As the average Canadian traveller passes through airport security, the typical thoughts on his or her mind probably consist of whether a belt buckle will set off the metal detectors, or whether there will be enough snacks and reading material to last the entire flight. Rarely do these thoughts include difficult subject matter such as foreign policy and national security.
Lamentably, these topics are beginning to weigh heavily on the minds of many Canadians born overseas. Consider the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian from Ottawa, who left a family vacation in Tunisia to return home on business in September of 2002. While passing through security on a stopover at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, he was promptly detained. What initially seemed like routine quickly became Arar’s worst nightmare, and an ordeal that triggered US-relation alarm bells for Canadian immigrants.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, along with agents from the FBI and New York police department, grilled Arar for hours – alleging terrorist connections and accusing him of being an Al Qaeda agent. They supported their arguments using personal documents supplied to them by the Canadian government, such as a lease agreement witnessed by another Arab-Canadian with supposed links to Al-Qaeda.
“They swore at me, and insulted me. It was very humiliating,” writes Arar in his November, 2003 press release, “the information they had was so private — I thought this must be from Canada.”
The terrifying end to the meeting found Arar chained, shackled and heading to a US prison to await deportation to Syria. This, despite his requests for a lawyer and Canadian aid, as well as his assertions that persecution would inevitably await him since he had escaped compulsory Syrian military service by emigrating to Canada.
Arar suffered various forms of severe torture and interrogation upon his arrival at a Syrian military intelligence compound, where he spent ten months. He describes his jail cell, a three-foot-wide, six-foot-deep hole, in retrospect as a grave. “I was not exposed to sunlight for six months. The only times I left the grave was for interrogation, and for consular visits,”he explains.
The consular visits, his one lifeline, were a governmental process that proved farcical and intolerable for Arar, due to demands that he remain silent about his torture. “After the visits, I would bang my head and my fist on the wall in frustration. I needed the visits, but I could not say anything,” allows Arar.
Arar was forced to sign documents he was not permitted to read, and claims he admitted to several untruths while under extreme duress, including falsely admitting that he had spent time in an Al-Qaeda training camp, before the Canadian embassy collected him on Sunday, October 5, 2003.
Arar had been detained for a little over a year. He arrived home to Ottawa, and to relieved family and friends, but not yet to amends made by either the Canadian or US government. This, despite both the Canadian government’s belief in Arar’s innocence, proclaimed publicly upon his return, and the US government’s obvious violations of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and – worst of all – the US constitution.
The US, however, claims no wrongdoing in deporting an Arab with suspected terrorist ties, no matter what country he comes from. Syria apparently guaranteed the US that no torture would occur, and maintains they were true to their word. The US Justice Department appears satisfied that this denial excuses its apparent violations. “We welcome statements by the Syrian Embassy, as it is fully consistent with the assurances the U.S. government received prior to his removal from the United States,” a Justice Department spokesperson has reported.
The US, however, seems to hold differing opinions of Syria. President Bush, in a speech calling for Middle-Eastern democracy on November 7, 2003, reproached Syrian leaders for leaving “a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin,” in their wake.
Regrettably, the US isn’t the only flip-flopping government involved in this affair. Paul Martin, Canada’s Prime Minister-elect, is soft-shoeing the issue in a bid to keep all parties happy. Martin commented in early November that, while he believes what happened to Arar was “bewildering” and “tragic,” he understands the position taken by the Americans, saying, “there are very different stories coming out of this.” On November 25, when he was questioned again about Arar, Martin told reporters he believes “what happened [to Arar] was simply unacceptable . . .if we’re going to have the kinds of exchanges of information which are so important in terms of the security of North America, there is going to have to be an understanding that the Canadian passport will be respected and that fundamental rights will be respected.”
In the meantime, Arar wants to know just why and how this could have happened to him. He’s pressing the government for an inquiry – one that former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has deemed “too expensive,” but one Martin has agreed to conduct as soon as he is elected. Arar has also instigated a $31-million dollar lawsuit against the countries of Jordan, where he was detained en route, and Syria.
“What is at stake here is the future of our country, the interests of Canadian citizens,” writes Arar, “and most importantly Canada’s international reputation for being a leader in human rights where citizens from different ethnic groups are treated no different than other Canadians.”
Arar’s story may be a much-needed vehicle for change in Canadian foreign policy, and it is surely a cautionary tale that has affected Canadian thinking. For Arar, however, it should never have happened. “My priority right now is to clear my name, and make sure this does not happen to any other Canadian citizens in the future.”