- Maher ArarCanadian victim of US rendition and torture. He recently launched the online magazine PRISM.
- Maria LaHoodMaher Arar’s attorney and senior staff attorney at the the Center for Constitutional Rights.
In a major setback for holding US officials accountable for rendition and torture, the Supreme Court has rejected Arar’s lawsuit against the US government. Arar was seized at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 2002 on a stopover from a vacation abroad. Instead of allowing him to return home to Canada, Arar was sent to his native Syria, where he was tortured and interrogated in a tiny underground cell for nearly a year. Just after the Court’s decision was announced, Arar revealed a major new development: Canada’s federal law enforcement agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, is conducting a criminal investigation into US and Syrian officials for their role in Arar’s rendition and torture. We speak to Maher Arar. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the latest case of Maher Arar. In a major setback for holding US officials accountable for rendition and torture, the Supreme Court has rejected Maher Arar’s lawsuit against the US government. He was seized at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 2002 on a stopover from a vacation abroad. Instead of allowing him to return home to Canada, Arar was sent to his native Syria, where he was tortured and interrogated in a tiny underground cell for nearly a year. On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear Arar’s case, ending his quest for justice through the US court system.
But just after the Court’s decision was announced, Arar revealed a major new development: Canada’s federal law enforcement agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, is conducting a criminal investigation into US and Syrian officials for their role in Arar’s rendition and torture. Maher Arar says he is cooperating with the RCMP. The investigation opens the door to Bush administration officials potentially facing charges in Canada. Arar’s lawsuit names then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other US officials.
With legal channels in the US exhausted, Arar’s attorneys are now calling on the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress to heed Arar’s demands for an apology and redress. Just last month, the Obama administration sided against Arar and asked the Supreme Court to reject his suit.
Well, in a Democracy Now! national broadcast exclusive, Maher Arar joins us now from Ottawa. And joining us here in New York, Maria LaHood, Maher Arar’s attorney and senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Maher Arar, let me begin with your reaction to the US Supreme Court rejecting your lawsuit against the US government.
MAHER ARAR: I was obviously expecting a negative decision, given that lower courts have not sided — or have sided with the government on this case. But obviously, it’s extremely disappointing, especially so this is coming from the highest court in the US, where this court is supposed to, you know, stand up for justice and make sure that no one is above the laws. Of course it’s been extremely disappointing for me.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to start at the beginning for people who aren’t familiar with your case. Explain what happened to you when you were coming home from family vacation, just transiting through Kennedy Airport, swiching planes to go to Canada, when it was.
MAHER ARAR: So, it’s a long story, but I was basically stopped at JFK Airport, and I was told it was routine procedure. Eventually, a team of FBI and New York police showed up, and they started asking me questions, and they had always told me I was not a suspect. The questioning lasted for many, many hours on end, and eventually I was arrested. I was not told why. And I spent that night at the airport. I could not sleep. Next day they asked me to volunteer to go to Syria, and then I refused. I was taken to MDC [Metropolitan Detention Center], where I spent about ten days, and they eventually secretly took me in the middle of the night and shipped me off to Syria like a parcel —-
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened there?
MAHER ARAR: —- through Jordan. Well, obviously, it was an expedited process. They didn’t allow me to talk to a judge, even though I insisted. They lied to my lawyer, whom my family hired. And they bypassed all the regular procedures. They basically did not care when I protested my — the fact that I may be tortured when I’m in Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: And tell us what happened to you — tell us what happened to you in Syria.
MAHER ARAR: Well, of course, they dumped me in Jordan, a country I have no connection to whatsoever. And it’s a known fact now that the Jordanians are cooperating fully with the war on terror. And hours later, they handed me over to the Syrians. And the interrogations started that same day. There was no physical violence the same day — threats and all kinds of verbal threats with electricity and the chair. They call it the German chair. But the beating started the following day, where they started beating me, with no advance warning whatsoever, with a cable, electrical cable. And the most intense beating was on the third day, where for some strange reason they wanted me to say that I’ve been to Afghanistan. At the end of the day, I lost all my strength, and I told them what they wanted to hear. So the beating did not stop, but it became much, much less intense. But I can tell in the eyes of the investigators, the Syrian investigators — I don’t even know if I can call them that; they’re torturers — that they were looking for something, that they wanted to please the Americans. But I can tell you, after two weeks of torture and harsh interrogation and humiliation, I can tell in their eyes that there was nothing there for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria LaHood, you’re Maher Arar’s attorney. Tell us what the Supreme Court said.
