Canada has charged a Syrian intelligence officer with torturing Maher Arar, the Canadian whose 2002 rendition to Syria by U.S. authorities became a cause célèbre.
The criminal charge against Col. George Salloum is reportedly the first of its kind in Canada and marks a formal acknowledgment that Arar was tortured after the U.S. handed him over on suspicion of terrorist links. An earlier official Canadian inquiry declared Arar innocent of any such links.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who brought the charge against Salloum, are calling for him to be extradited to Canada. Salloum allegedly oversaw Arar’s torture in Syria’s notorious Sednaya prison.
Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, who has acted as the family’s public representative, praised the move in an interview, calling the charges “a big step in the right direction… We need to see more accountability happening in Canada, in the U.S., in Jordan and in Syria. The ones who tortured and the ones who helped these horrible acts to happen should face justice.”
“My husband and my family suffered tremendously all these years,” she added. “Extraordinary rendition is a horrible tool that has been used by the U.S. government in an attempt to make torture legal and acceptable.”
On September 26, 2002, as Arar and his family prepared to board a connecting flight at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, on their way home to Montreal from a vacation in Tunisia, Arar was detained by U.S. authorities and taken in for questioning. Arar would be held for almost two weeks in the U.S. without charge before being flown to Jordan and handed over to authorities there. He was then turned over to Syria.
Arar was later revealed to have been falsely branded as an Al Qaeda member. His ordeal became perhaps the best-known example of “extraordinary rendition,” a shadowy U.S. program in which suspected terrorists are extradited from one foreign country to another in order to be interrogated and prosecuted. In recognition of Arar’s suffering, the Canadian government in 2007 apologized and gave him a $10 million settlement.
The U.S. government has refused to take any similar measures, and Canadian authorities today left unaddressed the role that top U.S. officials are believed to have played in orchestrating Arar’s rendition. In 2004, lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights brought a lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and other high-ranking officials for conspiring to send Arar to Syria to be tortured. Ashcroft was accused of being “responsible for making the decision to remove Mr. Arar to Jordan and Syria,” and Mueller was accused of having “removed Mr. Arar to Syria;” each was sued in both their official and individual capacities. The case was dismissed in 2006, and again in 2008, after the government invoked the state secrets privilege to claim potential adverse implications to national security if details of Arar’s rendition and torture were to be revealed. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled against hearing his appeal, and his case has languished ever since.
Jamil Dakwar of the ACLU says that more needs to be done to address the role of U.S. government officials in Arar’s torture. “As part of process of providing Mr. Arar his right to truth, the U.S. government should, as a matter of obligation, open an investigation into the responsibility of U.S. officials in his mistreatment,” Dakwar said. “This episode has never been credibly or independently investigated in the United States. If there is evidence of lawbreaking, including complicity in torture, the individuals responsible need to be held criminally responsible, and there needs to be an apology and reparations provided to the victim.”