Torture Victim Wrongly on No-Fly List Gets Humanitarian Award

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In 2002, Canadian citizen Maher Arar was returning to Canada from vacation. What he didn't know was the the Canadian Mounties had given his name to the U.S. as an Islamic extremist with connections to Al Qaeda, even though there was no evidence of this and he was no such thing.

So when he made a connection at New York's JFK airport, he was taken into custody. He was held in the U.S. for two weeks, put on a private plane and taken to Jordon, placed in a car and driven to Syria, where he was imprisoned in this country known for its use of torture. He spent 10 months in a small, dark cell, being tortured by the Syrians on behalf of the U.S. government before they decided that he really wasn't a terrorist and let him go.

To make things worse, even though he had been released and exonerated in a Canadian judicial inquiry, he was placed on the no-fly list and remains there. So when an international human rights group honored him with an award for his work to prevent the use of torture, he was unable to fly to New York to accept the award in person--despite efforts by both the Canadian government and the human rights group to allow him to travel to the U.S. to attend the ceremony.

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."

The U.S. has acknowledged that Arar was a victim of rendition, and Ottawa has lodged a formal complaint with the Bush administration over his treatment.

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.

"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."

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.

"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."

More of the story.

Learn more about Maher Arar's case.




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