Could Arar Blunder Happen Again?

TORONTO – Washington’s preemptive war, in which Muslims are picked up, labeled Islamic terrorists, and then sent to a foreign state where under torture they confess wrongly to membership in al-Qaeda, is at the heart of what happened to an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, says Maureen Webb, an Ottawa lawyer and author of the forthcoming book, Illusions of Security.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the signing of a series of security agreements between Canada and the U.S. under the former Liberal government, Canada’s national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), handed over its entire case file, including unsubstantiated allegations on Canadian citizens, to U.S. authorities, Webb told IPS.

"Without caveats, all of the junk as well as the good stuff, as well as the comments, they sent their entire file to the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and probably the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]," she said.

Telecommunications engineer Maher Arar was flying back from a vacation in Tunisia in September 2002 when he was unknowingly caught in the cross hairs of a new U.S.-led security regimen that was international in scope.

Upon arriving in New York on his way home to Canada, Arar was detained by U.S. authorities and deported to his country of origin, Syria, a country with a poor human rights record, even though he had a Canadian passport – a practice known as "extraordinary rendition."

After a year in jail in Damascus, he was subsequently released and allowed to return home where he told the Canadian public that he had been tortured and forced to make false confessions in order to avoid ill treatment from his interrogators.

Although the U.S. government declined to send officials to appear before the Canadian commission of inquiry into the Arar case, the presiding judge, Dennis O’Connor, issued a critical report on Sept. 18 this year that placed much of the blame for his deportation to Syria on the RCMP, which provided information to the U.S. that erroneously accused Arar and his wife, Dr. Monia Mazigh – who was never arrested or charged – of terrorist links.

"I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada," O’Connor concluded.

The judge also indicated that Canadian police agencies relied on information received from Syria about Arar "which was likely the product of torture." He added that "no adequate reliability assessment was done to determine whether the information resulted from torture."

Ten days later, at a parliamentary public safety and national security committee meeting, RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli formally apologized on behalf of his officers for the ordeal experienced by Maher Arar and his family. He admitted that although he subsequently realized that the force had mislabeled Arar as a terrorist after what happened in New York, this information did not get passed along to the Canadian government.

Zaccardelli also stated his force was unable to find the sources of several leaks from unknown RCMP officers to the press, who continued to accuse Arar of terrorist links even after he had returned home to Canada.

The RCMP commissioner conceded that the authorities committed errors amid the confusion following the Sept. 11 attacks and stated the force was undertaking internal reforms.

"Of course, this doesn’t excuse or allow us to avoid facing head-on the ramifications of that time. But the fact is, we were in a very different world on Sept. 12," he said.

The commissioner’s defense has not lessened the calls for him to take more responsibility for what happened to Arar, and even to resign, by some newspaper editorial writers and opposition politicians.

"Also, no Mountie involved in this case has been disciplined. Some have even been promoted," stated the Toronto Star in a recent editorial.

While Maureen Webb is not opposed to dismissals, she questions whether this is sufficient.

"I think the focus on whether Zaccardelli should resign or not or be fired is a little narrow, because certainly he should be fired, but I think it minimizes the situation. It is not just about one bad manager or a few rogue officers, it is about a whole system," said Webb, who is a lawyer at the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

"There is a falsity to say that there were rogue elements or that the RCMP was the only agency – that it was off the mark or incompetent, because the marching orders and the climate came from the top political levels."

A recent internal FBI audit which found that U.S. agents have been carrying out investigations within Canada since 9/11 without the approval of Ottawa reinforces Webb’s concerns that this country is experiencing a serious loss of sovereignty to the larger power below.

She says that security has replaced trade as the "driver" for deep integration of Canada and the U.S. within North America.

"[The Canadian] government likes to spin it as information-sharing, and who can argue with information-sharing, it sounds like a good thing, but in fact what’s happened in these cases is much worse than information-sharing," she said.

What occurred in Canada in terms of U.S. intervention is comparatively mild compared to the secret U.S. special operations or "assassination teams" which are busy hunting down alleged terrorists in countries like the Philippines, she added.

"The war on terror has been a pretext for them to come back again [after a U.S. military withdrawal from the Philippines]," Webb added. "The U.S. military is doing ordinary police functions in the Philippines, and it doesn’t even have a status-of-forces agreement."