Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Maher Arar Denied Justice After Being Tortured

I believe that when the history of this distinguished court is written, today's majority decision will be viewed with dismay.

--Judge Guido Calabresi, dissenting judge in Arar's appeal

Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria and a practicing engineer, was arrested on September 26, 2002 at JFK airport after returning home from a family vacation in Tunisia. Arar's name was on a US watchlist of terror suspects, and while trying to change planes to return home, was arrested and placed into FBI custody. After being questioned for 13 days, without access to a lawyer, Arar was awaken in the middle of the night and put on a plane that eventually took him to Syria. Arar's case was a dramatic example of extraordinary rendition, an official US policy that has been adopted by President Obama's administration. After being sent to Syria, Arar was brutally interrogated and tortured, and forced to confess to having visited Afghanistan. Here is an excerpt of his videotaped testimony to the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committee (Arar could not physically be present at the hearing, as he is barred from entering the US) via Democracy Now!:

Let me be clear: I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. I am here to tell you what happened to me and how I was detained and interrogated by the US government, transported to Syria against my will, tortured, and kept there for over a year.

Upon reviewing my passport, an immigration officer pulled me aside. Officers from the FBI and New York police department arrived and began to interrogate me. My repeated requests for a lawyer were all denied. I was told I had no right to a lawyer, because I was not an American citizen.

On October 8th at 3 in the morning, I was awakened and told that they had decided to move me to Syria. By then, it was becoming more and more clear that I was being sent to Syria for the purpose of being tortured.

There, I was put in a dark underground cell that was more like a grave. It was three feet wide, six feet deep, and seven feet high. Life in that cell was hell. I spent ten months and ten days in that grave.

During the early days of my detention, I was interrogated and physically tortured. I was beaten with an electrical cable and threatened with a metal chair, the tire and electric shocks. I was forced to falsely confess that I had been to Afghanistan. When I was not being beaten, I was put in a waiting room so that I could hear the screams of other prisoners. The cries of women still haunt me the most.

After 374 days of torture and wrongful detention, I was finally released to Canadian embassy officials on October 5th, 2003.

Even after enduring this barbaric ordeal, this headline appeared in the New York Times yesterday: "Appeals Court Rejects Suit by Canadian Man Over Detention and Torture Claim." According to the article:

A federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled on Monday that Maher Arar, a Canadian man who claimed that American officials sent him to Syria in 2002 to be tortured, cannot sue for damages because Congress has not authorized such suits.

The case has been widely watched because Mr. Arar claimed to be a victim of extraordinary rendition, the government policy of sending terrorism suspects to other countries for detention and interrogation.

After years of our country committing numerous and well documented war crimes, including torture, extraordinary rendition (which almost inevitably leads to torture), and the killing of innocent civilians across the globe, our government still cannot be held accountable. What does that say about a country that supposedly prides itself on the rule of law and accountability?

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