Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

May 22, 2012

Maher Arar

More than 60,000 people signed a petition delivered to the White House yesterday calling on President Barack Obama to issue a formal apology to US rendition victim Maher Arar.

In September 2002 Maher was traveling home to Canada from a family holiday in Tunis. His flight transited New York’s JFK airport where he was pulled aside by US immigration officials and detained.

Maher was targeted because he had been briefly seen in the company of an individual, Abdullah Almaki, who was a peripheral ‘person of interest’ in a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigation. The Canadians shared this titbit of intelligence with their US allies who took it and ran with it.

There doesn’t seem to have been any meaningful investigation of Maher’s relationship with Almaki. In fact, their only connection was that Maher had once worked in a Canadian technology firm with Almaki’s brother.

This was a simple case of guilt by association, even though, it should be emphasized, the Canadian authorities didn’t even have any real evidence against Almaki either.

Maher was held in solitary confinement in New York for two weeks before US officials decided to ‘deport’ him. Maher was a dual citizen of both Syria and Canada who lived in the Canadian capital Ottawa. He should therefore, at very least, have been deported to Canada.

Instead officials arranged for Maher to be rendered to Syria – a regime well-known to the US to employ torture – as a suspected terrorist.

On his arrival in Syria, Maher was immediately transferred to prison where he was held, tortured, and abused for more than a year. He said later of the experience:

“It was so painful that I forgot every enjoyable moment in my life.”

Maher was beaten with electric cables and locked up alone for months in a claustrophobic “grave” measuring just 3ft by 6ft with only rats for company. He broke down under the abuse and falsely confessed to having attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan to make the beatings stop:

“I was willing to do anything to stop the torture.”

Fans of torture should note that even the Syrians don’t seem to have set much store in the confession they forced out of Maher, since they eventually released him in October 2003 stating that they could find no evidence of any link between him and Al Qaeda – or any other terrorist organization. Syrian official Imad Moustapha told reporters:

“We tried to find anything. We couldn’t”

Note the formulation – ‘we tried to find anything.’ Maher recalls being asked the same questions in Syria that he had been asked in New York and drew the inevitable conclusion that US officials had been pulling the strings throughout his detention.

Maher finally made it back to Canada after more than a year in captivity to be reunited with his wife and two young children. He began to campaign almost immediately for justice.

Maher’s case attracted a great deal of interest in Canada, culminating in the establishment of a Canadian Commission of Inquiry chaired by Dennis O’Connor which reported in September 2006:

“There is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada.”

Pretty categorical.

In January 2007 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Maher on behalf of the Canadian government and announced that Maher would receive a C$10.5m settlement in compensation for his ordeal.

However, from the United States – the country that detained Maher and which deliberately and willfully rendered him to Syria to be tortured – there has been only deafening silence.

Actually, it’s worse than that.

The Obama administration has actively taken steps to oppose and frustrate Maher’s attempts to gain remedy in American courts for the ill-treatement he suffered as a direct consequence of US actions.

To add insult to injury Maher’s name still appears on the US ‘no fly’ list making international travel for him both extremely difficult and hazardous.

This is quite simply wrong – on both counts.

The United States has an international legal obligation to provide remedy to individuals who are wrongly detained and subjected to abuse.

It also has a moral obligation to make this situation right.

It shouldn’t be a hard decision. If Canada can do it, the US can too.

Instead the White House has chosen a different path. In Maher’s words the Obama administration has preferred

“to turn a blind eye on holding torturers to account.”

Amnesty International is working with our partners in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) to put pressure on the Obama administration to search its conscience, recapture the spirit of hope and change that imbued the 2008 campaign trail, and actually make amends to someone America has wronged.

You can add your voice to those calling for America to do the right thing by tweeting @barackobama or calling the White House comment line on (202)-456-1111 and highlighting Maher’s case.

It is, quite literally, the least you can do.