June 15, 2006

Extraordinary Rendition: The Case of Maher Arar

As I mentioned at the start of the month of June, I will be writing a few posts about torture in honor of Torture Awareness Month and the corresponding campaign started by some bloggers. I haven't forgotten about this commitment, however, I have been overwhelmed in my search for what to discuss. Yes, unfortunately, there have been too many torture scandals in the past few years that I could not decide which to choose.

So I decided to address a topic related to torture, one that is not a one time scandal, but an ongoing political tactic used by the government of the United States. Extraordinary rendition occurs when "terror suspects are transferred from U.S. control into the control of foreign governments, so that interrogation methods that are not permitted under U.S. law may be applied to the suspects."

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was one of those "suspects". A graduate of the prestigious McGill University and an engineer by training who was on a business trip to the US in 2002 found himself detained, chained, and flown to Syria where he would be imprisoned and tortured for the next 13 months.

Arar was vacationing with his family in Tunis when he had to fly back to Montreal for business on September 26, 2002. His trip included a stop in New York's JFK airport. The nightmare began when Arar was stopped by INS officials for questioning. They told him he was on the CIA's terror suspect watch list, and began asking him for detailed answers to their questions. His request for a lawyer was continuously rejected. It soon became clear to him that the reason he was being questioned was that he had worked with the brother of a man named Abdullah Almalki who was also suspected of "terrorist activity". He told them that he had met with his brother a few times on work related issues. Members of the FBI and the NYPD had questioned for hours on end without providing any food for him, nor giving him a decent place to sleep.

Arar was then asked to volunteer to go to Syria, and then forced to sign a document that he was not allowed to read. Arar tried to refuse telling his captors that he knew the Syrian government was known for torturing its prisoners. He was then transferred to a detention center in New York, where he was later allowed to make a 2 minute phone call to his mother-in-law. He asked her for a lawyer. The Canadian consul visited Arar and assured him that he would not be deported and that they would arrange for a lawyer. He met with the lawyer once who advised him not to sign any papers, and was then taken to another late night questioning session. The next morning he was told that he will be deported to Syria.
At 3 in the morning on Tuesday, October 8th, a prison guard woke me up and told me I was leaving. They took me to another room and stripped and searched me again. Then they again chained and shackled me. Then two officials took me inside a room and read me what they said was a decision by the INS Director.
They told me that based on classified information that they could not reveal to me, I would be deported to Syria. I said again that I would be tortured there. Then they read part of the document where it explained that INS was not the body that deals with Geneva Convention regarding torture.
He was then transported to a jet which to took him to Amman, Jordan. Roughed up by some security forced in Jordan, Arar was then driven by car to Syria. When he arrived to the office of the Syrian military intelligence, new interrogations began but this time with an experienced Syrian colonel who constantly used the threat of torture. Arar was then taken to his "prison cell":
We went into the basement, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high. It had a metal door, with a small opening in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell.

There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this. There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light. I spent ten months, and ten days inside that grave.
The interrogations continued and the torture began. Arar was beaten with a metal cable on various parts of his body, slapped, and made to sit in a room and listen to other prisoners being tortured.
The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body. They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks.
They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face. Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.
Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about eighteen hours.
They asked him to confess to various crimes and that he had been to training camps in Afghanistan. Under the pain of the abuse, Arar confessed to anything they wanted him to.
They kept beating me so I had to falsely confess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture. They wanted me to say I went to a training camp. I was so scared I urinated on myself twice.
The beating stopped for a few days, then Arar was taken to shower and shave. He was escorted into a room with three Syrian officials, an interpreter, and the Canadian consul. He was warned before the meeting not to mention anything about the abused he had faced. Arar cried in the meeting but was too scared to say anything to the consul. The abuse of course took its toll on Arar's body and mind.
On three different occasions in December I had a very hard time. Memories crowded my mind and I thought I was going to lose control, and I just screamed and screamed. I could not breathe well after, and felt very dizzy.

I was not exposed to sunlight for six months. The only times I left the grave was for interrogation, and for the visits. Daily life in that place was hell. When I was detained in New York I weighed about 180 pounds. I think I lost about 40 pounds while I was at the Palestine Branch.

On August 19 I was taken upstairs to see the investigator, and I was given a paper and asked to write what he dictated. If I protested, he kicked me. I was forced to write that I went to a training camp in Afghanistan. They made me sign and put my thumbprint on the last page.
On the final visit by the Canadian consul, Arar decides that he has no hope but to take the risk and tell the consul what he has been through. The consul asks if he has been tortured, and Arar says yes.

A few months later, Arar is taken to a court where a prosecutor reads to him the confession. Arar tries to protest, but to no avail. He is forced to sign the document without looking at it. Arar was not charged. Arar is then taken to an embassy car and driven to the home of the Canadian consul to shower before he takes his flight out of Syria. The date is October 5, 2003.

