Arar still fears U.S. arrest
Exonerated Canadian's name still on border watch lists
TIM HARPER / Toronto Star | October 20 2006
WASHINGTON – Maher Arar was honoured with an international human rights award tonight but, in the latest indignity he's suffered, the U.S. government would not let him travel to the U.S. capital to accept his award in person.
Arar, who now lives in Kamloops, B.C., remains on the U.S. “no-fly list'' even after he was exonerated in a Canadian judicial inquiry headed by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor.
British actor and activist Vanessa Redgrave – who would have presented the award to Arar on behalf of the Institute of Policy Studies – demanded that Washington remove the Canadian man from its electronic data bases that still brand him a terrorist threat.
Arar was honoured by the IPS, a Washington-based think tank, for his work to try to eradicate torture in the world.
He broke down in tears during a videotaped acceptance speech at the National Press Club, when he was describing his imprisonment and the beatings he endured during 10 months spent mostly in a filthy “grave” in Syria.
He said “life in the cell was impossible” and that he contemplated suicide as soon as he realized he was in Syria.
The beatings were so painful, he said, that “I forgot every moment I enjoyed in my life.”
“Since my release, I have been suffering from anxiety, constant fear and depression. My life will never be the same again. But I promised myself one thing, that I will continue my quest for justice as long as I have a breath.”
Arar said earlier today that he wants U.S. authorities who sent him to Syria to admit their error and be held accountable for their actions.
“He's a very brave man,'' Redgrave said. “It takes fantastic courage.''
She said it takes a special quality for a person to realize his destiny affects so many others, that he had to find justice so this would not happen to others.
“At least we know this will not happen to anyone else in Canada that way,'' she said.
Arar was detained Sept. 26, 2002, during a stopover at New York's JFK Airport as he was retuning home to Canada following a vacation.
He was held for two weeks in the United States, then flown on a private plane to Jordan, then driven across the border to Syria, where he was tortured and held in a tiny, darkened cell for 10 months and 10 days.
The RCMP mistakenly told U.S. authorities that Arar and his wife were Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda, even though they had no evidence to back the claim, O'Connor found.
The U.S. has acknowledged that Arar was a victim of what is known as rendition and Ottawa has lodged a formal complaint with the Bush administration over his treatment.
John Cavanagh, director of the IPS, said he wrote to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to ask that Arar be removed from the no-fly list.
“I am, alas, not surprised that I received no reply.”
Gonzales, said Redgrave, has “turned justice upside down.”
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman said he couldn't answer questions Wednesday about the U.S. no-fly list. And a spokeswoman with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said the agency won't confirm whether Arar is on the list or not.
Arar, who participated by telephone in an afternoon news conference at the policy institute, said he wants U.S. officials to accept the findings of the Canadian report and remove his name and his wife's from the list.
“First they will have to acknowledge what they did was wrong and, second, they have to hold those people accountable.”
Arar, who's appealing a U.S. lawsuit that was dismissed by a federal judge, said he has just one simple question for President George W. Bush.
“Knowing that Syria tortures people . . . why did they send me to that country?”
The report from O'Connor said U.S. officials, acting on faulty intelligence from Canadians, violated the Vienna convention on Consular Relations by shipping Arar off to Syria without telling Canada.
“The responsibility is shared between the Canadian officials and American authorities,” said Arar, who is also seeking compensation from Canada for his ordeal.
“I think everyone recognizes so far I have lost four years of my life. I have not been able to find a job. Hopefully we'll be able to reach some kind of fair settlement with the government.”
“He must have compensation,” Redgrave told the news conference. ``If your rights are acknowledged, that's a great victory ... but you can't live.”
Redgrave also blasted leaks to the media containing false allegations against Arar upon his return.
The smear campaign, she said, “was another kind of torture.”
“The press can lie,” she said.
While applauding Canada for holding a thorough inquiry, she said the entire report should be published, with nothing held back for security reasons.
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said it's perhaps not surprising that U.S. officials haven't publicly said they deported an innocent man.
“If they acknowledge there's one mistake like Maher Arar, then the whole program goes under,” said Ratner.
The centre was also acknowledged by the institute for its work on Arar's case and its 40-year crusade against torture and other human rights abuses,
The Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights Award is named for Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier, who was critical of the Pinochet regime, and American fundraiser Ronni Moffitt. They were killed in a 1976 car bomb in Washington.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, said Ratner, the United States “has begun to water down the term torture” and make it acceptable.
“When the lead country in the world does that, what do you say to the next Pinochet when he says: `I have to torture in the name of national security.' We have set the U.S. and the world back 500 years.”
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