By Jan Sliva in Globeandmail.com
Brussels ‘ Maher Arar told an investigative committee of the European Parliament on Thursday that he was kidnapped in New York and deported by U.S. authorities via Rome and Jordan to Syria, where he was tortured for 10 months.
Mr. Arar, an Ottawa telecommunications engineer who holds dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, was travelling on a Canadian passport when he was grabbed at a New York airport in September, 2002, during a stopover on his way home to Canada from vacation in Tunisia. He said he was sent to Syria for interrogation on suspicion of being a member of al-Qaeda, an allegation he denied.
‘I am a victim of extraordinary rendition,’ Mr. Arar told the EU committee. ‘I am not a terrorist, I don’t know anyone from al-Qaeda. I have never been to Afghanistan.’
He testified to an EU parliamentary committee investigating whether CIA agents shipped prisoners through European airports to secret detention centres.
The Italian connection was of particular interest to the committee, which is investigating whether Europe’s human-rights treaties were violated in alleged extraordinary renditions by U.S. authorities.
Clandestine detention centres and secret flights via of from Europe to countries where suspects could face torture would breach the continent’s human-rights conventions.
In Canada, the former Liberal government launched a judicial inquiry into the role that Canadian officials might have played in Mr. Arar’s detention. That report is due before summer.
Mr. Arar told the EU committee that FBI agents took his passport, put him in chains on both his wrists and ankles and asked him to voluntarily to go to Syria. He refused. After several days of interrogation in New York, he said he was driven to New Jersey and put on a private jet that stopped over in Rome before landing in Amman.
“I overheard them saying they belonged to a special removal unit,” he said.
Mr. Arar said he could see on the airport’s in-flight screen showing the trajectory of the flight that it landed in Rome. He said he overheard officials discussing the plane’s next stop in Athens. He said the plane refuelled in Rome and tall person in a civilian suit guarded it on the tarmac.
Once in Syria, Mr. Arar said, he was detained in a small cell with no light and was beaten and tortured. He said he also heard other people being tortured.
“I though my heart would go out of my chest,” he said of the suffering he endured.
Over time, he said, he “became aware” that a German citizen was detained in the same compound in a nearby cell. He said the German had been sent from Morocco to Syria.
Mr. Arar’s testimony followed a similar story told by a Kuwaiti-born German citizen who said he was abducted in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan for torturing.
The EU assembly is trying to get first-hand testimony from people who say there were abducted by U.S. intelligence agents to get a better picture of the U.S. extraordinary-rendition flights.
A group of committee members plans to travel to the United States in early May to speak to U.S. officials about alleged cases of extraordinary rendition, officials said. EU legislators will also go to Macedonia in late April to speak the to authorities there about the case of the Kuwaiti-born German.
Before the hearing, Mr. Arar said he hoped his trip to Europe, his first abroad since being freed from the Syrian prison in 2003, would help prevent others from suffering a similar fate.
“I am testifying so the world will know that the U.S. government abducted me for no reason in New York and sent me to Syria, where I was tortured and the U.S. government knew this was a common practice,” Mr. Arar said in a statement released Wednesday by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The New York-based legal and educational group represents Mr. Arar in his bid to sue the U.S. government.
“I have always said I do not want anyone else to endure the torture I experienced, and that is why I am testifying, …” Mr. Arar said.
Under the practice known as extraordinary rendition, U.S. authorities detain people suspected of having terrorist links and send them to other countries for interrogation in the hope of extracting information to support their suspicion. Washington says it does not condone torture, but many countries involved in the rendition process routinely mete out rough treatment to detainees.
Mr. Arar’s initial attempt to sue the U.S. government was rebuffed by a U.S. court.
Maria LaHood, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said an appeal is planned.
“The court gave a green light to the administration to outsource torture in the name of national security,” she said. “Mr. Arar will not be silenced.”