Congress Hears Testimony in Arar Torture Case

Congress hears tale of Cdn man the U.S. deported to Syria where he was tortured.

January 8, 2009, 1:17 AM

Oct. 18, 2007 — -- 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.

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."

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.

In September 2006, Justice Dennis O'Connor, commissioned by the Canadian government to head an independent inquiry into the matter, cleared Arar of all terrorism allegations, stating that "there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada."

O'Connor also concluded that "the American authorities who handled Mr. Arar's case treated Mr. Arar in a most regrettable manner."

In January 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Arar and announced a $10 million compensation package for him, while the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned. The Canadian government also sent letters to the United States and Syria protesting Arar's treatment.

The U.S. government has not apologized or admitted any wrongdoing, although numerous congressmen did so at the hearing.

"I want to apologize to you, Mr. Arar, for the reprehensible conduct of our government for turning you over to Syria, a nation that our own State Department recognizes as routinely practicing torture," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

"The refusal of the Bush administration to be held accountable stands in sharp contrast to the actions of the Canadian government and is an embarrassment to all of us," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., although he apologized to Arar, argued that rendition does stop terrorists, and that Arar's case is "no excuse to end a program which has protected the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of American lives."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., vehemently disagreed.

"This government is sending people to other countries to be tortured," Conyers said.

Delahunt said that it is his "intention for high level administration officials responsible for the Arar decision to come before these panels and tell the American people the truth about what happened."

In September 2006, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied that Arar was a victim of rendition.

"Mr. Arar was deported under our immigration laws," said Gonzales. "He was initially detained because his name appeared on a terrorist list. And he was deported according to our laws. Some people have characterized his removal as a rendition. That is not what happened here. It was a deportation. And even if it were a rendition, we understand, as a government, what our obligations are with respect to anyone who's rendered by this government to another country, and that is that we seek to satisfy ourselves that they will not be tortured. 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."

The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is looking into Arar's case. Its report is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Still, Maher Arar's pain endures.

"The past few years have been a nightmare for me. The cognitive and psychological scars from my ordeal remain with me on a daily basis." Arar said. "I am not the same person that I once was."

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