Were it not for the fact that Maher Arar has a tirelessly devoted wife and hails from a country whose citizens demanded justice, you might never have heard his name. You see, Maher Arar, a Syrian born Canadian, was one of the suspected terrorists who was “disappeared” and subsequently tortured in the wake of 9/11.
Thanks to an exhaustive Canadian judicial inquiry, we now know that Mr. Arar is innocent. But while Mr. Arar has been vindicated, he can never be made whole. What was done to this man, in the name of fighting terrorism, is something that will shock the senses and sicken any Canadian or American with a conscience.
Here is heartbreaking story.
An Immigrant Son Made Good
Mr. Arar was a 32-year-old wireless technology consultant. Though born in Syria, he emigrated to Canada as a teenager and eventually attended McGill University. It was there he met his wife, Dr. Monia Mazigh. Mr. Arar would later attend the University of Quebec where he earned a Master’s Degree. He also earned Canadian citizenship in 1991 and took a job with a high tech firm that required frequent travel to the United States. He was a well-educated, hard-working, law-abiding citizen. In short, he embodied a tale all Americans should be familiar with: an immigrant son made good.
In September 2002, Mr. Arar was on vacation with his wife and two young children in Tunisia. Mr. Arar was called back early to handle some consulting work. He left his wife and children to finish out the vacation, while he headed home to work. He chose the quickest route, the one with a connecting flight through New York. A fateful decision that would change his life.
Upon arrival in New York, U.S. Officials detained and interrogated Mr. Arar for several days, and accused him of being affiliated with Al Qaeda. In spite of supposedly having an Al Qaeda criminal in their grasps the U.S. did not to arrest him, but “deported” him. Mr. Arar was both a citizen of Syria and Canada. But he was clearly a Canadian, whose life, family, and employment were all based there. Upon learning he was to be removed from the United States, Mr. Arar adamantly requested to be “deported” to Canada as is his right under the U.S. immigration statute.
But for reasons the United States still fails to justify, we handed him over to Syria instead.
Mr. Arar begged not to be sent back to the country his family had fled from; he expressed his fear that he would be tortured there. After all, Syria is well-known for its abuses of human rights. Indeed, President Bush has described Syria’s “legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin.” The State Department’s report for 2002 detailed ongoing torture in Syria.
Our awareness of Syria’s nature is important, because our own law and the conventions on torture prohibit us from sending any person to a state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
Certainly, the United States knew of our obligations under the law, and certainly the United States knew of the likelihood of Mr. Arar would be tortured. And yet, with the obvious alternative of sending the man back to his home in Canada, we went out of our way to deliver him to Syrian authorities instead.
The Ordeal in Syria
Mr. Arar’s beatings began before he ever reached Syria – Jordanian officials beat him in the back of the van en route. Once there, he was placed in a basement cell with no light. It was three feet wide, six feet deep, and seven feet high – a virtual coffin. There were two blankets, two dishes, and two bottles. Mr. Arar would recall, “I spent ten months and ten days inside that grave.”
He was beaten daily with a two-inch thick electrical cable all over his body, but particularly on the palms of his hands. They beat him so hard he urinated upon himself. And even when he was brought back to his cell, where cats and rats peed on him from the vents overhead, he could hear other prisoners screaming.
He had no prospect of release. He did not know what he was being charged with. He did not know if he would ever get out alive.
On three different occasions, he suffered brushes with insanity locked in his cell, during which he screamed uncontrollably and banged his head against the wall. He felt that he could not breathe.
He was not exposed to sunlight for six months. His only time out of “the grave” was for the interrogations and the beatings. Mr. Arar was known to his guards only by his cell number: Two.
He lost forty pounds. Where his skin was not welted and bruised, it began to turn yellow.
Mr. Arar broke. He confessed things that we now know to be untrue – that he was a terrorist, that he had trained in Afghanistan. He said anything they wanted him to, he signed anything they wanted him to, and he put his thumb-print on page after page of lies. Anything to stop the torture.
And the saddest part of all, is that his own nation knew exactly where he was.
The Canadian government made several consular visits, and believed the man was being tortured. And yet, he might well have died, a nameless, faceless victim, curled up inside his cage were it not for the activism of his wife and humanitarian groups who eventually pressured Canada to secure his release.
Guilty as Sin
That Maher Arar is an innocent man is now beyond question, but his own government is guilty as sin. The conclusions of the Canadian investigation were shocking. The Canadian inquest showed that the Canadian government provided the U.S. with misleading information about Maher Arar that indicated he was a terrorist. They did so in violation of their own laws. They sought to demean and discredit his wife as she fought for his freedom. And when he was freed, Canadian officials, in an attempt to cover up their guilt, proceeded to downplay his torture.
But that does not excuse the United States in this ordeal. Canada was in no way complicit with our decision to engage in an extraordinary rendition to Syria. That was our doing. And there can be little question why. It is unlikely that Syria would choose to interrogate a prisoner about ties to Al Qaeda and training camps in Afghanistan if not for our benefit. Let us not pretend that the Syrians, on their own, have any interest in fighting terrorism.
No. We sent Maher Arar to Syria, because we knew the Syrians would torture him and that the Canadians would not.
Now Attorney General Gonzales – the man who said the Geneva Conventions were quaint and outdated – is trying to spin what happened to Mr. Arar. No apology has been offered. No offer of recompense. Not the slightest show of official remorse for this miscarriage of justice. And it stinks to high heaven.
In a time when the President has admitted to CIA secret prisons where we are “harshly” interrogating prisoners using techniques that are clearly defined as torture under the Geneva Conventions, this cannot be considered an isolated incident. When the President of the United States goes to Congress and asks them to redefine our commitment to the Geneva Conventions, to suspend habeas corpus, and to authorize torture – we cannot simply shrug and consider what happened to Mr. Arar to be a mistake.
It is a part of an ugly American policy, and it is morally indefensible. It is part of an American policy to disregard the law, avoid the courts, and gut due process.
A Broken System, a Broken Man
And Maher Arar proves, without a doubt, that Congress should not give President Bush what he wants. Had even the most cursory basic rights been afforded Maher Arar, we might have known that he was an innocent man. Had we followed the laws of nations, we might not be weighed down with his broken life on our conscience.
Because, make no mistake, Mr. Arar is broken.
He still suffers from aches in his hips, as well as pain in his face, neck and back. He cannot sleep, due to recurring nightmares and crushing headaches. He suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He frequently has bouts in which he believes bugs are crawling all over his body. He no longer attends his mosque and no longer reads the Koran. He has trouble trusting anyone, even his family. He has difficulty finding work because of his notoriety and because he has become so submissive. And in a recent interview with Ted Koppel, there were times Mr. Arar could not lift his eyes to the camera.
He was like a beaten dog; only if he were, perhaps we would feel sorry.