OTTAWA - When memos surfaced recently showing top Justice Department lawyers trying to justify torture, Attorney General John Ashcroft moved quickly to stake out the moral high ground.
"This administration rejects torture," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I condemn torture."
Maher Arar, 34, however, doesn't buy it.
For 10 months and 10 days, Arar was in a Syrian prison, beaten and confined to a cell not much bigger than a coffin. He thanks the United States for his time in hell.
Maher Arar, a 34-year old Syrian born Canadian citizen, was arrested and deported to Syria while transiting through New York in 2002. (KRT Photo/Patrick Doyle)
Arar was picked up by U.S. authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, accused of being a terrorist and then shipped on Justice Department orders to Syria under a highly secret policy known as rendition. Arar's story reveals much about the Bush administration's hidden war on terror.
"I think when they say they do not support torture, they are not being truthful," the Syrian-born telecommunications engineer said in an interview in Ottawa. "Whether they admit or not, they are complicit."
In the wake of the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the firestorm over government memos that provide a road map around international treaties banning torture, scrutiny of the government's war on terrorism has increased.
Arar provides a rare glimpse into one of its darkest corners.
He was the victim of rendition, in which the United States sidesteps formal extradition and quietly ships detainees to other countries to be interrogated or tried. U.S. agents also have snatched terror suspects from other countries and taken them to unknown facilities for interrogation or for trial.
The number of people swept up by the government is unknown. But at a hearing before the Sept. 11 commission, then-CIA Director George Tenet said 70 terror suspects were subject to rendition during an undisclosed period before the attacks. Counterterrorism experts believe the use of rendition has increased since. Some detainees are believed to end up in the prisons of countries with documented histories of torture, such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan. Little is known about rendition because most of the detainees are never heard from again.
But Arar isn't going quietly.
In addition to going public with his story, he's filing a lawsuit against top officials in the U.S. government - including Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller - over his detention, saying officials should have known that he would be tortured if he was sent to Syria.
His lawyers are hopeful the suit will hold government leaders accountable and shed more light on what Arar called America's "dirty secret."
"My view is that it's entirely illegal," said Georgetown University Law School professor David Cole, who's among the lawyers working on Arar's case. "The Convention Against Torture forbids sending a person to a country where there is reasonable belief he will be tortured."
Citing the pending lawsuit, the Justice Department declined to comment on the case. The CIA also had no comment.
For years, the State Department has condemned Syria's human rights record and said that police and intelligence agencies there use torture. And in May, President Bush placed sanctions on Syria, saying it had ties to terrorism. U.S. officials said they sent Arar to Syria only after receiving assurances that torture wouldn't be used.
"You would have to be deaf, dumb and blind to believe that the Syrians were not going to use torture, even if they were making claims to the contrary," said former CIA counterterrorism official Vincent Cannistraro. He called Arar's treatment "morally indefensible."
In Canada, the Arar case has prompted a government inquiry to determine what Canadian authorities knew about Arar and what they told American authorities. Arar and his lawyers believe that Canada, in trying to prove to the United States that it was tough on terrorism, overstepped and provided Americans with a dossier that contained only the thinnest of evidence. In the post-Sept. 11 climate, it nonetheless peaked U.S. interest.
Arar's ordeal began when U.S. immigration officials stopped him at Kennedy airport on Sept. 26, 2002. He was passing through the United States on his way to Ottawa after visiting his wife's family in Tunisia. Two weeks later, he found himself on a private plane to Syria, accused of being a member of al-Qaida.
When U.S. authorities told him he was of "special interest" and they were sending him back to his homeland, Arar said he cried and pleaded for them to send him to Canada. Though he was born in Damascus, Arar immigrated to Canada with his family when he was 17.
"I told them I would be tortured if I returned to Syria. I knew that," he said. He was ignored.
Shackled and cuffed, he soon found himself on a midsize private jet with luxurious leather seats, accompanied by U.S. agents who he believes were either CIA or FBI agents.
Arar watched his path across the Atlantic on the flight monitor. At one point toward the end of the flight, he was uncuffed and shared a shish kebab dinner with the Americans.
He was taken first to Jordan, then blindfolded and taken aboard another plane. When the blindfold was removed he saw pictures of Syria's past and current presidents gazing down at him from a prison wall and knew with a sick certainty where he was.
Arar says the beatings lasted about two weeks. He was slapped and punched and beaten with electrical cords. Worse than the physical violence, though, were the shrieks of pain from others in the prison being tortured. That let him know what was coming.
"The screams of people who were being tortured in Syria are still with me every day, so my duty as a human being is to keep talking about it," he said.
Arar said he soon noticed that his Syrian captors asked him many of the same questions the Americans had. He was hit when he answered too slowly, hit when he answered in a way his interrogators didn't like, and sometimes he was hit before a question had even been asked. After being beaten with electrical cables on his hands and feet, Arar says he told his Syrian captors what they wanted to hear: that he had been to training camps in Afghanistan.
"I've never even been to Afghanistan," he says now.
One thing Arar is certain will emerge from the inquiry in Canada is how unreliable information obtained under torture can be. He said he remembers almost nothing of what he said when he was being beaten.
And it was another allegedly false confession made while under torture that helped put Arar in the crosshairs. An acquaintance of Arar's from Canada, Ahmad Abou-ElMaati, was arrested on a trip to Syria in late 2001 after documents of his brother's were discovered at an al-Qaida safe house in Afghanistan.
ElMaati now says that he was tortured by his Syrian captors and falsely confessed to a terrorist bomb plot. Pressured to list his Syrian acquaintances in Canada, he named Arar.
Mysteriously, Arar's name made its way to Canadian and U.S. authorities.
Arar also apparently aroused suspicion because of his casual friendship with another Canadian whose name ElMaati coughed up to his Syrian interrogators: Abdullah Amalki.
Arar says he had lunch with Amalki once and, when he was new to Ottawa, co-signed a rental agreement with him. Amalki was apparently under Canadian surveillance, so once Arar was spotted with him, he was ensnared as well.
Amalki was arrested by the Syrians when he visited Damascus in 2002. It's not known what, if anything, he said about Arar. He has been released but remains in Syria.
Arar said it's notable that none of the three was ever charged with anything and have all been released.
"It was guilt by association," Arar said.
Arar said the torture stopped after the first two weeks, but he was confined to his tiny, dank cell for months and lost about 40 pounds. He didn't know that his wife, Monia Mazigh, had been lobbying desperately for his release.
Human rights advocates had become involved in the case. Canadian diplomats were attempting to see him but were permitted only intermittent visits. Arar said he was warned not to breathe a word to them about how he was being treated or things would worsen considerably.
On Oct. 5, 2003, he was released to the Canadian Embassy.
Syrian officials have denied that Arar was tortured and have declined to participate in the Canadian inquiry. American officials haven't said yet whether they will take part. But American officials have agreed not to deport Canadian citizens to third countries without first informing Ottawa.
Arar's supporters say the case shows how the flimsiest of evidence can turn a man's life upside down in the post-Sept. 11 hysteria.
"It's shameful, there's just no other way to say it, shameful," said Scott Horton, the past chairman of the international human rights committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
© Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder