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One Day After Complete Exoneration, Maher Arar Yet to Receive Apology From Canada, US for Year-Long Imprisonment, Torture in Syrian Jail

StorySeptember 20, 2006
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Canada and the US are refusing to apologize to Maher Arar despite his exoneration by a Canadian government inquiry. The Syrian-born Canadian was detained nearly four years ago by U.S. authorities at JFK airport and was sent to Syria where he was jailed for a year and repeatedly tortured. Maher Arar joins us with his reaction. [includes rush transcript]

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to apologize to Maher Arar despite Arar’s exoneration by a federal inquiry. Four years ago, Maher Arar was on his way back to Canada from a family vacation in Tunisia. The Syrian-born Canadian citizen had a stopover at JFK airport in New York. After being questioned at the airport, U.S. officials took him to a New York immigration facility. Two weeks later he was secretly flown to Jordan aboard a Gulfstream Jet. Maher Arar ended up in Syria where he was held in a cell, the size of a grave. He was physically and psychologically tortured. He was forced to confess to having trained in Afghanistan — where he has never been. He was released after a year and never charged with a crime.

On Monday, the Canadian government admitted for the first time that Arar was a completely innocent man. Justice Dennis O’Connor, who led the inquiry, said the U.S. government’s decision to send Arar to Syria was likely based on inaccurate and misleading information provided by Canadian authorities.

On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged that a tremendous injustice had taken place but he declined to apologize to Arar. Maher Arar joins us now on the phone from Canada.

  • Maher Arar. 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.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Maher Arar joins us now on the phone from Canada. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Maher Arar.

MAHER ARAR: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your response to the inquiry?

MAHER ARAR: I’m extremely delighted that the inquiry cleared my name. I do believe that the public has always believed in my innocence, but this is the first time a respected jurist has cleared my name, hopefully in a way that will allow me rebuild my life.

AMY GOODMAN: What surprised you most by the findings of this inquiry?

MAHER ARAR: Well, a couple of things, but from the personal point of view, I was extremely shocked to learn that my wife and I and also my kids were placed on watch lists both in Canada and in the States. And we were both described, my wife and I, as Islamic extremists. And that was really the most shocking news that I learned. Of course, there are other things that we learned, but from a personal point of view, that was really the most shocking thing, for my kids to be placed on a watch list. Just to remind everyone, my son at the time was six months old and my daughter was six years old. And the answer that I have right now is, how many other innocent people and innocent kids and babies are placed on this kind of list?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to what the U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said. He said, “Mr. Arar was deported under immigration laws. He was initially detained because his name appeared on a terrorist list. He was deported according to our laws.” Gonzales said that your removal was a deportation, not a rendition, quote: “Even if it were a rendition, we understand as a government what our obligations are with respect to anyone who is rendered by this government to another country. That is, that we seek to satisfy ourselves they will not be tortured,” he said, “And we do that in every case, and if in fact he had been rendered to Syria, we would have sought those same kind of assurances as we do in every case.” Maher Arar.

MAHER ARAR: Well, my question to him is very simple. I think his answer really is — he is underestimating how smart the American people are. You know, we’ve seen over the past couple of years other cases where individuals have been rendered to other countries for the sole purpose of extracting information, and this information extracted under torture ended up in the hands of American authorities. Now, you know, so for him to say that we do not send — we get assurances from people, well, you know, how do you believe?

Let’s take this as a fact. We don’t really know whether they actually sought assurances. But let’s say, let’s assume they did get assurances from the Syrians. Why would they believe the Syrians, given that the State Department on a yearly basis criticizes the human rights record in Syria? In fact, just a couple of days, if I remember correctly, after I went public about my story in November of 2003, President Bush himself clearly spoke critically of Syria. And he, if I remember the expression he used, he said Syria left its people with a legacy of torture.

So how could, you know — I’ll just give a simple analogy here, and I think this will explain my point. Let’s say I tell you there is a serial rapist or serial killer in this room, and I would like your — one of your relatives or your son or daughter to stay alone with him, you know, for long periods of time. Would you really? You know, if this person tells you, “No don’t worry, I am not going to harm your brother or sister,” would you really trust what he is saying to you, given his past history, given the fact he raped many women, given the fact that he killed innocent people before? Well, clearly, everyone knows that Syria has practiced torture for many years. And for them to say, 'Well, we sought assurances,” I don't think is an acceptable answer. The American government and those people who are responsible for what they did to me, they should be held accountable in a court of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to what President Bush said about Syria, actually yesterday, at the United Nations.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: To the people of Syria, your land is home to a great people with a proud tradition of learning and commerce. Today, your rulers have allowed your country to become a crossroad for terrorism. In your midst, Hamas and Hezbollah are working to destabilize the region, and your government is turning your country into a tool of Iran. This is increasing your country’s isolation from the world. Your government must choose a better way forward by ending its support for terror and living in peace with your neighbors and opening the way to a better life for you and your families.

AMY GOODMAN: Maher Arar, your response to President Bush calling Syria, the place the U.S. deported you to, a crossroads for terrorism?

