OTTAWA — A government commission on Monday exonerated a Canadian computer engineer of any ties to terrorism and issued a scathing report that faulted Canada and the United States for his deportation four years ago to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured.
The report on the engineer, Maher Arar, said American officials had apparently acted on inaccurate information from Canadian investigators and then misled Canadian authorities about their plans for Mr. Arar before transporting him to Syria.
Maher Arar smiles during a news conference in Ottawa September 18, 2006. Canadian police wrongly identified Arar, an Ottawa software engineer as an Islamic extremist, prompting U.S. agents to deport him to Syria, where he says he was tortured, an official inquiry concluded on Monday. REUTERS/Dave Chan (CANADA)
“I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada,” Justice Dennis R. O’Connor, head of the commission, said at a news conference.
The report’s findings could reverberate heavily through the leadership of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which handled the initial intelligence on Mr. Arar that led security officials in both Canada and the United States to assume he was a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist.
The report’s criticisms and recommendations are aimed primarily at Canada’s own government and activities, rather than the United States government, which refused to cooperate in the inquiry.
But its conclusions about a case that had emerged as one of the most infamous examples of rendition — the transfer of terrorism suspects to other nations for interrogation — draw new attention to the Bush administration’s handling of detainees. And it comes as the White House and Congress are contesting legislation that would set standards for the treatment and interrogation of prisoners.
“The American authorities who handled Mr. Arar’s case treated Mr. Arar in a most regrettable fashion,” Justice O’Connor wrote in a three-volume report, not all of which was made public. “They removed him to Syria against his wishes and in the face of his statements that he would be tortured if sent there. Moreover, they dealt with Canadian officials involved with Mr. Arar’s case in a less than forthcoming manner.”
A spokesman for the United States Justice Department, Charles Miller, and a White House spokesman traveling with President Bush in New York said officials had not seen the report and could not comment.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada planned to act on the report but offered no details. “Probably in the few weeks to come we’ll be able to give you more details on that,’’ he told reporters.
The Syrian-born Mr. Arar was seized on Sept. 26, 2002, after he landed at Kennedy Airport in New York on his way home from a holiday in Tunisia. On Oct. 8, he was flown to Jordan in an American government plane and taken overland to Syria, where he says he was held for 10 months in a tiny cell and beaten repeatedly with a metal cable. He was freed in October 2003, after Syrian officials concluded that he had no connection to terrorism and returned him to Canada.
Mr. Arar’s case attracted considerable attention in Canada, where critics viewed it as an example of the excesses of the campaign against terror that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. The practice of rendition has caused an outcry from human rights organizations as “outsourcing torture,” because suspects often have been taken to countries where brutal treatment of prisoners is routine.
The commission supports that view, describing a Mounted Police force that was ill-prepared to assume the intelligence duties assigned to it after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Arar, speaking at a news conference, praised the findings. “Today Justice O’Connor has cleared my name and restored my reputation,” he said. “I call on the government of Canada to accept the findings of this report and hold these people responsible.”
His lawyer, Marlys Edwardh, said the report affirmed that Mr. Arar, who has been unemployed since his return to Canada, was deported and tortured because of “a breathtakingly incompetent investigation.”
The commission found that Mr. Arar first came to police attention on Oct. 12, 2001, when he met with Abdullah Almalki, a man already under surveillance by a newly established Mounted Police intelligence unit known as Project A-O Canada. Mr. Arar has said in interviews that the meeting at Mango’s Cafe in Ottawa, and a subsequent 20-minute conversation outside the restaurant, was mostly about finding inexpensive ink jet printer cartridges.
The meeting set off a chain of actions by the police. Investigators obtained a copy of Mr. Arar’s rental lease. After finding Mr. Almalki listed as an emergency contact, they stepped up their investigation of Mr. Arar. At the end of that month, the police asked customs officials to include Mr. Arar and his wife on a “terrorist lookout” list, which would subject them to more intensive question when re-entering Canada.
However, the commission found that the designation should have only been applied to people who are members or associates of terrorist networks. Neither the police nor customs had any such evidence of that concerning Mr. Arar or his wife, an economist.
From there, the Mounted Police asked that the couple be included in a database that alerts United States border officers to suspect individuals. The police described Mr. Arar and his wife as, the report said, “Islamic extremists suspected of being linked to the al Qaeda movement.”
The commission said that all who testified before it accepted that the description was false.
According to the inquiry’s finding, the Mounted Police gave the F.B.I. and other American authorities material from Project A-O Canada, which included suggestions that Mr. Arar had visited Washington around Sept. 11 and had refused to cooperate with the Canadian police. The handover of the data violated the force’s own guidelines, but was justified on the basis that such rules no longer applied after 2001.
In July 2002, the Mounted Police learned that Mr. Arar and his family were in Tunisia, and incorrectly concluded that they had left Canada permanently.
On Sept. 26, 2002, the F.B.I. called Project A-O and told the Canadian police that Mr. Arar was scheduled to arrive in about one hour from Zurich. The F.B.I. also said it planned to question Mr. Arar and then send him back to Switzerland. Responding to a fax from the F.B.I., the Mounted Police provided the American investigators with a list of questions for Mr. Arar. Like the other information, it included many false claims about Mr. Arar, the commission found.
The Canadian police “had no idea of what would eventually transpire,’’ the commission said. “It did not occur to them that the American authorities were contemplating sending Mr. Arar to Syria.”
While the F.B.I. and the Mounted Police kept up their communications about Mr. Arar, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs was not told about his detention for almost three days. Its officials, acting on calls from worried relatives, had been trying to find him. Similarly, American officials denied Mr. Arar’s requests to speak with the Canadian Consulate in New York, a violation of international agreements.
Evidence presented to the commission, said Paul J. J. Cavalluzzo, its lead counsel, showed that the F.B.I. continued to keep its Canadian counterparts in the dark even while an American jet was carrying Mr. Arar to Jordan. The panel found that American officials “believed — quite correctly — that, if informed, the Canadians would have serious concerns about the plan to remove Mr. Arar to Syria.”
Mr. Arar arrived in Syria on Oct. 9, 2002, and was imprisoned there until Oct. 5, 2003. It took Canadian officials, however, until Oct. 21 to locate him in Syria. The commission concludes that Syrian officials at first denied knowing Mr. Arar’s whereabouts to hide the fact that he was being tortured. It says that, among other things, he was beaten with a shredded electrical cable until he was disoriented.
American officials have not discussed the case publicly. But in an interview last year, a former official said on condition of anonymity that the decision to send Mr. Arar to Syria had been based chiefly on the desire to get more information about him and the threat he might pose. The official said Canada did not intend to hold him if he returned home.
Mr. Arar said he appealed a recent decision by a federal judge in New York dismissing the suit he brought against the United States. The report recommends that the Canadian government, which is also being sued by Mr. Arar, offer him compensation and possibly a job.
Mr. Arar recently moved to Kamloops, British Columbia, where his wife found a teaching position.
Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.
© Copyright 2006 New York Times