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Maher Arar was deported, tortured, and then mysteriously released. Why?

By 1.29.04

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Reading Maher Arar's complaint, filed in New York district court over his deportation to Syria, is a bit like reading the synopsis of a Kafka novel. The main character is detained, he is questioned, moved from place to place, asked to sign mysterious documents, then flown to other countries where he is imprisoned, tortured, and made to confess to things he has never done. And then suddenly, mysteriously, he is released. He is never charged with anything. His former tormentors even now claim he was innocent all along.

Except in Kafka's fictional universe, the main character doesn't get a chance to sue the pants off of everybody once it's all over. Mr. Arar is suing the Syrian government, the Jordanians, and the entire American law enforcement establishment, everyone it seems except the country that did the initial spying on him, Canada. He's asking for unspecified damages to compensate him for his year-long ordeal.

If the American suit ever winds up in front of a jury, it might provide some answers in this strange case. The whole affair has garnered an enormous amount of publicity in Canada (see yesterday's article on the subject) and some in the U.S. At the moment, public sympathy for the Syrian-born Canadian citizen is high and many have accepted all his allegations at face value.

As it now appears, the INS seems to have deported Arar on the flimsiest of pretexts, simply because he was acquainted with a couple of other terrorist suspects under surveillance by the Canadian police. It is known that he was traveling on a Canadian passport. At present it is not known whether Arar had a Syrian passport in his possession, which would make the deportation to Syria more reasonable, at least officially. But he actually wound up initially being flown to Jordan, and the Jordanians drove him to Syria. Except for unauthorized leaks and an INS document stating that they determined he was a member of al Qaeda, the case for Arar's deportation to Syria has not been made public.

THE CASE MAY NEVER be made. After announcing the public inquiry, Canadian Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan jetted off to D.C. to assure her American counterparts that none of their intelligence gathering would be compromised by the aforementioned inquiry. Since most of the information gathered on Arar prior to his deportation apparently originated in Canada, this may be something of a hollow gesture. It is not known whether she will seek a reciprocal assurance from the U.S. concerning Canadian intelligence sources.

Arar has filed his lawsuit through the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), an organization whose view of rights seems a little arbitrary -- they helped establish the "buffer zone" law around abortion clinics, curtailing protests of people they apparently don't agree with. Reading through their history, a litany of '60s radicalism -- Black Panthers, abortion rights, feminist rights, Zapatistas -- I would say that it's a safe assumption these people are not friends of the current administration. This might go some way in explaining why the lawsuit targets by name the Attorney General, the head of the FBI, and the Secretary of State for Homeland Security, along with others who were more directly involved.

Looming over the whole mess are the allegations of mistreatment by the Syrians. At a press conference on January 22 announcing the lawsuit, CCR lawyer Barbara Olshansky, displaying a knack for visual aids, held up a thick black cable she claimed was similar to the one Arar was beaten with while being interrogated overseas.

The main charge is that the American authorities knew, or ought to have known, what the Syrians would do to Arar, namely beat him with that thick cable, among other indignities. If they did know -- and if the Syrians did do it -- this would be in contravention of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the U.S. ratified in 1994, and the U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991. According to the CCR, Arar's case marks the first time that American officials have been accused under the latter.

IN NOVEMBER, Attorney General John Ashcroft stated that Arar's deportation was carried out entirely within the law, claiming the U.S. had sought and received assurances from the Syrians that Arar would be treated humanely. And the Syrians claims to have honored this, denying that Arar was ever physically harmed. For the moment, few seem to be taking either of these official positions at face value.

That might be because the official American position is that the Syrians do practice torture. The lawsuit quotes a State Department report on Syria:

...there was credible evidence that security forces continued to use torture, although to a lesser extent than in previous years...Although it occurs in prison, torture was most likely to occur while detainees were being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, especially while the authorities were attempting to extract a confession or information.

In fact, the Syrians did extract information out of Arar. He says he signed a confession stating he was in Afghanistan at an al Qaeda training camp, which he now claims he did only to stop a beating he could no longer bear. After he was released, the Syrians said they considered him completely innocent, which might raise the logical (if slightly inhuman) question: What good is torture if all you get is a bunch of crap information you made up yourself? Why would the American intelligence want that?

But putting such esoteric questions aside, Arar's lawsuit makes a broader allegation. Section 24 of the claim states that "since September 11, 2001, the United States has undertaken covert 'extraordinary renditions,' removing non-U.S. citizens detained in this country and elsewhere and suspected…of terrorist activity to countries, including Syria, where interrogations under torture are routine."

In other words, the CCR is contending that the Arar case is just part of a pattern of illegal activity being carried out by some of the highest law enforcement officers in the land. Pretty strong stuff, and possibly tough to prove in a court of law, presuming it is ever meant to go that far. Maybe this will be one of those things where everybody settles out of court and walks away.

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About the Author

Kevin Steel is a writer, graphic designer, and musician. He runs the website KevinSteel.org.