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As Syrian Colonel Faces Charges in Maher Arar Torture Case, Will U.S. Ever Apologize?

StorySeptember 03, 2015
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In a move to hold government officials accountable for torture, Canada has charged Syrian Colonel George Salloum with allegedly torturing Canadian engineer Maher Arar. In 2002, Arar was kidnapped by U.S. authorities during a layover at JFK Airport and then sent to his native Syria, where he was tortured and interrogated in a tiny underground cell. He was held for nearly a year. This is the first-ever criminal charge of torture brought by Canada against a foreign government official for acts committed abroad. Canada’s decision to pursue torture charges in Arar’s case may open the door to further such prosecutions, including of U.S. government officials. In 2007, Arar received a $10 million settlement from the Canadian government. The United States has yet to apologize to him. We speak with Maher Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, and Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a move to hold government officials accountable for torture, Canada has charged Syrian Colonel George Salloum with allegedly torturing Canadian engineer Maher Arar. In 2002, Arar was kidnapped by U.S. authorities during a layover at JFK Airport and then sent to his native Syria, where he was tortured and interrogated in a tiny underground cell. He was held for nearly a year. This is the first-ever criminal charge of torture brought by Canada against a foreign government official for acts committed abroad. After the news was announced, Maher Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, read a statement from Maher, who has not spoken to the press in two years.

MONIA MAZIGH: This is by no means the end of the road. It is my hope that George Salloum will be found alive, arrested and extradited to Canada to face Canadian justice. The laying of this charge comes at a critical point in our history. Canada has lost much of its credibility within the last decade when it comes to supporting important human right causes. It is my hope that Canada gives high priority to eradicating torture and bringing who’s committed it to justice. Enhancing national security and protecting human rights can go hand in hand. Lastly, I would like to quote former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said, “Let us be clear: Torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror.” Merci. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Monia Mazigh, speaking on behalf of her husband, Maher Arar. And we’ll be speaking with her in Ottawa in a minute. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police will now attempt to locate and extradite Maher’s alleged torturer, Colonel George Salloum. A Canada-wide warrant and Interpol notice have reportedly been issued for his arrest. Canada’s decision to pursue torture charges in Maher’s case may open the door to further such prosecutions, including of U.S. government officials.

In 2010, Maher Arar appeared on Democracy Now! and described what happened to him.

MAHER ARAR: 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 10 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: Maher Arar speaking to Democracy Now! in 2010. Well, in 2007, Maher Arar received a $10 million settlement from the Canadian government. The United States has yet to apologize for taking him from Kennedy Airport and rendering him to Syria, where he was tortured for close to a year.

For more, we go now to Ottawa, Canada, where we’re joined by two guests. Monia Mazigh is the wife of Maher Arar, the national coordinator, as well, of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. And Alex Neve joins us, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Monia, can you explain exactly how you found out who Maher’s torturer was?

MONIA MAZIGH: I found out the first time through Maher’s—when he came back, during our discussion—and we had many, many of them—you know, about how he was treated, how he was tortured, how he was kept there. And the name of George Salloum came as basically almost one of the very few, because he doesn’t know who were his—like, all of the name of the torturers. But George Salloum came out as one precise one.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was Maher’s reaction, Monia, when he heard that his alleged torturer, this George Salloum, was being charged?

MONIA MAZIGH: Well, I think his first reaction was—I mean, he knew that there was an investigation that started in 2005, after one of his lawyers advised him to ask for—you know, to have a complaint about that person in particular, or, you know, at least someone who tortured him in Syria. But that investigation was taking so much time, and Maher was not sure whether this is going to finalize with a concrete action, so he was very much surprised, almost believing that this cannot happen. But eventually it did.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alex Neve, could you talk about the significance of Maher Arar’s alleged torturer being charged?

ALEX NEVE: Certainly. Well, I and many people, Maher and Monia, as well, have been using words like “historic” and “groundbreaking” and “unprecedented.” And it truly is, on a number of fronts. I mean, first and foremost, it’s just hugely significant because of what it means for Maher and Monia and their family in terms of personal justice. But this is an astounding breakthrough in the bigger struggle to end torture. We know that torture continues, in the context of national security, certainly, and otherwise, because of impunity, because torturers get away with it. Well, finally, for the first time ever in Canadian history, Canadian legal provisions—which have existed since 1985, so these have been part of Canadian law for 30 years—have for the first time now been used to charge someone for torture that happened outside of Canada, the first time ever that a foreign government official has been charged for torture under Canadian law. And that’s an incredible advance in that effort to ensure that people don’t escape justice. And it also conveys that very strong message that torture has no role to play in cases where national security supposedly is the motive, that no matter what, torture is a crime. National security doesn’t excuse it or justify it. Torture is a crime, and those who carry it out should face justice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at this point, you don’t know where Colonel George Salloum is, is that right? And the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are trying to help you find him. Now, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police also were deeply implicated in Maher Arar’s being taken, to begin with, is that right? So talk about those two issues, how you begin to find Colonel Salloum.

ALEX NEVE: Well, maybe I’ll do the first, and Monia may want to pick up on the second. Certainly, in terms of trying to find Colonel Salloum now, obviously, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge anytime a police force is trying to find a foreign suspect. It’s doubly challenging when we’re dealing with a country like Syria, which of course has been ripped apart by devastating civil war for over four years now. Who knows if he’s still alive? Who knows if he’s in Syria, has left Syria? But the RCMP is determined to try to find him, and they have turned to Interpol. Something that’s known as a blue notice has been issued, which means that police forces around the world now are being asked to stay on the lookout for a Colonel George Salloum. And if they find him—and that could be when he crosses a border, when he arrives at an airport, when he gets pulled over somewhere for a traffic stop—if he comes to anyone’s attention, the RCMP will learn about it right away, and they’ll take action. How likely is it that that will actually mean that someday he’ll be in a Canadian courthouse? We can’t assign any kind of statistical probability to that, but stranger things have happened. And the RCMP will do everything they can to try to make it happen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Monia, if you could respond to this issue of the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, being so deeply implicated in your husband’s detention and rendition to Syria, and yet they’re the ones who are looking for now his torturer? Can you explain the background here?

