So, finally, Canadians now know what really happened in the Maher Arar case. Getting there wasn't easy. We had to sue our own government to find out. But we did. The Judge found in the people's favour. The system worked.
Now, there is not one, but two components to the Arar case. The first is the matter of his detainment, transportation to Syria, his torture and his release. The second is the cover-up by Canadian polticians and the Harper government.
Remember Watergate? There were two components to Watergate. The first was the break-in at the Democratic Party offices. The second was the cover-up. It was the cover-up that brought Nixon down. The Arar coverup may yet help bring the Harper government down. At the very least, it besmirches his government and confirms his blind and misguided loyalty to the Bushies.
The Arar case has now been in the forefront of the news in this country for four years. It is as instructive as it is horrifying. Maher Arar's nightmarish, Kafkaesque experience as a result of being wrongly accused by government agencies running amok in secrecy, should never have happened to a Canadian citizen and must not happen again.
The whole sordid and shameful affair should be indelibly etched on the mind of every Canadian who places human rights at the forefront of our values. What follows is a brief review of the case and developments to date.
Maher Arar was born in Syria in 1970 and came to Canada in 1988 with his parents. In 1991 he became a Canadian citizen. He attended University and acquired a BSc from McGill in Computer Engineering and a MSc in Telecommunications from the University of Quebec. He married his Tunisia-born wife, who has a PhD in Finance. By 2002 they had two children.
Between 1997 and 2002 he and his family lived variously in Ottawa, Montreal and Boston depending on the locale of his employment. In 2001, he started his own consulting company within which he carried on his business as a telecommunications engineer.
He was placed under surveillance by the RCMP by reason of being seen in the company of a Syrian born young man from Ottawa, Abdullah Almalki. Apparently Almalki had done some high-tech business in Afghanistan which was considered suspicious.
On September 26 2002, while returning home from a visit to Tunisia, Arar was stopped JFK Airport in New York and detained by U.S. Immigration authorities. He was held in solitary confinement for two weeks. On October 7, he was told by a U.S. official that he was considered to be a terrorist and an al-qaeda member because he knew Almaki and another Canadian citizen of Arab origin from Ottawa, truckdriver Ahmed Abou El Maati.
On October 9, Arar was flown out of the U.S. by the U.S. authorities to Jordan and then a few days later to Syria. He thus became a subject of the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition - the policy of transferring a detainee terrorist suspect out of the U.S. to another country which has no qualms about using torture to elicit confessions.
For several weeks, while incarcerated in a cramped, dark, rat-infested cell, the Syrian authorities beat the hell out of this Canadian citizen. They persisted until he confessed that he was trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan. Then they eased up on him. For six months he didn't see daylight.
During a visit by Canadian consular authorities in August, 2003, Arar said that he was tortured. He was released in October after being incarcerated for more than a year. He then returned to Ottawa where, together with his wife, he started a campaign to clear his name and to convince the public that he was not a terrorist or an al-qaeda member.
Shortly after his return, there were reports that he had been detained by U.S. authorities as a result of information supplied to them by the RCMP.
The RCMP, true to their tried and true Canadian cop traditions, decided to investigate itself over the Arar case. This was done by Superintendant Brian Garvie. His heavily censored report was released on September 25, 2004.
Among Garvie's findings were that the RCMP gave the U.S. authorities information on Arar with no strings attached, that an RCMP officer assigned to the Foreign Affairs Department may have known of the plan to ship Arar to Syria but said nothing, and that a Deputy Commissioner had put heat on Prime Minister Chretien not to tell the Syrians that there was no evidence that Arar was a terrorist, because he was still a person of 'great interest.'
On February 5, 2004 the Martin government, much to its credit, set up the "Canadian Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar," under Ontario Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor, to find out what really happened. The Americans nixed this idea and didn't cooperate.
O'Connor is a highly respected Judge who has had a brilliant career as both a lawyer and a judge. Given his experience as the Commissioner of the Walkerton Inquiry, he knew how to handle political hot potatos. He was a perfect choice for the job.
It is highly relevant that Stephen Harper took over the reins of government on
February 6th, 2006.
The O'Connor Inquiry concluded its public hearings on September 14, 2005. O'Connor's report was issued on September 2006. As expected, it completely exonerated Arar. He also concluded that it was likely the U.S. put Arar through his ordeal because it relied on false information provided by Canadian officials.
The swift fallout from the O'Connor Report included an immediate public apology from the RCMP to Arar and his family. Shortly after, RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli resigned in disgrace because of inconsistencies in his testimony at the Inquiry hearings. The Government also apologized to the Arar family and agreed to pay them a settlement of 11.5 million dollars including legal costs.