Upon his return to Canada, Arar made a long statement to the media on November 4, 2003. Here are some excerpts:
I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of Al Qaeda and I do not know any one who belongs to this group. All I know about Al Qaeda is what I have seen in the media. I have never been to Afghanistan. I have never been anywhere near Afghanistan and I do not have any desire to ever go to Afghanistan.

I am a father and a husband. I am a telecommunications engineer and entrepreneur. I have never had trouble with the police, and have always been a good citizen. So I still cannot believe what has happened to me, and how my life and career have been destroyed.

The past year has been a nightmare, and I have spent the past few weeks at home trying to learn how to live with what happened to me. I know that the only way I will ever be able to move on in my life and have a future is if I can find out why this happened to me.

I want to know why this happened to me. I believe the only way I can ever know why this happened is to have all the truth come out in a public inquiry.

My priority right now is to clear my name, get to the bottom of the case and make sure this does not happen to any other Canadian citizens in the future. I believe the best way to go about achieving this goal is to put pressure on the government to call for a public inquiry.
Arar was never charged by the United States, Syria, nor Canada. His case highlights the increase in use of the extraordinary rendition program by US officials in the aftermath of 9/11. In this case, a completely innocent man lost a year of his life, lost his rights and his dignity, due to a complete disregard for American and international laws regarding torture. He has since filed a lawsuit against US government officials who were responsible for his illegal rendition.

According to Jane Mayer who wrote a scathing report on this policy for The New Yorker, there are some laws in the US that protect against this kind of action. However, the Bush administration found ways to bypass noting that 9/11 has caused a shift in policy.
In 1998, Congress passed legislation declaring that it is “the policy of the United States not to expel, extradite, or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the United States.”
Mayer adds:
The extraordinary-rendition program bears little relation to the system of due process afforded suspects in crimes in America. Terrorism suspects in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have often been abducted by hooded or masked American agents, then forced onto a Gulfstream V jet, like the one described by Arar.

Upon arriving in foreign countries, rendered suspects often vanish. Detainees are not provided with lawyers, and many families are not informed of their whereabouts. The most common destinations for rendered suspects are Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Jordan, all of which have been cited for human-rights violations by the State Department, and are known to torture suspects.
More recently, however, some European countries appear to have been involved in this as well.
A European investigator concluded Wednesday that there are "serious indications" that the CIA operated secret prisons for senior al-Qaeda figures in Poland and Romania as part of a clandestine "spider's web" to catch, transfer and hold terrorism suspects around the world.

Dick Marty, a Swiss lawyer working on behalf of the Council of Europe, the continent's official human rights organization, said at least seven other European nations colluded with the CIA to capture and secretly detain terrorism suspects, including several who were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.

President Bush and Condi Rice have not hesitated to deny any allegations of torture or wrongdoing. They claim that the US abides by the highest standards of integrity and does not support any type of torture. At the same time, the Bush administration has found it convenient to create off-shore detention facilities in Cuba, and render terror suspects to undemocratic repressive regimes around the world which are known to have policies that publicly or privately allow prisoners to be tortured.

This will only encourage these countries to continue their policies of abuse and torture and lack of due process for suspects. The Bush administration isn't exporting democracy to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, it's exporting torture. This will definitely come back to hurt the American people, who I believe would not support this type of policy. Unfortunately, not enough people know about these abuses or are willing to take a stand against them. Congress appears to want to take some action, but nothing will come about unless constituents push in large numbers to put an end to this kind of abuse. Terror suspects should be detained and tried in public under the law of this land, and not rendered across the ocean to be tortured without trial.

Detailed Chronology of Maher Arar's Rendition to Syria
The Commission of Inquiry to Investigate the Case of Maher Arar
Jane Mayer's Outsourcing Torture
CBS News- Extraordinary Rendition
Syria, US Torture Center

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At 3:29 PM, Blogger Christopher Brown said...

Thanks for this post Moi, we need to put as much pressure on the U.S. government concerning this despicable act.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger guess who said...

unfortunate. i did nt know about this case but its very unfortunate to hear these stories emerging more and more every day. No one can really understand and feel the plight of those who actually suffer and are innocent. This was a good piece and MOI you should be acknowledged for bringing this to our attention.
We all should remember that this is our social and most importantly religious duty to help those who are oppressed and be a voice for the. Moi, You have excellent posts and i hope you keep producing such interesting posts. Sincerely.

At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Hasan said...

The US needs terrorism to stay alive so they can a reason to keep fighting. Torturing people is the best and fastest way to turn a man into a fanatic. You create more terrorists this way.