MONIA MAZIGH: Well, I think, yes, you’re right. Justice O’Connor, the judge who conducted the public inquiry into the action of the Canadian government after what happened to my husband, pointed out to the implication of the RCMP and several other agencies, Canadian agencies, sending erroneous information to the United States about my husband. But I think this investigation came because—it started more, I think, as a legal step, as a legal kind of normal thing to do. And at that time, there was a big break into the confidence and relationship between my husband and the RCMP, so—but my husband decided to go with that investigation, to cooperate, to give them whatever information can be helpful. We were not sure whether this is going to take us anywhere. And the fact that it took 10 years tell you, can tell whoever is hearing or listening about this case, is that it’s not an easy one. It is complex investigation, but also there are things happening that we are not aware of, and maybe that made the work of the RCMP more difficult and lengthy.

I don’t think—you know, we cannot today—looking more than 10 years after what happened to my husband, we cannot say, while, you know, the RCMP is the culprit, we are not going to talk to them. I think lives move on. And what is important to remember is that, yes, they did something wrong, and now there is this investigation, which is something very positive. What we really need here is more accountability, in general. I think Canada lacks that accountability when it comes to its national security agencies. We are almost—it’s nonexistent. And if that case or if this new announcement tell us something, it’s we cannot really rely on one particular complaint or one investigation to get justice. We really need to change the system, put more accountability, more oversight, to be able to say that will not happen again to Maher Arar, but also to any other Canadian here in Canada who has been going through this hell.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alex Neve, you suggested earlier that this was a historic case, the charging of George Salloum. But some have said that it’s largely a symbolic act, given the fact, as you also said, that he’s Syrian, he’s maybe in Syria, which is—at the best of times, as you pointed out, it’s very hard to find foreign suspects, trace them, on top of which Syria is engulfed in a civil war. Do you think there’s any likelihood that some of the people who were involved in Maher Arar’s rendition and torture closer to home, in Canada or here in the United States, are likely to face any consequences?

ALEX NEVE: Well, I think that’s one of the big questions that people have been talking about since the charges were announced, that this is—that this is tremendously important, and obviously, as Monia began in talking about how central George Salloum was to the torture and horrific abuses Maher experienced, it’s absolutely vital that he’s going to face some accountability, but there’s so much more. There’s obviously others in Syria, including at higher levels above Colonel Salloum. There’s certainly U.S. officials. After all, they’re the ones who handed him over to Colonel Salloum and his fellow criminals to carry out the torture that was conducted.

And even though we’ve had the accountability that came through the public inquiry into Maher Arar’s case here in Canada, there’s never been any personal accountability, whether that’s criminal—who knows whether there’s criminal accountability?—but even disciplinary accountability for RCMP and other officials who played a role in getting everything rolling in the first place. It was bad information. It was inflammatory accusations that began in Canada, that were passed on to the Americans, that then ended up making it possible, at the end of the day, for Colonel Salloum to torture Maher Arar.

So this can’t be the end. Certainly, we and others will be pressing the RCMP to continue, that what we need to view this is as a door that was long shut. A door that is a doorway to justice and accountability has finally been opened. And we now need to not just stand at that doorway and look in; we need to walk through the doorway and ensure that this becomes a much more wide-ranging exercise.

AMY GOODMAN: Monia, the Canadian government awarded your family $10 million in a settlement. Has the U.S. government ever apologized for originally taking Maher at the airport, at JFK? And is he—does he remain on a terrorist watch list in the United States? Could he—could you all fly back into the United States?

MONIA MAZIGH: No. No, actually. Both questions, no. The United States never apologized. I think what was closer, the closest thing that we heard, I remember that was Condoleezza Rice at some point, she said something like that file would have been handled somehow different or something. That was the closest thing to apology, if we can call that, or to admission of wrongdoing. My husband tried the legal routes in the United States, and then, unfortunately, I think in 2008, if I’m not mistaken, his case was dismissed by the Supreme Court in the United States. And they pointed out to the political level, so I think—which is, I agree. I mean, the decision is political. The war on terror is political. And unfortunately, the court did not and could not have the courage, and, I think, enough courage to go ahead and admit that the system of rendition is wrong and illegal.

When it comes to—I think you asked whether he is on a terrorist watch list or—I don’t know for sure if his name still exists there. And the reason is that he doesn’t travel to the United States. Immediately after he came back, I mean, he knew that he was banned to go to the United States, and that banning was renewed again, I think, after five years. So, I don’t want to—I don’t want him to try, because I don’t think this is really worth doing. It’s about his health. It’s about his life. And it is unfortunate now that, you know, he cannot travel, period. Not because he knows or he has confirmed information, it’s just because of the fear that one day this can be repeated all over him. So, it’s not a joke or, you know, just a speculation or something to take very simplistic. It’s a trauma, the whole trauma that is attached to my husband. No matter what are the compensation, no matter what, you know, the apology, his name has been out there associated with terrorism. And with today’s all what’s going on in the world about terrorism, national security, scrutiny of passengers, everything, it’s simply impossible to go back and travel.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet he has been completely cleared by the Canadian government.

MONIA MAZIGH: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much, both of you, for being with us from Ottawa, Monia Mazigh, the wife of Maher Arar, and Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada.

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Maher Arar: My Rendition & Torture in Syrian Prison Highlights U.S. Reliance on Syria as an Ally

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