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Canadian sues U.S. over trip to Syria
Records seem to back Canadian on rendition

New York Times | March 30, 2005
By Scott Shane and Stephen Grey
 
WASHINGTON Maher Arar, a 35-year-old Canadian engineer, is suing the U.S. government for allegedly grabbing him as he changed planes in New York in 2002 and transporting him to Syria, where he said he was held for 10 months in a dank, tiny cell and beaten with a metal cable.

Federal aviation records examined by The New York Times appeared to corroborate Arar's account of his flight.

The treatment of Arar, who is now back home in Canada, is the subject of a year-old Canadian government inquiry.

The U.S. government has refused to cooperate with the Canadian inquiry and has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that allowing it to proceed would reveal classified information.

Federal aviation records show a Gulfstream jet with a tail number N829MG and a flight plan that matches many details of the story told by Arar since his release from a Syrian prison in 2003.

If the plane was used to move Arar, it was the fourth aircraft to be identified publicly that the government has apparently used to secretly transport suspected terrorists from one country to be detained in another, a practice known as rendition.

The U.S. government says Arar was deported to Syria because of secret evidence that he was a member of Al Qaeda. The Canadian's attorneys contend that the deportation proceeding amounted to a legal fig leaf for a rendition.

After seeing a photograph of the plane and hearing its flight plan on Oct. 8, 2002, Arar, 35, of Ottawa, said in a telephone interview: "I think that's it. I think you've found the plane that took me."

Records of the jet's travels show a December 2003 trip to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States holds hundreds of detainees, suggesting that it was used by the government on at least one other occasion.

Previous media reports have identified three other planes used in cases of rendition.

One charter jet was used by the Boston Red Sox baseball team manager in between missions apparently carrying detainees and their guards to Guantánamo, The Chicago Tribune reported this month, noting that the Red Sox logo was attached to the fuselage.

Court documents in New York show that Arar was ordered deported from the United States on Oct. 7, 2002, by an immigration official who wrote that secret evidence showed the Canadian was a potential terrorist. Arar has denied any connection to the terrorist network.

Human rights groups say that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rendition has delivered detainees into the hands of foreign torturers.

President George W. Bush and other officials have said that government policy was neither to engage in torture nor to turn prisoners over to other countries where they were likely to be tortured. Former intelligence officials say rendition is useful for cases in which secret information has identified a suspected terrorist but cannot be used for a public prosecution in an American court.

Maria LaHood, an attorney for Arar, said the new information on the jet gave support to the claims in his lawsuit.

"The facts we got from Maher right after he was released are now corroborated by public records," said LaHood, who works for the Center for Constitutional Rights, an advocacy group in New York. "The more information that comes out, the better for showing that this is an important public issue that can't be kept secret."

She said Arar and his attorneys believed American officials wanted him to undergo a more brutal interrogation than would be permitted in the United States in the hope of getting information about Al Qaeda.

Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, had no comment.

Arar has told a consistent story since his release in August 2003 after 10 months in a Syrian prison: He says he was detained at JFK airport in New York on Sept. 26, 2002, while changing planes on the way back to Canada from a trip to Tunisia. He was then held for nearly two weeks, awakened at 3 a.m. and taken to an airport in New Jersey, where he was put aboard a small jet.

Shackled in place on the jet's luxurious leather seats, Arar says, he followed the plane's movements on a map displayed on a video screen, watching as it traveled to Dulles airport in Virginia; to a Maine airport he believed was in Portland; to Rome; and finally to Amman, Jordan, where he was blindfolded and driven to Syria.

According to federal aviation flight logs, only one aircraft had filed a flight plan to travel from New Jersey to Washington to Maine to Rome on that day, Oct. 8, 2002: the 14-passenger Gulfstream jet, operated by Presidential Aviation, a charter company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The jet left Teterboro, New Jersey for Dulles at 5:40 a.m.; proceeded at 7:46 a.m. to Bangor, Maine; and left Bangor for Rome at 9:36 a.m.

The only conflict with Arar's story was that the Maine airport was Bangor, not Portland. And the flight records cover only flights departing American soil, so they document the trip only as far as Rome. Court records show, however, that immigration officials ordered him deported to Syria.

Nigel England, director of operations for Presidential, said he would not divulge who rented the Gulfstream on that day or discuss any of his clients.

"It's a very select group of people that we fly, from entertainers to foreign heads of state, a whole gambit of customers that we fly and wouldn't discuss one over the other," he said.

The plane flew about 50 flights a month to various destinations in 2002 and 2003, according to federal records. Presidential's Web site says a similar jet would now rent for about $120,000 for such an itinerary.

Federal records show that the plane was owned in 2002 by MJG Aviation, a Florida company that lists its manager as Mark Gordon, an entrepreneur who also owned Presidential at the time. Gordon could not be reached for comment.

As for Arar, he said he felt the identification of the plane helped establish his credibility. "I don't know for sure but probably people had some doubts about what I said," he said. "This goes to prove and corroborate at least part of my story."

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