By PAUL KNOX
Wednesday, October 1, 2003
In any self-respecting democracy where individual rights and the rule of law were held dear, Maher Arar's ordeal would be a national scandal.
It's begun to attract attention among Canadians. But we're not there yet.
Mr. Arar, who was born in Syria, is a citizen of that country and of Canada. He is a telecommunications engineer who spent several years in Ottawa, where his wife and two children still live. On Sept. 26, 2002, while travelling from Europe to Canada, he was detained by U.S. authorities as he changed planes in New York.
He was interrogated about terrorist activities and deported. Apparently, he spent several days at a CIA interrogation camp in Jordan before being jailed in Syria, which claims he has links to the al-Qaeda network.
Mr. Arar faces no formal charges in Syria, Canada, or the United States. But, he has been jailed by one of the harshest regimes in the Middle East, without access to a lawyer. The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee says he's been tortured with beatings and electric shocks, and by being doubled over for hours inside a tire.
Who decided Mr. Arar should be seized? Over the summer, U.S. and Canadian officials struggled to get their story straight. They now claim the decision to detain him in New York was Washington's alone.
But no less than three senior officials have either said flatly that the RCMP wanted Mr. Arar deported, or refused to rule out the possibility that the force gave information about him to its U.S. counterparts -- information that could have led directly to his current plight.
Assistant RCMP commissioner Richard Proulx had a chance to tell the House of Commons foreign affairs committee last week that the Mounties' hands were clean. He declined, saying: "I can't comment on operational details."
Solicitor-General Wayne Easter said in July that individual Mounties acting without approval of their superiors might have passed on information that alerted U.S. officials to Mr. Arar.
And U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci told a private audience in April that Mr. Arar was "very well known" to Canadian police -- who, he said, "wouldn't be very happy to see him come back to Canada."
Mr. Cellucci would do well to read his own government's latest description of Syrian jailers' tender ministrations.
"There was credible evidence that security forces continued to use torture," the State Department says in the Syria section of its annual human-rights survey. Quoting ex-prisoners and human-rights advocates, it says torture methods include the usual electric shocks, beatings, extraction of fingernails and objects shoved up the rectum.
Plus the following: "Hyperextending the spine, bending the detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts, and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine."
Mr. Cellucci's colleagues go on to say that Syria's Supreme State Security Court, before which Mr. Arar is expected to be tried, is not considered independent of President Bashir Assad. Proceedings are closed, there is no right of appeal, and lawyers have no right of access to their clients before the trial.
"Defendants have not been allowed to argue in court that their confessions were coerced," the survey says. "There was no known instance in which the court ordered a medical examination for a defendant who claimed that he was tortured."
Two questions come into focus. First, why is Mr. Graham's department trying to get Mr. Arar out of his Syrian predicament, while U.S. authorities are still on the record as saying they and the RCMP are reading from the same program?
Second, why will Mr. Easter not dispel the suspicion that RCMP officers handed over crucial data on Mr. Arar, fully aware that current U.S. practice is to turn over certain terror "suspects" to known human-rights abusers?
Only an independent investigation is likely to clear up this one. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien should order it. As for Mr. Cellucci, surely no interview, no dinner party, no cocktail conversation is complete without a pointed question about his wink-wink innuendo.
You might ask: What if Mr. Arar really is an al-Qaeda collaborator? Shouldn't the authorities do something?
Fine. If there's evidence, charge him. Let the truth come out. But the moment Mr. Arar landed in Damascus, the prospects for truth -- to say nothing of justice -- diminished dramatically.
To recap: A Canadian citizen was detained by a foreign power, delivered into the custody of a repressive dictatorship, and left to rot in jail without charge. He has been denied the most elementary legal rights. There are alarming reports of torture. The suspicion lingers that Canadian authorities were complicit in this travesty.
Where is the loud, sustained, all-party, cross-country outrage? What has become of us?
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