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There never was a case against Maher Arar

Monday, February 9, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

Now that Paul Martin has finally called a public inquiry into the illegal detention and torture of Maher Arar, we just may get some answers to a series of troubling questions. Martin is clearly hoping that those answers come after an expected spring election, as they are likely to make it clear that the Liberal government was either complicit in Arar’s detention, or completely powerless to do anything about it (or, quite possibly, both).

Arar, a Canadian citizen travelling with a Canadian passport (which should be worth something), was first detained by American authorities in September 2002. He was returning to Canada and making a brief stopover at JFK in New York, after visiting his wife's family in Tunisia. He was questioned at length and was permitted to call neither a lawyer nor (initially, at least) his family. When the Americans were done with him, they deported him – not to Canada, but to Syria (the country of his birth, where he had not lived for 16 years).

From the minute he arrived in Jordan, on his way to Syria, he was beaten by his captors. Once in Syria, he was kept in a dark coffin-like cell for nearly a year, being let out only when it was his turn to be tortured. Of course, that is likely why he was sent to Syria, whose record of torturing political prisoners is well-documented. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, human rights lawyer Christopher Pyle quotes an anonymous intelligence official explaining the American’s practice of outsourcing torture as follows: “We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them.”

But, why was Arar “of interest” to American authorities in the first place? As Pyle summarizes, the Americans thought he might be “a terrorist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Why? Because a cousin of his mother's had been, nine years earlier, long after Arar moved to Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that the lease on Arar's apartment had been witnessed by a Syrian-born Canadian who was believed to know an Egyptian Canadian whose brother was allegedly mentioned in an al Qaeda document. That's it. That's all they had: guilt by the most remote of computer-generated associations.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals took the position that “once he is cleared of such charges, we will seek his return to Canada” (although Arar was never charged with anything). They speculated that “rogue elements” in CSIS or the RCMP may have been responsible for tipping the Americans that Arar should be watched. They also refused to say when they knew that Arar was being shipped to Syria to be tortured. It was left to Arar’s remarkable wife, Monia Mazigh, to rally support for his release. She had help from Amnesty International and then-NDP Leader Alexa McDonough who, within a week of Arar’s detention becoming public knowledge, had called for Arar’s release.

As shameful as the Liberals’ performance on the Arar issue has been, the Hall of Shame award goes to the Canadian Alliance. Check out these staggering assertions:

  • In the House of Commons on November 18, 2002, Diane Ablonczy stated: “It is time the Liberals told the truth: that their system of screening and security checks is pathetic. Arar was given dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship by the government. It did not pick up on his terrorist links and the US had to clue it in. How is it that the US could uncover this man’s background so quickly when the government’s screening system failed to find his al-Qaeda links?”
  • The next day, Stockwell Day lambasted the government for not acting against Arar themselves. “When he thought everything was lovely about this gentleman, he was talking about him all over the place. But when he gets information he's dangerous, all of a sudden it's ‘Oops maybe I shouldn't have said anything.’”

At the time, Mazigh expressed anger at the Alliance. “They have attacked my husband with very dangerous allegations and rumours without any clear proofs or substantiated facts. The Canadian government has not accused my husband of any wrongdoing. I don’t know how they came to such conclusions.” Even now, a week after the inquiry was first announced, the best the Alliance (Conservatives) can do for Arar is to post a survey on their website asking whether there should be a public inquiry. Curiously, the majority of respondents have said NO.

As for Arar, he clearly has nothing of which to be ashamed. Why else would he launch separate lawsuits against the American, Syrian and Jordanian governments? Why else would he continue to be so public about what happened to him? And, why else would he have pressed so hard for an inquiry into his situation? For winning the battle for an inquiry, Maher Arar and Monia Mazigh are true Canadian heroes. After all, if it can happen to Maher Arar, it could happen to anyone.


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