Ayman al zawahri was a realitivlya liberal man until he was imprisoned in egypt and torutured. After he left, he started preaching death to everyone who doesn't follow his version of Islam.

At 9:31 PM, Anonymous urdunieh said...

i dont really have any words to describe how i feel. depressed, angry, frustrated.. ughh i can go on forever. what the US govt is doing to these ppl around the world is despicable! There are MANY others that are being tortured, abused, and going out of their brains that we dont know about. God help all those that are going through such troubling times.

At 11:24 PM, Anonymous iman said...

It will be greatly appreciated if you're able to bring to light the torture as well as black sites in Arab countries...Thanks!

At 3:27 AM, Blogger Fatima said...

It angers me, among so many other emotions. But like you point out, its important that we don't just feel the anger, but do something about this, and get this policy changed.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger moi said...

Chris & guess who--Yes, we must do everything we can to stop such a policy that most Americans oppose. Thank you for your words of support and encouragement.

Hasan--I can only imagine what torture does to prisoners in terms of their long term psychological health. It is obvious that despite the suffering caused by physical pain, the emotional and psychological affects are worse and longer lasting.

urdunieh--That's the problem, is that we only hear one story out of hundreds. What is going on in Guantanamo is one of the best examples; it is hidden and far and not many people have access to it. We can only hope that individuals who have access to such information will provide it to the public so we can judge for ourselves.

iman-- You want me to end up in one of them ;)? I will see what I can find because I think it's much harder to get information about such sites in the Middle East. Feel free to make such requests for posts anytime; I'll be glad to look into it :)

Fatima--Exactly. Too many people feel anger and frustration but loose the momentum when it comes time to take any action.

At 12:54 PM, Blogger OmAr said...

Much appreciation for bringing this up.

I recently saw many documentaries about this particular subject, stories are disgusting. The ugliest stories come from Jordan, Egypt, and North Africa. The most horrifying fact about these stories is that it literally can happen to anyone! most of the people who were subjected to torture were regular peaceful human beings whose lives were turned into hell over a night.

In my personal view, we need not to blame the US, before we do that, we must blame the ugly criminal regimes that are controlling our lives in the Middle East, without them, non of these stories would have happend, at least, not inside our countries.

At 2:39 PM, Anonymous D.A. said...

Very eloquent passage; especially the first-hand account by Arar himself. I think I shed more tears at his account, then almost any other victims' accounts that I've heard in the past five years. I couldn't also help but think that Arar got off relatively easily, considering what has happened to others who were in his exact same position and who are now convicted terrorists. There is this other one, a palestinian-american from chicago who had gone to palestine as an aid worker, but now is charged with supporting hamas because of confession he signed in an israeli prison (that was, by the way, ironically in Hebrew, despite his ignorance of the language. I'm still looking for more information on him, but if anyone knows anything, plz share the information

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Hasan said...

"In my personal view, we need not to blame the US, before we do that, we must blame the ugly criminal regimes that are controlling our lives in the Middle East"

Well guess who keeps them in power? Guess who supports them with military aid to help protect the regimes (its not like these small countries need the weapons to invade anything.)

Syria is an example of the underground deals many countries make with super powers in return of some "slack."

The evil is not as much in those who use these countries to torture, but its in those very same countries who would torture a fellow arab, one that looks like them and speaks the same language, and most probably shares the same religion.

At 10:21 PM, Blogger moi said...

Omar--There is enough blame to go around, including that directed at dictatorial Arab regimes. The fact that they allow such despicable acts to take place in their countries on behalf of a foreign government is simply unacceptable. Nevertheless, I believe that it is more realistic to think that people in the US can pressure the government to change such a policy than citizens of undemocratic countries in the Middle East. Thanks for your input.

d.a.--I know what you mean by Arar getting off "relatively easy", although there's nothing easy about being tortured like that. The fact that he was released is the only good thing about this story. Like you said, many others end up being convicted on baseless charges and torture induced evidence. I haven't heard about the guy you mentioned, but if you find his name, do email it to me so I can look into it. I will be writing a post about Israeli use of torture, so stay tuned!

Hasan--You're right; most of these regimes remain in power because of US support. But how long will we use this excuse? When will the Middle East become independent of foreign influence? When will Arabs and Muslims finally have representable leaders?
It boggles my mind as well...I can imagine that an American would torture an Iraqi, but how can a Syrian torture a Syrian?! But why should I be surprised, Arabs cheat and lie to each other all the time, same with other cultures. The fact that we have criminals in our communities doesn't make them any different from criminals in other communities.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Cyberotter said...

I got this reply on one of my Torture articles.

"If you are not with us, you are AGAINST us!"

Typical Babble

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Cyberotter said...

Part II posted



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