Travelling 'Torture Caravan' Disturbing Sign of the Times
While inquiry meets in private, tortured trio bring tales of terror to small-town Ontario
It is a bizarre feeling -- eating, walking, laughing with men who have been hung from their wrists and beaten with electric cables. To see them behave so normally despite their experiences is a bit destabilizing.
But for five days, that is what I did, as three men -- Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad El Maati -- travelled from small town to small town, telling Canadians their stories and pushing for a public inquiry into what happened to them.
All three men -- Canadian citizens, but also Arab and Muslim -- were detained and tortured in a Syrian prison on unproven suspicions of terrorism. They accuse the Canadian government of complicity in their torture. None has ever been charged with a crime.
Toronto-based Nureddin, for example, had fled his homeland of Iraq in 1991. As as a Turkman, he was discriminated against under Saddam Hussein's regime. When the regime was toppled in 2003, Nureddin decided to go back to visit family he had not seen in nine years. On his way back to Canada, he was stopped on the Iraq-Syria border and thrown into jail. During questioning, he was asked the same questions by his Syrian torturers that he had been asked months before by a Canadian security intelligence official - a sign, he says, that the questions must have originated from Canada.
The stories of these men echo that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was detained and tortured in the same infamous prison in Syria. He has since received an official apology from the Canadian government and $10 million in compensation after a public inquiry established that his torture was due in part to information the RCMP shared internationally, falsely identifying him as a terrorist.
The report that emerged from that inquiry found that the RCMP sent questions about one of the other men, Ottawa engineer Almalki, to Syrian interrogators knowing that questioning could result in torture.
A second inquiry is now looking into the role Canadian officials played in these three cases, but it is being conducted in almost-total secrecy. The men themselves, their lawyers, the public and the media are not allowed to attend. They have seen no documents and cross-examined no witnesses.
This has caused endless frustration for Almalki, Nureddin and El Maati, who are still trying to recover from the emotional and psychological scars of their torture abroad -- only to face a new struggle upon returning to Canada.
"For me, this inquiry is another form of torture because I don't know what's going on," El Maati said. "My life is on the line; my reputation is on the line."
And so one rainy day in May, these men, along with about 30 other regular Canadians, set off on a week-long caravan to try to do something about it. Organized by a group called Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture, the caravan travelled from Toronto to Ottawa to raise awareness about these cases and build momentum for a public inquiry. It was an interesting bunch of people, to say the least.
There was Dick, the retired engineer and former Roman Catholic priest who had just turned 82. There was Tracy, the civil rights junkie who pulled her 13-year-old daughter out of school for a week to join the caravan, because, "What's better than a civil rights march?" And there were Vidya, Frank and their 10-month-old baby; the couple saw a random email about the caravan and decided it was too important an issue not to participate.
Reactions were varied when people saw the group sporting bright orange jumpsuits kneeling on the pavement, their bowed heads covered in black hoods, their hands behind their backs -- now a worldwide symbol of torture.
Some wanted no part of it. "I'm the torturer!" one Correctional Services Canada staff screamed mockingly as she drove past the group's silent vigil outside a maximum-security prison in Bath, Ont.
Others were eager to hear more. In many of the mostly white, middle-class towns we travelled through, passersby had no idea that this alleged "Canadian torture" even existed. They had never heard of Maher Arar, let alone any of the others who have undergone similar ordeals.
Still, support was surprisingly high. At Trenton, home to a Canadian Forces Base, one soldier signed the petition asking the Prime Minister to make the inquiry public. In Cobourg, three high-school classes gave the men a standing ovation after hearing their stories.
"Ahmad. Muayyed," one high-school teacher repeated to himself as he walked down the hallways of his school. "I'm practising the names," he said with a chuckle.
And just as it was destabilizing for me to watch these men connect with the public on such a personal level, it was destabilizing for them, too. After so many months in isolation, seeing how much people cared was a bit overwhelming.
"Part of the healing process as a torture victim is to be recognized," Nureddin told me after lunch one day as we sat in the basement of a church hosting us in Napanee. "The public has recognized us. That recognition means they trust in (my) story." That was a first for Nureddin, who until then had shied away from sharing his experience publicly.
In September, retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who is overseeing the latest inquiry, will release his findings. Only a summary of the report will be public. The government argues more disclosure would pose a risk to national security.
But for Almalki, getting answers is essential -- not just for him, but for all Canadians.
"It's extremely important that we get to know the full truth of what happened to all of us. That is because ... it looks like it is a pattern. It's not just one case or two cases or three cases," he told a crowd gathered at Kingston's Public Library.
"This doesn't just affect me and my family or Muslims. It affects all of us. It defines who we are as a country."
It seems their call for some answers is being met with a sympathetic ear from Canadians. Consider these thoughts from some of the people we met along the way:
"I think you're doing us all a favour," Kevin Doyle said at a public lecture in Ottawa. "What happened to you is a change in North American society that is detrimental to all of us. Many of us who were born here are afraid of what's ahead. You give us the courage to do more to counteract this."
"For the first time in my life, I'm ashamed to be Canadian," high-school teacher Gary O'Dwyer told his students in Cobourg.
"I'm so disturbed," one lady said after hearing Almalki speak in Kingston. "I don't even want to think about it."
But that's just it. She has to. We all do. And the government certainly should.
Heba Aly is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist.
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