Syria and the US: Fellow Travelers at the Crossroads for Terrorism

Commentary: When President Bush made torture a centerpiece of his foreign policy, it bound the US to the world’s worst human rights abusers.

At his address to United Nations this week, George W. Bush declared that Syria was "the crossroads for terrorism." Maher Arar knows this first hand. He was kidnapped and sent to be tortured in Syria at the behest of the Bush administration.

On September 18, a Canadian government commission concluded in a 1,195 -page report that Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was sent to be tortured in Syria by American authorities, who falsely accused the computer engineer of being an Islamic terrorist. Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Parliament on Tuesday that Arar had "been done a terrible injustice."

Arar was arrested in September 2002 at JFK Airport in New York while changing planes on his way home to Toronto. Twelve days later he was placed on a private jet with CIA agents who were part of a "special removal unit," flown to Jordan, and driven to Syria, where he was handed over to Syrian military intelligence for interrogation. In Syria, Arar was severely beaten with metal cables, and spent ten months confined to a grave-like cell before being released without charge.

Maher Arar was the victim of what the U.S. government calls "extraordinary rendition"--sending suspects to foreign countries to be harshly interrogated. The program began in 1995, under the Clinton administration, when the CIA undertook a series of kidnappings of suspected terrorists in Europe. Suspects were shipped to Egypt, where some were tortured and others were killed. One of the more spectacular operations took place in the spring of 1998 in Albania. According to the Wall Street Journal, Albanian secret police, with their CIA advisors observing from a waiting car, kidnapped an Islamic militant named Shawki Salama Attiya. Over the next few months, four other suspected Islamic militants were abducted in Albania, and another suspect was killed in a gun battle. The men were bound, blindfolded, and taken to an abandoned air base, from which they were flown to Cairo on a CIA plane and handed over to Egyptian security officials for interrogation. Attiya charged later that he was hung from his limbs, given electrical shocks to his genitals, dragged on his face, and imprisoned in a cell knee-deep with fetid water. Two other suspects captured that day were executed by hanging.

The rendition program has been "extraordinary" not only for the brazenness with which it flouts international law, but for how many innocent lives have been lost as a result of it. On August 5, 1998, an Arab-language newspaper in London published a letter from the International Islamic Front for Jihad. The letter promised revenge for the Albanian operation, vowing to retaliate against the U.S. in a "language they will understand." Two days later, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, killing 224 people.

Since September 11, 2001, the extraordinary rendition program has morphed into a global round-up. Suspects are being abducted around the world and dumped in places like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Bagram, Afghanistan. These two off-shore American prisons now hold over 1,000 people. Many of these prisoners have never been charged and they languish out of view and outside protection of the law. Others, like the German citizen Khaled el-Masri, have been kidnapped by the U.S. and tortured only to be found to have no ties whatsoever to terrorism.

Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of people have been rendered to countries well known for torturing prisoners. In the case of Syria, the Bush administration could be confident that Arar and the other prisoners it sent there would be savaged. According to the U.S. State Department 2001 human rights report on Syria, published seven months before Arar was sent to Syria:

Former prisoners and detainees report that torture methods include administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyperextending the spine; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine.

In fact, President Bush has cited Syria's abysmal human rights record as a reason to isolate and possibly attack the country.

The Bush administration is now ensnared in its own web of deceit. On September 19, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales responded to the Canadian findings by claiming that the U.S. acted lawfully in sending Arar to Syria. "Mr. Arar was deported under our immigration laws," said Gonzales, who insisted that Arar was not the victim of a rendition. It was an absurd claim: why wouldn't the U.S. deport Arar to Canada, where he is a citizen? The answer is obvious: the Bush administration wanted Arar to be tortured, and could be confident of this outcome if he were handed to the Syrians.

Gonzales tried to hedge, "Even if it were a rendition...we seek to satisfy ourselves that they will not be tortured. ...And if in fact he had been rendered to Syria, we would have sought those same kind of assurances."

When President Bush made torture a centerpiece of his foreign policy, he bound himself intimately to the world's worst human rights abusers. When it comes to torture, as Maher Arar learned, Syria and the U.S. are fellow travelers at the "crossroads for terrorism."

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