Maher Arar and a tale of two countries
Maher Arar, you'll remember, is the Syrian-born Canadian citizen who in 2002 was detained by the U.S. at JFK airport in New York and "rendered" extraordinarily to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured before being released a year later. A formal inquiry initiated by the Canadian government and headed by Justice Dennis O'Connor fully exonerated him and recommended compensation. A detailed chronology of his story, which you should all read, is here.
And this brings us to the two very different responses from Canada and the U.S.:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized Friday to Maher Arar for the torture he suffered in a Syrian prison and said the government would pay him and his family $10.5-million, plus legal fees, to compensate them for the "terrible ordeal."
"On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you... and your family for any role that Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002-2003," Mr. Harper said in a letter to Mr. Arar.
The Prime Minister promised to do everything possible to ensure that the issues raised in the report of a judicial inquiry into the Arar case are addressed.
The government cannot change what is past, he told a news conference in Ottawa...
"But we can make changes to... [reduce the chances] that something like this will ever happen again."
Flights south of the border were once a frequent fact of Maher Arar's professional life. Today, the 36-year-old computer engineer is fearful when the plane that takes him to Toronto or Ottawa from his home in British Columbia strays into U.S. air space.
The Americans continue to keep the Canadian man, whom they branded a terror suspect and sent to Syria in 2002, on their watch list. His name has not been removed despite his exoneration in this country and the apology he received Friday for the role Canadian officials played in his 10-month ordeal in a Syrian prison.
That means Mr. Arar and his family cannot travel to the United States. The U.S. ban is also taken into consideration by about 30 per cent of world, his lawyer said, thus depriving Mr. Arar of freedom of movement on a wide scale. For example, the family cannot make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia that is a requirement of their Muslim faith.
And, although U.S. authorities say they are not concerned when people on the watch list merely fly through U.S. air pace on their way from one Canadian destination to another, the occasional airborne foray across the border makes Mr. Arar queasy.
“As of today I feel a little bit reluctant to go anywhere else except domestically,” he told a news conference Friday afternoon.
Can you blame him? At least -- at the very least -- he has found justice in Canada, even as the U.S. continues to punish him and to threaten him, an innocent man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the victim of American paranoia and cruelty.
Prime Minister Harper would do well to keep up the pressure on the U.S. to have Arar removed from its watch list, but don't expect the U.S. to budge. Not with a president who so willfully disregards habeas corpus as he wages his endless war against whomever he defines as America's enemies.
(Our previous posts on the Arar case are here, here, and here.)