Maher Arar “Extraordinary Rendition” Lawsuit Jeopardizes National Security

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The U.S. government is attempting to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Canadian citizen Maher Arar, claiming the litigation would jeopardize national security. Arar was jailed by the U.S. and secretly deported to Syria where he was held for almost a year without charge and repeatedly tortured. [includes rush transcript]

The U.S. government is attempting to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Canadian citizen Maher Arar, claiming the litigation would jeopardize national security.

Two years ago the Syrian-born software engineer was detained by US official while on a stopover in New York. He was then jailed and secretly deported to Syria. He was held for almost a year without charge in an underground cell not much larger than a grave where he was tortured. Time Magazine in Canada recently named him the country’s newsmaker of the year.

The Centre for Constitutional Rights launched Arar’s lawsuit last January alleging that outgoing attorney-general John Ashcroft, former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge and other officials within President Bush’s administration knew Arar would be tortured when he was deported. Arar alleges he was a victim of the US government’s controversial “extraordinary rendition” policy of sending suspects to countries that routinely use torture in their prisons to circumvent local laws.

The US government is attempting to have the lawsuit dismissed. Invoking the rarely used “state secrets privilege” the Justice Department claims that any release of information on Arar could jeopardize “intelligence, foreign policy and national security interests of the United States.”

In a moment we’re going to take a look at his case with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, but first we wanted to play an interview we did with Maher Arar in November 2003 — a few weeks after he was freed by Syrian officials. He joined us on the line from his home in Canada.

  • Maher Arar, Democracy Now! interview, November 7, 2003.
  • Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is the author of Guantanamo: What the World Should Know and his writings appear in a new book by Seven Stories press titled America’s Disappeared: Secret Imprisonment, Detainees, and the “War on Terror.” Last week he was awarded the Columbia Law School’s Medal for Excellence, the university’s highest award to its alumni.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, talk about Maher Arar. Talk about that case.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well there’s another case. You know that there are some memos that the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Gonzales for. Those are memos about rendition, which is the sending of people to other countries for torture. Arar was a Canadian citizen who was sent to Syria, kept in an underground prison for 10 months, probably would have never seen the light of day except that he was Canadian and it was a big stink made about it. But when they asked Gonzales for these memos, they refused to turn them over — about the U.S. policy of sending people to countries where they can be tortured — of course totally, utterly against the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Now he was coming back to Canada from a holiday with his family and did a transit stop. Had to switch planes.

MICHAEL RATNER: He had a stop at Kennedy. They pulled him off the plane for 10 days, interrogated him heavily. They don’t let him really have any access to his attorney, held a midnight hearing Sunday night at 12:00 where no attorney could ever be there. He complains, “I’ll be tortured if I’m send back to Syria.” He left Syria when he was 16 years old. They put him on one of these private, white, C.I.A. jets that are flying around all these places where they’re taking people out for torture and take him into an underground cell in Syria. There is now a major public inquiry going on in Canada, which is an official inquiry and one of the things that was said now, the U.S. wrote a letter to Congressman Markey. Congressman Markey has been actually on this case and saying, “What happened here?” And the U.S. wrote a letter saying we got information from the Canadians that he was on a terrorist watch list and, therefore, we acted on that. Of course, we had our own independent evaluation, b.s. , and we did this to him. If this is one case, Gonzales again, if and when we got the memos, up to his neck in this stuff. This is a terrible moment, really, in terms of our adherence to law and in terms of our deep involvement in torture.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to turn to a clip, when we interviewed Maher Arar when he was sent back to Canada.

MAHER ARAR: Really, I mean, when I arrived there, I just couldn’t believe it. I thought first it was a dream. I was crying all the 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 — that’s all I was thinking about when I was on the plane. And I arrived there, I was crying all time. So, one of them started questioning me and the others were taking notes. The first day it was mainly routine questions, between 8 and 12. The second day, that’s when the beatings started because, you know, on the first day, they did not find anything strange about what I told them and they started beating me with a cable, threaded cable, and they would beat me for three, four times. They would stop again and they would ask me 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 — the most intensive — the intensive beating was really the first week and then after that, it was mostly slapping, punching on the face and hitting. So, on the third day when they didn’t find anything, they — in my view, they just wanted to please the Americans and they had to find something on me. So, 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. And I said, “No.” And they started beating me. And I said — well, I had no choice. I didn’t — I 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: Maher Arar, Syrian-Canadian who spoke to us after he was returned from Syria to Canada. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael, he has an ongoing lawsuit. Could you explain what’s happening with that and what’s been some of the government’s arguments on it?

MICHAEL RATNER: The Center for Constitutional Rights sued Ashcroft and other people in the Justice Department who deported him, essentially knowing he was going to be tortured, really for the purpose of torturing. Recently, the government filed some papers in the case saying they’re taking what they call “states secrets privilege”, for national security, which means we can’t give you any information at all about why we took Arar and sent him to Syria. They won’t even admit any of this stuff, that he went into this underground torture stuff. I don’t think it will be upheld. I think actually, it’s hard for me to say how long it will last. But the courts are now slightly better than the Bush administration, which is just mired in secrecy, torture, and blood.

AMY GOODMAN: National security?

MICHAEL RATNER: What’s the national security? Exactly. It’s about what their criteria are for presumably sending a guy over to be tortured. You understand that Arar was just —

AMY GOODMAN: He was never charged?

MICHAEL RATNER: He was never charged with anything. He’s completely —- I mean whether he was charged or not, we took him over there to be tortured, but the guy is completely innocent of everything. It was nothing. He has a couple of kids sitting up in Canada. It was devastating for his family. He was never charged. They never gave him an attorney. We’ve said Syria’s tortured for the last 10 years in our State Department reports and then Ashcroft said, “I received assurances from the Syrians that they wouldn’t torture the guy,” and we send him to the very branch of security that does the torture, and we fed them the questions. I mean this is set-up. This is Arar in Syria, this is Habib in Egypt. This is x number of people, hundreds of people possibly, really in detention facilities in other countries that the U.S. is implicated deeply in their torture. This is what’s going on right now. These are memos we haven’t seen. This is what Gonzales’ role -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is very similar — reminds me back in the days of the Central American wars when the government, in order to get around the congressional ban on funding, then began to get other countries, Israel and others to help, and that led eventually to the big scandal of Ollie North and Poindexter and so now instead of just shipping arms, they’re getting up these other countries involved in torture.

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, it is similar to that, Juan. I think that is absolutely right. I think — I’m not sure that there is a difference, because they we’re almost proud of that also after it was exposed: “We had to do this. We had to do this to win the wars in Central America.” What you can’t get over about the torture scandal is they’re proud of this stuff. They really believe in this stuff. They don’t want to back off from it. This whole December 30 memo where they backed off on the definition of torture. They didn’t back off of anything. They still believe they can do this stuff and it is open and notorious.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, I want to thank you for being with us. President for the Center For Constitutional Rights and congratulations on your awards from Columbia Law School.

MICHAEL RATNER: I’m embarrassed.

AMY GOODMAN: Getting the Medal Of Excellence, the university’s highest award to an alumni. Thank you so much.


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