The Canadian government has ordered a public inquiry into the role of intelligence agents in the arrest and deportation of a man who was seized by U.S. authorities while he changed planes in New York City and sent to a Syrian prison.
Maher Arar, a native Syrian with Canadian citizenship, was arrested in September 2002 on a return trip to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. After holding him for nearly two weeks, US officials deported the man to Syria, where he was imprisoned without charge for eight months.
Arar says he was tortured in Syria, and forced to sign untrue admissions that he was an agent for the al-Qaeda terrorist group who had trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
US authorities said they had reason to suspect Arar was linked to al-Qaeda, and there have been allegations, including remarks from senior US officials, that they were acting in part on information from Canada. US and Syrian interrogators, for instance, had a copy of a lease signed by Arar, along with knowledge of his friends and acquaintances in Canada.
Federal Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan announced Wednesday that a justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal would head the inquiry into the case. He will be able to call Canadian officials but will not ask US officials to testify, she said.
“It’s important to remember why we’re here. It’s about a man called Maher Arar. It’s about his deportation and detention and it is about … the actions of Canadian officials, if any, in relation to those events,” said McLellan.
O’Connor would also “be asked to make recommendations on an independent, arm’s-length review mechanism for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s activities with respect to national security”, she added.
Speculation has centered on the RCMP as the source of the information held by US and Syrian security agents. Last week, 10 RCMP officers raided the home and office of an Ottawa newspaper journalist looking for the name of a “source” who allegedly told her about Arar’s “confession” about the terrorist camp.
Arar, 33, has been working full-time to get a public inquiry named since he returned to Ottawa in October, losing his computer consulting business in the process. He says his family relies on social assistance payments to survive.
“I decided to go public with my story because I felt I had an obligation as a Canadian to make sure this could not happen to any other person in the future,” he told reporters Wednesday.
“I realized that there is a cost, and the cost is to live under stress. For the past three months, it has not been easy for myself, my wife or my kids.. But the cost was worth it and hopefully we will get justice.”
“I want to get back to a normal life. I want to feel that I am the father of the family. I want to provide financial help to my family. I realize it’s not going to be easy but I count on the support of all Canadians, and I want Canadians to understand that it’s about the justice in this country, it’s about the values they believe in,” he said.
Arar wants the inquiry to order compensation for his expenses and lost income. As well, he says, he wants to know what information was given to US and Syrian authorities by Canada’s intelligence agencies.
Arar’s US interrogators said the man was seen by Canadian agents meeting with suspected terrorists, including Syrian-born Canadian Abdullah Amalki, who is still being held in a Syrian jail.
Earlier this month, Arar launched a lawsuit against the US government, alleging it sent him to Syria knowing he would be tortured there.
Arar says he has also been subjected to a smear campaign in Canada. In November, several newspapers printed allegations by unnamed intelligence agents that repeated information from the “confessions” Arar gave to Syrian security forces.
“I want to get answers to all of the questions we have. Since I came back, I thought my nightmare would end. I think a public inquiry is the only way to get to the bottom of what happened to me,” he said.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien refused to call a public inquiry, but in December he retired. New prime minister, Paul Martin, is expected to call an election this spring.
No date has been set for the opening of the inquiry.
Its commissioner can subpoena witnesses and compel them to testify, and can also hold part of the hearing behind closed doors.
William Neve, executive director of Amnesty International Canada and a long-time supporter of Arar, says he welcomes the inquiry.
“Worldwide, governments use arguments about security as a ruse behind which to hide human rights abuses, a development that is very disturbing and which cannot stand,” Neve said.
“The commitment that Canada has made today to provide greater scrutiny and oversight to this whole area can and should be a way for Canada to show leadership on the world stage.”