Canadian detained, tortured

Maher Arar knows the Patriot Act; he knows it very well, it had a radical effect on his life. Arar was on his way home from Europe when he stopped at JFK International Airport in New York.

He had the misfortune to be a Canadian of Syrian origin. Although he was traveling on his Canadian passport, U.S. officials detained him for questioning.

Before he knew what was happening, Arar said, American authorities were talking of deporting him to Syria. Arar said he pleaded with federal agents to send him to Canada because he feared he would be tortured in Syria.

It did no good and Arar, 33, a software engineer, spent 10 months in a small, dark, rat-infested prison cell in Damascus and was tortured regularly.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the government believed Syrian assurances that Arar would not be tortured. Human rights groups were scornful of that claim.

Ashcroft took note of Syrian denials that Arar had been tortured. He told reporters: “that statement is fully consistent with the assurances that the United States government received prior to the removal of Mr. Arar.”

Two weeks ago, President George W. Bush was sharply critical of the Syrian government for leaving its people “a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin.”

In its most recent report on human rights abuses in Syria, the U.S. State Department said in that country, torture is common and methods include beatings, electric shocks, pulling out fingernails, forcing objects into the rectum, and bending prisoners over a wheel frame while whipping exposed body parts.

Alex Neve, secretary-general of the Canadian branch of Amnesty International, said: “It is preposterous that U.S. authorities would even consider asking the Syrian government—a government that Washington itself has identified as having an abysmal human rights record-to give that kind of assurance” that Arar would not be tortured.

“It is outrageous that anybody in the U.S. government would believe such promises from a government like Syria, which regularly, consistently and cavalierly [flouts] international human rights obligations,” Neve said.

Joe Stork, a Mideast expert with Human Rights Watch, said it is illegal for the U.S. government to deport any person to a country where it can expect that individual will be tortured.

The use of torture is “well documented in the case of Syria and it is pretty shameful” for the U.S. to have deported Mr. Arar to that country, Stork said.

Ashcroft declared: “Mr. Arar was the subject of a lookout list for being a member of a known terrorist organization.” He said the deportation, therefore, was “fully within our laws and the applicable international treaties and conventions.”

Arar, who was accused of being a member of al-Qaeda, denied that claim and said he was singled out because of a very casual, brief acquaintance with a known member of a terrorist group.

The young engineer has not been charged with any offense in any country. The Canadian government considers him innocent.

Arar was held initially under provisions of the Patriot Act. He was not the first to be held incommunicado and denied his rights.

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