Congress Hears Testimony in Arar Torture Case

Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, a husband, a father of two. He also endured almost a year of solitary confinement and torture in a prison in Syria, where the United States deported him after he was falsely accused of belonging to al Qaeda.

"I was put in a dark, underground cell that was more like a grave. It was 3 feet wide, 6 feet deep and 7 feet high. Life in that cell was hell. I spent 10 months and 10 days in that grave," Arar told a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs subcommittees.

Arar appeared at the hearing via videoconference from Ottawa. The U.S. government would not let him into the country, because he remains on the nation's terrorist watch list.

"I am not a terrorist, I am not a member of al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. I am a father, a husband, an engineer. I am also a victim of the practice of extraordinary rendition."

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, testified at the hearing and defined rendition as "the practice by which the United States transfers persons to third countries where they are more likely than not to be subjected to harsh interrogation practices, including torture, in the hope of thereby gaining 'actionable intelligence.'

"As one U.S. official involved in the practice infamously described it, 'We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them,'" Cole said.

U.S. Sent Arar to Syria Where He Was Tortured

In September 2002, Arar stopped at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport en route to Montreal after a family trip to Tunisia. In New York, immigration officials detained him, interrogated him, and then incarcerated him at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center.

Arar was told he had no right to a lawyer because he was not an American citizen, and his requests to see a judge were denied. He was only allowed to make a brief phone call to his family after five days. Shortly thereafter, U.S. officials told Arar that he would be deported to Syria.

"I clearly and repeatedly told them I was afraid I would be tortured there. I told them I would be tortured because I was being wrongly accused of being a member of al Qaeda. I also conveyed to them my fear of returning to Syria, given that I had not fulfilled my compulsory military service there. My pleas fell on deaf ears."

"It was becoming more and more clear to me that I was being sent to Syria for the purpose of being tortured."

'Interrogated and Physically Tortured'

Once in Syria, Arar's worst fears were realized, as he was immediately placed in solitary confinement in a tiny cell where cats urinated down on him from a hole in the ceiling.

"During the early days of my detention, I was interrogated and physically tortured. I was beaten with an electrical cable, and threatened with a metal chair, a tire and electric shocks. I was forced to falsely confess I had been to Afghanistan."

He was only allowed to leave his cell for interrogations and consular visits from the Canadian Embassy, where Syrian officials, who were present at these meetings, ordered him not to mention the beatings.

Finally, in August 2003, almost a year after he was first detained in New York, Arar spoke out about his treatment to the Canadian consul.

Two months later, Arar was released, having never been charged with a criminal offence.

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