MAHER ARAR: Well, this is exactly the point. You know, on one hand President Bush is criticizing Syria for supporting terrorism and he criticizes them of their human rights record. But on the other hand, his government is willing to send people like me to countries like Syria to be tortured. Well, I think there is clearly a double standard here. And I think what we just heard seconds ago is only for, in my opinion, for public consumption. And I think the American people, in light of what we have learned in the past couple of years, I think, are asking now healthy questions. And I don’t think they really believe what they hear anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about some of the findings in this report that were pretty remarkable. You had Ward Elcock, the former head of Canadian intelligence spy agency, testifying that sometimes Canada’s spy agency uses information obtained through torture. When asked if the spy agency would use evidence obtained under torture from organizations with which Canada has relationships, he said, “Yes.” Franco Pillarella, Canada’s former ambassador to Syria, stunned the inquiry and the diplomatic world when he denied knowledge of Syria’s use of torture. Evidence showed that Pillarella appeared more eager to transmit Arar’s false confessions to Canada than to secure his release. And I’m reading from a CBC report, Canadian Broadcasting. Maher Arar.

MAHER ARAR: You’re right, Amy. I mean, speaking of the fact that the American authorities did the actual — what I would call the dirty work, this is not to say the Canadian government officials are not to blame. And you’re right, you know, there have been many interesting findings. One of those is the fact that the Canadian ambassadors here brought my — the false confession back to Canada. And what is really troubling is they never questioned the reliability of the information. And in many other incidents, they actually stated things to the opposite. One instance, for example, the RCMP described this as information obtained voluntarily, you know, by the Syrians. So this is really troubling for Canadian officials to give reliability to such statements. And, you know, we really have to revisit the issue of what do we do with information obtained from those countries with poor human rights records and whether in the first place we should be asking for this information.

AMY GOODMAN: Maher, what did they do to you in Syria? How did they get you to say that you went to Afghanistan?

MAHER ARAR: Well, basically, the Syrians, the first day, they threatened me to use what we call — what we know now as the “German Chair.” They did not physically abuse me the first day. But, you know, that was a clear message, that if I do not respond quickly or, in their opinion, I do not tell them the truth, they will use other means. In fact, the second day they started beating me with a cable, and the pain was so extreme to the point where I would just say anything for — just to stop the torture. And the most extreme day was the third day, where they, to my surprise, they wanted me to confess that I have been to the Afghanistan, and at the end of that day, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I told them what they wanted to hear.

Well, you know, the torture did not stop completely, but it decreased in intensity after, you know. So — but I can tell you definitely, Amy, that, you know, in two weeks from that or in a week’s time from that day, I could tell in their eyes that they realized I had nothing. Well, they did not say this to me directly, but, you know, I could feel that the Syrians were just doing the work for the Americans and possibly the Canadian government.

AMY GOODMAN: How could you feel that?

MAHER ARAR: Well, it’s in their eyes, you know. Had the Canadian government put the pressure in the first place to get me released, I think this would have happened early on. You know, I can’t confirm 100% that this is what — but I could feel in their eyes that, you know, they were laughing, they were smiling. I really was not of interest to them. In fact, later on in one of the meetings with the Canadian MPs, the Syrians clearly said, “We did not ask for Arar, and we had no interest in him.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alberto Gonzales says this wasn’t a rendition, just a deportation. Did they explain why they deported you to Syria, when in fact you’re a Canadian citizen and on your way home to Canada, just transiting through Kennedy Airport, switching planes?

MAHER ARAR: Well, I clearly stated to them that I wanted to go back to Canada. This is my home. This is where I had lived for the past 16 or 17 years. In fact, there was a document that, you know, I filled out, and they asked me, “Where do you want to go?” I said, “To Canada.” And they said, “Do you have any concerns going to Canada?” I said, “Not at all.” But during the six-hour exhaustive interview they conducted two days before they sent me to Syria, they asked me questions about why I didn’t want to go to Syria. I gave them all kinds of reasons. One of them is my military service. And I remember vividly telling them that, you know, “If you send me to Syria, I’ll be tortured.” But they did not seem to care, you know.

And I don’t think, you know — I think they are not being truthful when they compare my case to the standard deportation cases. First of all, I was not afforded due process like anyone else. I’ve asked many times to see a judge. I’ve asked many times to have full access to my lawyer. When they decided to send me to Syria, they bundled me on a private jet. And, you know, I think this is very clear. It bears a strong resemblance to the rendition practice by the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: Maher Arar, my last question is, when we last talked to you, you said your captors had destroyed your life. How are your spirits today?

MAHER ARAR: Well, I’m a lot better today than I was three years ago after my return to Canada, even though there was a campaign of misinformation conducted by some Canadian officials to potentially damage my reputation. But, you know, the support I have received from the Canadian public and from the — some American public, you know, helped me all along. And if it was not for that support, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain all this pressure and stress. I can definitely tell you that I am delighted with the recommendations of the report. And I do hope that the Canadian government will act on the recommendations. And also I would like our Prime Minister Harper, when he visits the U.S. tomorrow, to raise the issue with his counterpart and basically complain about my — the treatment I received.

AMY GOODMAN: Maher Arar, I want to thank you very much for being with us, joining us from Canada, vindicated by a Canadian inquiry.

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