By William Fisher
Another ‘October Surprise’ may be in store for the Bush Administration.
That’s when a Federal District court is expected to decide whether a suit brought by a Canadian citizen against Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and FBI director Robert Mueller, will go to trial.
The suit is being brought by Mahar Arar, a 34-year old telecommunications engineer who spent more than ten months being tortured in a Syrian prison after being detained by US officials at New York’s Kennedy International Airport in September 2002. He claims he was returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. He was accused of having ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and deported to Syria, where he was born.
The suit will attempt to establish that these senior US officials are implicated in the illegal deportation. Arar claims that his deportation was carried out “with the full knowledge that Syria practices state-sponsored torture.”
The suit was filed under the Torture Victims Protection Act, enacted under former US president George Bush Sr. to help victims around the world. Arar’s lawyer, Barbara Olshansky, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, noted that this is the first case in which US officials are being accused under that statute.
Olshansky called Arar's case “a clear example of constitutional overreaching” by the US administration. She said the lawsuit alleges that US officials made the decision to deport Arar with the full knowledge that Syria practices state-sponsored torture, and that they intentionally deported him to acquire more knowledge about terrorism because Syria "can and does use methods that would not be legally or morally acceptable in this country."
In addition to Ashcroft, Ridge and Mueller, the suit names ten "John Does", who allegedly took part in Arar's detention and interrogation.
Arar is seeking a declaration that "he is entirely innocent," as well as assurances that nobody else in his situation will be treated similarly. He is also seeking damages for the economic losses he suffered during his 10 months in Syria, as well as for the mental and physical anguish endured by himself and his family.
"Until my name is cleared, neither I nor my family can move forward," Arar said from Ottawa after the lawsuit was filed. "I am a family man, a husband and an engineer. I am not a terrorist."
A spokesperson for the Center for Constitutional Rights says the US Government will file a motion to dismiss the suit “on solely legal grounds” in October, with our response thereafter, oral argument before the year is out, and a decision shortly thereafter.
Arar speaks vividly of his 10 months and 10 days in a Syrian prison, saying: "The screams of my fellow inmates filled my waking hours and remain with me to this day." He says he hopes “my lawsuit will ensure that no one else ever again has to go through what I went through at the hands of the United States government."
After his arrival in Syria, he says, Syrian officials beat him with cables for the next few days. "At the end of the day they told me tomorrow would be worse," he said.
Arar said he spent his time caged in a small cell that he called a "grave. Daily life in that place was hell," he recalls. He claims Syrian officials, trying to make a connection between him and terrorism, forced him to falsely confess that he had been in Afghanistan. "I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture." He says he was also threatened with electric shock
Arar has also demanded that the government of Canada call an inquiry into his case, a move the Prime Minister has rejected until all current investigations by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are complete. "My own government is not without responsibility for what happened," Arar said. Canadian officials have said that, before Arar was deported, the Americans had consulted with the RCMP. A commission that handles complaints against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wants the force to answer questions about whether it played a role in the deportation. But the Mounties have insisted they were not told that US plans involved sending Arar to a Syrian jail. .
Arar said he was harshly interrogated by American officials, strip-searched, imprisoned and eventually deported to Syria, despite his request to be sent back to Canada.
Syria told the Canadian Government it would charge Arar with membership in a banned Muslim organization, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. But it freed Arar without charge after 375 days. Canada’s Foreign Ministry credits "quiet Canadian diplomacy" for his release.
Attorney General Ashcroft has defended the US deportation decision, saying it was legal and that Syria gave assurances Arar would not be tortured. The CBS news program 60 Minutes II reported that Canadian authorities were told of Washington's plan to deport Maher Arar to Syria and that they approved.
Arar was born in Syria in 1970, and came to Canada in 1987. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in computer engineering, he worked in Ottawa as a telecommunications engineer
A consortium of human rights groups has objected to Arar’s treatment in letters to President Bush and the Defense Department’s chief legal counsel. The group called on the Administration to “undertake a swift and thorough investigation into Mr. Arar’s case and to make public the results of that investigation. We also urge the Administration to investigate and publicly respond to the repeated public claims of past and present intelligence officers that the United States is participating in many prisoner transfers and that transferred prisoners are known to be tortured. Finally, we urge the Administration to end the practice of transferring persons to countries where it cannot effectively assure that they will be free from torture or other mistreatment “ The letter was signed by a number of organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch says the Arar case reinforces its concern that “diplomatic assurances may be used to return persons suspected of having information about terrorism-related activities to countries where torture is routinely used, specifically to extract such information.46 This concern is bolstered by the comments of former U.S. intelligence officials and sources within the U.S. administration who have stated publicly that they believe some transferred suspects are being tortured.”
The practice, known as ‘extreme rendering’, has become much more frequent since the 9/11 tragedy. Persons have been ‘rendered’ from the US to countries with long and well-documented histories of prisoner torture. American authorities have also facilitated the ‘rendering’ of suspects in other countries, as in the case of two Egyptians seeking asylum in Sweden, but taken back to their home country in a US Government-leased aircraft. Both say they were tortured in Egyptian prisons.
Realistically, this particular October surprise – if it happens – may draw little attention from either political party, and writers and broadcasters will be working flat-out on Presidential-year politics. That’s a pity, because it will give Messrs. Bush, Ashcroft, Mueller, et al, a free pass to persist in their claims that the war on terror has no impact on civil liberties.