MARIA LAHOOD: Well, unfortunately, the Supreme Court didn’t say anything. It just completely rejected Maher’s petition for them to hear the dismissal of his case. So, all Maher is asking is — you know, he brought a complaint, the lower courts have rejected that without even letting it go any farther, and we have asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. And they just denied the petition.
AMY GOODMAN: But they’re saying it should be done legislatively?
MARIA LAHOOD: The Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which is now the decision that stands, said basically that, you know, it interpreted the statute that allows damages for conspiracy to torture with a foreign country — it interpreted that to not apply in this case. So it says Congress needs to fix that. It also refused to imply a remedy for a constitutional violation here. Maher was sent to torture in Syria and also was prevented from going to court to stop it, which Congress specifically legislated people have a right to do. And it basically said that because of reasons of national security, there is no remedy here. So, that’s something that Congress needs to fix.
AMY GOODMAN: What could the Obama administration do right now?
MARIA LAHOOD: Well, the Obama administration can do what it could have done all along, which is just apologize to Maher for what Bush administration officials did. It could provide Maher with a remedy. It could take him off the watch list. It could also, you know, seek changes in the law to make it more clear.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, we’ve just gotten Maher Arar in the TV studio up at the CBC in Ottawa, so we’re going to hear him and see him more clearly. Maher, talk about what you have just learned from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
MAHER ARAR: Well, actually, I’ve been cooperating with this investigation for the past four years. It’s an investigation that was launched four years ago. My lawyer at the inquiry at that time, Marlys Edwardh, asked for that investigation. So it’s been going on. They’ve been collecting evidence. They’ve been interviewing people both in Canada and internationally. They’ve traveled to some countries, and they’ve collected evidence. They spoke to some interesting people. And their focus is on the Syrian torturers, as well as those American officials who were complicit in my torture.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you be more specific? Who are they looking into criminally in the United States? What US officials?
MAHER ARAR: I’ll just give you what I can say publicly. They are looking to charge those people who tortured me physically, but they’re also looking into charging — or investigating whether my removal to Syria was part of a torture program. And if it was, then they would lay charges against those officials who are — who did this act of sending me to Syria. You have to remember, this is not an easy case, and they are trying their best to get the names and to identify those individuals. I don’t know much about — as typical with any police investigation, they don’t tell me or tell anyone a lot of details. But I can tell you that the — I was told the investigation has made a lot of progress within the last year or so.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, Maher Arar, you, in Canada, were completely exonerated. A judicial commission was impaneled. They looked for months, produced a report of thousands of pages. Ultimately, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, a longtime Bush ally, held a news conference. You were awarded $10 million — or it more than that, is that right?
MAHER ARAR: That’s correct, about ten million US dollars, yes. And the Prime Minister apologized. And by the way, the Canadian investigation lasted — inquiry lasted about two-and-a-half years. It was extremely exhaustive in nature. The interviews — if I remember corrrectly, they interviewed about sixty or more witnesses, and they produced volumes of findings, in which I was exonerated. But at the same time, they laid the blame on some — on the RCMP and other departments for sending false information to their American counterparts. But let’s remember that the — what the report clearly stated, that the RCMP was not involved in my removal to Syria directly. All they did is they sent false information that was the basis for the American decision. The ultimate guilty people here are the actual American officials, whether it’s politicians or otherwise, who made that specific decision to send me to Syria, knowing that I would be tortured.
AMY GOODMAN: Maher Arar, talk about what you’re doing now. We just have a minute.
MAHER ARAR: Well, I just finished recently my PhD. I’m applying for an adjunct professor position at the university. It’s not a full-time position, but it’s going to keep me mentally stimulated. I also started a web-based magazine. It’s called Prism magazine, P-R-I-S-M magazine.com. Basically it deals — it focuses on national security issues. I’ve recently included a web-based TV component. In fact, this past Saturday we launched a national security show about the Omar Khadr case, the last Canadian who’s still detained in Guantánamo. So, basically, my experience or what happened to me changed my life in the sense that struggle for justice and struggle against oppression has become a way of life for me, and I can never go back to just a simple nine-to-five engineer anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Maher Arar, Canadian victim of US rendition, sent to Syria by the US authorities and tortured. He was held for more than ten months, sent back ultimately to Canada without charge, exonerated in Canada, rewarded more than $10 million. The US Supreme Court has turned down his case, the lawsuit against the US government. Maria LaHood, his attorney here in New York, the Center for Constitutional Rights.