(Guardian Unlimited) Four years ago, Canadian Maher Arar was detained on a routine airport stopover in the United States (Department of Homeland Security). He ended up Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months. When he was released by the Syrians and returned to Canada, he started asking how he had been targeted as an Islamist terrorist. His search for answers has made him into a national celebrity, and is likely to end with an apology from the prime minister himself.
Mystech: During his imprisonment his torturers eventually extracted a “confession” from him, emphasizing just how imporant torture is for extracting the “truth”. And I’m certain the Bush Administration won’t misuse their newly legitimized torture and Habeas Corpus suspension powers… again. :-(
Late last month, a public inquiry cleared him of any connection to terrorism and criticised the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for feeding American officials misleading information about him.
Last week, RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli finally offered Mr Arar a full apology: “I wish to take this opportunity to express publicly to you and to your wife and to your children how truly sorry I am for whatever part the actions of the RCMP may have contributed to the terrible injustices that you experienced and the pain that you and your family endured.”
Mr Justice Dennis O’Connor, who led the public inquiry, found that the police had passed faulty intelligence reports to US authorities that had “very likely” led to his arrest at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, and the beginning of Mr Arar’s nightmare. He couldn’t say for sure because the Americans refused to participate in the inquiry. Based on the flimsiest of evidence – the fact that he was an acquaintance of a man the Americans suspected of being a terrorist – the RCMP told American officials that Mr Arar was suspected of links to Al-Qaida.
They continued to feed questions about him to his Syrian captors, even as Canada’s foreign affairs minister was working to get him out of the dark, narrow Syrian jail cell Mr Arar called “the grave.” Even after the Syrians released Mr Arar finding no evidence of terrorist links, the RCMP ran a smear campaign, leaking details to reporters about a “confession” Mr Arar had made while he was being tortured. Judge O’Connor also reported that the RCMP had not been straight with government officials about its role.
The House of Commons has also apologised to Mr Arar. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to do so once the government reaches a financial settlement with Mr Arar, who suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of his ordeal. He has not been able to work since his release from prison and return to Canada three years ago.
But for Mr Arar, it is not enough. He wants to see changes to the RCMP that will prevent this kind of abuse from happening in the future, including better oversight of the police force.
“I did not seek revenge. I want better institutions in Canada. That is what I want. One way of ensuring this is we have to hold those people accountable.”
The 36-year-old software engineer has had trouble controlling his emotions following the release of Judge O’Connor’s report, breaking down into tears during a number of media interviews.
Critics have called for the commissioner of the RCMP to resign, for the officers involved to be disciplined, for the Canadian officials who dealt so callously with Mr Arar to be held accountable.
Mr Arar has won a hard-fought victory, not just for himself but for all Canadians. Through his persistence, and that of his wife, they have seen how the powers of the state were abused in the panic and fear that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Three other Canadian citizens were also tortured in the Middle East under similar circumstances: Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muyyed Nurredin. The government says it is now considering ways to get to the bottom of what happened to them without the cost and delay of holding full public inquiries.
As for Mr Arar, he is trying to rebuild his life. He has moved to British Columbia with his wife and two children, and says the people in the community of Kamloops have welcomed them warmly. He is now a national celebrity, his face and his story splashed across the front pages of newspapers and leading the evening news. Flying to his new home, from Ottawa, he was able to get his boarding pass without airline officials making phone calls to make sure it was safe for him to get on the airplane. He is no longer deemed a threat to national security.