Clearing of Maher Arar raises questions about performance of anti-terror agencies

On September 18, almost exactly four years after Canadian citizen Maher Arar was arrested at John F Kennedy airport (New York) on September 26, 2002, as he returned from a family vacation in Tunisia, Justice Dennis O’Connor released an 822-page report into his arrest and torture in Syria. Exonerating Arar of any wrongdoing, the report dismissed the scandalous allegations made against him that linked him to al-Qa’ida and his having gone to Afghanistan for military training, which had been disinformation planted by the Canadian government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to tarnish his reputation. Justice O’Connor was especially hard on the RCMP, which not only falsely accused Arar but also misled Canadian politicians and officials from the Foreign Office and then stonewalled when he was released in October 2003. “The potential consequences of labeling someone an Islamic extremist in post-9/11 are enormous,” Justice O’Connor wrote. Arar and Dr Monia Mazigh, his wife, were also placed on “a US watch list wrongly described as ‘Islamic extremist individuals’ suspected of being linked to Al-Qaeda, based on incorrect information.”

Justice O’Connor wrote: “I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada.” After the release of the report, the Canadian parliament passed a unanimous resolution apologizing to Arar, yet many of the same members of parliament (MPs) in late 2002 had asked why “terrorists” were allowed to roam freely in Canada, including the capital, Ottawa, posing a threat to Canadian as well as American security, even as Arar was being tortured in Syria. With the exception of a few MPs, led by Alexa McDonough of the New Democratic Party and a handful of Liberal backbenchers, all the others had declared Arar a terrorist, including Stockwell Day, current minister for national security in the minority Conservative government.

Prime minister Stephen Harper has refused to apologize to Arar and his family, although Arar’s ordeal started during the previous Liberal government and he need not take direct blame for it. Harper is afraid that apologizing to Arar might implicate his government because Arar has sued the Canadian government for compensation. Justice O’Connor has recommended not only that Arar be compensated but also that he be given a government job or helped to find one, because the software engineer has been unemployed since his release. He has suffered depression and has not been able to resume normal life.

Justice O’Connor, whose inquiry was launched in January 2004, also takes the Canadian government, then headed by the Liberal party, to task for a smear-campaign against Arar after his release even though it knew he was innocent. He wrote that “confidential and sometimes inaccurate information about the case to the media for the purpose of damaging Mr. Arar’s reputation or protecting their self-interest or government interests” was “leaked”. Such outlets as the rightwing Ottawa Citizen newspaper and CTV News lapped up such distortions. The “leaks” alleged that Arar had “admitted” training at an al-Qa’ida camp in Afghanistan, a country he has never visited. Syrian intelligence extracted such “confessions” by torture. Canadian consular officials also failed in their duty, often acting hand in glove with Syrian intelligence, asking for information they had obtained from Arar under torture. Franco Pillarella, Canada’s ambassador to Syria at the time, admitted to the inquiry in June 2005 that he did not take action on Arar’s case because he saw no proof that he was “mistreated”. Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN, said Pillarella’s testimony at the Arar inquiry had tainted the reputation of the country’s entire diplomatic service. This occurred at a time when the RCMP was sharing intelligence information with Syria, according to RCMP superintendent Mike Cabana’s testimony before the inquiry.

While the report’s findings revealed so far are damning enough, the Canadian government has blacked out certain portions, citing national security concerns. Arar’s lawyer, Lorne Waldeman, has said they will fight this decision, in court if necessary, because Justice O’Connor believes there is evidence that should be known to the public. Arar had also sued the US government for his “rendition” to Syria, but a US judge has dismissed the case, saying that the US government had the right to take steps to “protect” its national security. The US and other Western governments have shipped suspects to third countries for torture, making them accomplices in these horrible crimes. The US in particular is guilty of egregious behaviour but there has been little or no contrition from US President George Bush or his neocon allies, who continue to maintain that their actions are justified. In commenting on the O’Connor report, both the Washington Post and the New York Times wrote (September 19) that the US ought to review its policy of rendition to third countries as well as the treatment of detainees in such places as Guantanamo Bay.

Justice O’Connor did not spare the Americans either, but was more tactful in his criticism. “The American authorities who handled Arar’s case treated Arar in a most regrettable fashion,” he wrote. “They removed him to Syria against his wishes and in the face of his statements that he would be tortured if sent there.” He also chastised them for dealing with Canadian officials “in a less than forthcoming manner.” Commenting editorially on Arar’s deportation to Syria, an American magazine, The Nation, wrote that the Bush administration eagerly sent Arar to “the Syrians that we refuse to talk to. The Syrians we will have nothing to do with. Unless, that is, we need them to torture an innocent for us.”

What the inquiry has revealed is the atmosphere of paranoia that has existed since September 2001, in which Canadian officials, especially security and intelligence agencies, act out of fear against Muslims and Arabs. Arar’s case has become well known, thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife Monia, but others have also been shipped abroad, either to Syria or Egypt, and tortured. Justice O’Connor cited the case of three others who were tortured in Syria; he recommended a similar inquiry into their ordeal. Then there are the “Security Five”, detained in Canada on secret evidence, who have now been in jail for five years. They have not been charged with any specific crime; neither they nor their lawyers can, therefore, put up a defence. They are held on what are called “security certificates”. Two of the five–”Adil Charkaoui and Mohamed Harkat–”have been released on $140,000 bail each, under very strict conditions: they must wear security bracelets at all times to monitor their movements; they are not permitted to use the phone or internet; they cannot even speak in Arabic. The other three–”Mohamed Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah and Hassan Elmrei–”have had their bail refused repeatedly.

Then there is the case of the 17 youths arrested last June on terrorism-related charges. While five are out on bail now, there are growing suspicions that their cases are similarly tainted with false allegations, police informants planting evidence and leading people to implicate themselves without realizing it. Five of the 17 are underage teenagers. One of the police informants, Mubin Shaikh, has admitted his role in implicating them, and details of his murky past have come to light in the media. The manner in which bail has been refused for some of the accused raises troubling questions. Equally appalling is the manner in which the print and broadcast media have pronounced them all guilty, based on leaks from the police and the RCMP.

What the O’Connor report reveals in chilling detail is that officials’ and intelligence agencies’ statements cannot be taken at face value; that there are media outlets that thrive on Muslim-bashing, and that Islamophobia has become acceptable in Canada, as indeed throughout the West. People’s civil liberties have been usurped in the name of ‘security’. Yet those posing the most danger to Canadian security and values are the very people claiming to protect them.