by Imelda V. Abaño
– Philippines –
TORONTO – “What has happened to me can never be undone!”
Even after five years, even after being officially cleared by a prolonged government study, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen and telecommunications engineer from Ottawa, still carries the pain.
Maher Arar became an innocent victim caught up in the little-publicized US policy known as “extraordinary rendition” – a covert practice of sending terror suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation.
In September 2002, he cut short a family vacation in response to a request to report back to work in Montreal. Then, at New York’s JFK Airport, he was stopped by US officials. To his astonishment, he was interrogated about his supposed links to terrorists. But things quickly worsened. He was then transported to Syria, where for ten months he was physically and mentally tortured.
Nightmare in Syria
In a public statement on November 4, 2003, upon his eventual return from Syria, Arar recounted the horrors of his experience:
“Daily life in that place was hell and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell…No light…I spent 10 months and 10 days inside that grave…Interrogations are carried out in different rooms…Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks.
“The tire is used to restrain prisoners while they torture them with beating on the soles of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat…They used [an electric] cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face…I heard a lot of people screaming.
“They wanted me to say I went to Afghanistan…They kept beating me so, I had to falsely confess. I told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture…I was so scared I urinated on myself twice…At the end of each day, they would always say, ‘Tomorrow will be harder for you.’ So each night, I could not sleep.
“Most of time, I was not taken back to my cell, but to the waiting room where I could hear all the prisoners being tortured and screaming.”
While Arar was imprisoned, his wife, Monia Mazigh, led a campaign to have him released. (Mazigh has a doctorate in financial economics and ran but lost as candidate of the New Democratic Party in the 2004 federal elections in Ottawa.)
She staged candlelight vigils, organized demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, and granted media interviews to drum up the campaign for her husband’s release.
“By showing that Arar and his family have nothing to hide, by giving a human face to the story and by providing questions some journalists are not asking, Monia gave up her privacy, opening her home to any journalist who would come and talk to her,” said Kerry Pither, a strategist who coordinated the efforts to lobby for a public inquiry into the case.
The hard work put in by Mazigh and various support groups finally paid off when Arar was freed in October 2003.
But his release did not end their determination to seek justice. They wanted to clear his name and make sure other Canadians would not face a similar ordeal from foreign governments.
In February 2004, the Canadian federal government commissioned an inquiry to look into Arar’s case. The Commission report, released in September 2006, cleared Arar of any taint of terrorist activities and condemned the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for giving false information to US authorities.
Given the Commission’s findings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Arar and his family on January 26 of this year, on behalf of the Canadian government. Arar received $10.5 million in compensation for pain and suffering and $2 million in legal fees.
In an interview, Pither added that three other Canadian citizens – Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin – all suffered the same fate as Arar and were consequently released without charge.
Pither asked journalists to be vigilant. “Bigger questions” should be asked and the systematic pattern behind Arar and other cases of torture should be probed.
“Today’s challenge is to ensure Canada understands what is at stake. We should investigate the full extent of Canada’s support for torture in the so-called war on terror and the implications for a democracy.”
US Watch List
Although Arar has been cleared by the Canadian government of his alleged links to the international terror network Al-Qaeda, American authorities continue to refuse Canada’s request to remove Arar’s name from the US watch list.
In a letter written on January 16, 2007, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff assured Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day that the US had “reexamined” Arar’s case.
“Based on this re-examination, we remain of the view that the continued watch listing of Mr. Arar is appropriate. Our conclusion, in this regard, is supported by information by US law enforcement agencies independent of that provided to us by Canada regarding Mr. Arar.”
Stephen Grey, a British journalist who helped expose the Bush administration’s CIA rendition flights in his 2001 book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program says Arar’s case is a classic example of “extraordinary rendition” – the practice whereby the US government flies foreign terror suspects to third countries without judicial process for interrogation or detention.
“We have knowledge now that this case is part of a systematic program of rendition by which hundreds of people are being sent to third countries by the US and their allies…I call this a torture program,” said Grey.
“Arar is a victim of torture: physical torture, and moreover, psychological torture,” Grey said. “Torture is designed to be a humiliating experience. It is designed to make you do things to be ashamed of. It is a very difficult thing to speak about. It is still a question on how Arar was branded as a terrorist, and [how] his whole reputation is [still] at stake.”
Grey, who has written extensively about national security issues, said the US rendition program was put in place after the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001.
“There are thousands of prisoners captured by US forces, and we barely know what has happened to some of them,” Grey said.
He said suspected terrorists are still languishing in jail; others were released, but their reputations have been irreparably tarnished.
Grey said the 9/11 attacks on the US also affected the way journalists and media organizations pursued stories and dealt with sources.
“We were all affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It affected our conduct as journalists — not just the balance, but our professional skepticism about taking information from official sources,” he said.
He said journalists must now take extra care to verify all information before using it.
“I am not asking for apology, as the time for a meaningful one has already passed. What I want is to see change, and for journalists to discuss these issues and find solutions to avoid repeating what has happened to me,” Arar told journalists gathered at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference held in Toronto in May.
Arar lamented that his torments did not end after he returned to Canada in 2003. He said the media’s “irresponsible” use of false and anonymous information contributed to his anguish.
“Before the leaks occurred, most people in Canada had an open mind about me. But the leaks, coming from an allegedly ‘trusted government intelligence source,’ caused many people to see me as a terrorist,” Arar continued.
The Commission inquiry into Arar’s case found that “government officials took it upon themselves to leak information to the media – much of which was unfair and damaged Arar’s reputation and him personally. The impact of being called a terrorist in the national media is severe.”
“I look bad.” said Arar. “Labels, even unfair and inaccurate ones, have a tendency to stick. I’m living with this on a daily basis. When you make mistakes in your reporting, please! Correct the record!”
He urged that journalists not only strive to be responsible and independent, but he also commented, “I ask journalists to err on the side of protecting and defending members of the public. They should put this before protecting and defending institutions and agencies of government,” Arar said. “Institutions and agencies do not have children or family and cannot be personally harmed.”
Even after the findings of the official inquiry cleared Arar, some journalists refused to reveal the sources of their damaging information.
“It made me question really whether some reporters learned anything from the experience. I am not preaching here about the use of anonymous sources. I want [reporters] to pay attention to issues. Reputations and lives are at stake,” Arar said.
He did acknowledge that some journalists have admitted the mistakes they made reporting about him and that some of those have started discussing the issue.
Arar concluded, “What frightens me the most and what should frighten all Canadians, in my opinion, is that the people who leak damaging and false information might still be in their positions.”
“If this is true, what are the chances of this happening again to other individuals?”
About the Author
Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children’s issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.
In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.
Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.