By Howard Williams writing in CNSNews.com (28th October)
Ottawa (CNSNews.com) – A Canadian citizen, deported by the United States to Syria even though no charges had been filed against him, was tortured while in Syrian custody, according to testimony at a judicial inquiry Thursday.
The case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born engineer who lives with his family in Ottawa, sparked a diplomatic row between Canada and the United States after it was revealed that the U.S. deported him to Syria without informing Canadian authorities and despite the fact that Arar was traveling on a Canadian passport.
The United States claimed that Arar had links with the al Qaeda terrorist network but never charged him.
After a year of intensive diplomatic efforts, Arar was eventually released by Syria and returned to Canada. After months of trying to dodge the issue, the Canadian government agreed to set up a judicial inquiry.
Officially, the inquiry is to discover what role — if any — Canadian officials had in Arar’s arrest and deportation by the United States. However, many are hoping that the inquiry will also cast some light on why the United States chose to deport a Canadian citizen to a country — Syria — known for allegedly harsh interrogation methods.
Those interrogation methods, the inquiry was told Thursday, included physical and psychological torture.
Stephen Toope, a former dean of McGill University’s law school in Montreal, who was appointed to carry out an independent investigation by Ontario Associate Chief Justice Dennis O’Connor, reported that “Arar’s psychological state was seriously damaged and he remains fragile … Economically, the family has been devastated.”
Toope interviewed Arar about his claims that he was tortured, claims originally denied by Canadian authorities, and other Syrian-Canadians who claim to have been tortured while in custody in their native country.
“I am convinced that [Arar’s] description of his treatment in Syria is accurate,” Toope said in his report which was made public Thursday. “I conclude that the stories they tell are credible. I believe that they suffered severe physical and psychological trauma while in detention in Syria.
Toope concluded that “the treatment of Mr. Arar in Far Falestin constituted torture as understood in international law … In addition, the techniques of humiliation and the creation of intense fear were forms of psychological torture.”
American authorities detained Arar in New York when he was returning from a family vacation in Tunisia in September 2002, accusing him of having terrorist connections.
Canadian consular officials said they were not told of Arar’s deportation until after he had been flown out of the United States and despite assurances from U.S. authorities that he would not be deported without prior consultation with Canada.
Washington has refused to allow State Department or FBI officials to testify at the inquiry, which has already discovered that The Royal Canadian Mounted Police supplied information to U.S. law enforcement officials about Arar.
Canada’s Defense Minister, Bill Graham, who was foreign minister at the time Arar was arrested and deported, claimed at the inquiry that he had no reason to believe Arar was being tortured in Syria.
Dan Livermore, director general of Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department’s security and intelligence bureau, said the United States used a process called extraordinary rendition to deport Arar to Syria.
“I find troubling the entire course of activity the American government has embarked upon since about 2001 with respect to what they call extraordinary rendition, a practice which we knew absolutely nothing about,” Livermore claimed.
O’Connor is expected to wrap up his inquiry soon and could produce his final report before the end of the year.
Although not technically part of his mandate, O’Connor could urge Ottawa to seek greater assurances from Washington about the treatment of Canadian citizens taken into custody while in the United States.
Arar, now 35, has consistently denied any links to any terrorist organization and has never been charged in Canada or in the United States with any criminal offense. He obtained his engineering degree in Ottawa and during his one-man campaign for a public inquiry has impressed many Canadians with his fluency in both English and French.