It was at the time of the issuance of the O'Connor report that the Arar cover-up took place. Government lawyers insisted that before the report was issued, some 1500 words had to be kept from the public because their release would compromise national security.
The O'Connor Commission disagreed. It sued the government to have the censored 1500 words released. The result was the decision of the Federal Court last week to release about 1000 of those deleted words. And we now know a great deal more about the Arar case. For example, we have learned:
1. CSIS, in the words of its Deputy Director at the time Arar was sent to Syria, thought that Arar would be sent to the Middle East to be questioned in a 'firm manner,' so that the Americans 'can have their way with him.'
2. The RCMP, in applying to a Judge for a warrant to eavesdrop on telephone calls, didn't disclose that they were relying on information from a country with a poor human rights record [Syria] and did not make an assessment of the reliability of that information.
3. In respect to the same application for a telephone warrant, despite that the RCMP knew that a confession was obtained through torture in Syria, it nevertheless insisted to the Judge that the confession was accurate and true.
4. Although the Syrians, as early as one month after they had Arar in custody, told CSIS that Arar was a nuisance rather than a terrorist, Canadian officials refused to help in his release.
5. One of the 'national security' reasons for withholding some information was that the RCMP did not wish to compromise the goodwill of foreign agencies like the CIA with which the RCMP shared intelligence. In other words, the goodwill of the CIA towards the RCMP was paramount to the full disclosure of the facts involving the torture of an innocent Canadian in a foreign, rat-infested prison. As a result all references to the names of the foreign intelligence sources such as the CIA had been censored out along with the other 1500 words.
There is more fallout from the court's decision. The new Conservative RCMP Commissioner William Elliott, who replaced the disgraced Zaccardelli, admitted late last week that when he was Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day's Associate Deputy Minister he was among a secret group of bureaucrats who were involved in a process that led to the government deciding not to allow disclosure of the 1500 words of the O'Connor report. A shaky beginning, to say the least, for a new Commissioner who was selected to improve public accountability of the Mounties.
Day, the Liberals' gift that keeps on giving, tried to deflect responsibility on the bureaucrats. He said of the government attempt at censorship that "senior officials from various departments" decided to block out the passages before the government approved the recommendations. Day, by the way, is an old hand at using the courts at massive taxpayers' expense to avoid coming clean. One recalls the case of Goddard v. Day lawsuit of a few years ago in Alberta. Day had defamed a Red Deer lawyer in a letter Day had written to the editor of the Red Deer Advocate. At the time of the defamation, Day was a minister in the Klein government and so his legal fees were borne by the public purse. He put the lawyer through grinding and protracted litigation before settling the case on the eve of trial for $60,000. The total cost to the taxpayers who were footing the Day bill - close to $800,000.
Harper, for his part, made a public statement in the wake of the Court decision and the new disclosures that avoided any reference to the government cover-up. Instead, as is his wont, he emphasized that the Arar affair took place under the watch of the Liberals and not the Conservatives, and so the Grits were responsible for all of it.
Yet the cover-up took place on Harper's watch. And it is consistent with other examples of the Harper government's excessive secrecy or downright lies and misleading information designed to throw the public off sniffing out the facts. We have seen the Foreign Affairs Department lie and deny the existence of a report on the progress of the war in Afghanistan. When caught in the lie, it issued the report but it was heavily censored based on national security reasons. When the Globe and Mail produced the uncensored report, the national security arguement couldn't possibly stand up because the whole censorship exercise was shown to be merely an attempt to keep news - bad news in this case - from the public (See Darryl Raymaker Blog, Harper and O'Connor: Canada's Bush and Rumsfeld . . March 25, 2007).
Similarly, General Hillier has issued his order that neither will there be any information passing to the public about the fate or whereabouts of detainees captured by Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Without elaboration he argues that the security of the troops is imperiled if that information is publicly available. How this is so, he doesn't say. Security reasons, we suppose.
One final observation. Recently, the Harper government had occasion to appoint a new Chief Justice of Ontario replacing the departed Roy McMurtry. Its choice was to elevate to the Court of Appeal from the Ontario Superior Court, Warren Winkler. Winkler, by any standard, was a worthy appointment. However, so would have been Dennis O'Connor. O'Connor was already on the Ontario Court of Appeal and was the Associate Chief Justice. As such, he was the strong favorite to replace McMurtry. The Harper government chose Winkler over O'Connor.
That'll teach him, I guess.