by Ted on November 20, 2003

I don’t know how I missed this story.

– Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, is on the terrorist watch list. This is apparently because of his association with another terrorist suspect, who is currently in custody. Arar has denied any connection with terrorism.

He was traveling to Canada, where he’s lived for 15 years and has a family. He stopped in John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he was detained by U.S. authorities.

(Please do click through if you’re not familiar with this story.)

– Arar was put in an American jail and questioned by U.S. authorities for about twelve days. According to Arar’s statement, after five days he got to place a phone call, and at one point he was able to speak to a Canadian consul and a lawyer for thirty minutes. However, there was no lawyer present during questioning, and no formal hearing conducted.

– Arar was told that he was being deported to Syria on the basis of classified information that they couldn’t share with him. Arar says that he was tortured for ten months. Syria officially denies that they torture prisoners, but I can’t see that the United States denies it. According to the Washington Post,

A senior U.S. intelligence official discussed the case in terms of the secret rendition policy. There have been “a lot of rendition activities” since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the official said. “We are doing a number of them, and they have been very productive.”

Renditions are a legitimate option for dealing with suspected terrorists, intelligence officials argue. The U.S. government officially rejects the assertion that it knowingly sends suspects abroad to be tortured, but officials admit they sometimes do that. “The temptation is to have these folks in other hands because they have different standards,” one official said. “Someone might be able to get information we can’t from detainees,” said another.

You can read Arar’s description of his treatment here.

– After ten months, Arar was released back to Canada, without the U.S. government bringing any charges.

– Arar’s case has become a very large story in Canada. U.S. officials are insisting that they did nothing wrong. Canadian politicians have threatened to stop sharing information with the United States.

Arar describes several points at which he was asked to tell the names of his friends, family and associates. He was brought into custody on the basis of his connection to one suspected terrorist, whom he later met in prison in Syria. I find myself wondering what will happen to the people that Arar named if they ever have a layover in the United States.

I support the vigorous investigation and prosecution of terrorists and terrorist suspects. But if this isn’t over the line, then there is no line.



Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 8:29 am

When I read this story, I was appalled at the US’s behavior until I got to the Syrian part. Then I was strangely reassured.

I suppose it’s a sorry state of affairs when I am relieved to find that my government isn’t torturing Canadian citizens, just handing them over to torturers.

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, don’t you think it one should consider several things when evaluating this story? That several of the hijackers came in through Canada; that Arar isn’t a life-long Canadian citizen but came to Canada as an adult; and that Arar had (almost certainly innocent) contacts with someone who probably does have terrorist connections? US and Canadian suspicion does see justified to me.

That said, I absolutely do not agree with the theory that only US citizens have rights under the Constitution. It may make the authorities’ jobs more difficult, but I strongly feel that anyone on US soil has the right to Due Process.


Maria 11.20.03 at 8:32 am

Not only have the US authorities in question refused to back down, apologise, or in any way make amends or recompense, they in fact continue to assert that the guy is guilty. Of something.

When I was in the US a few weeks ago, I couldn’t get over the amount of rhetoric – on tv, in newspapers, etc. – about the US fighting against those who don’t want ‘freedom’. Given what I know about the Patriot Act and the 2 year campaign the current US administration has waged on European human rights law, it was truly bizaare that the term ‘freedom’ just does not seem to be interrogated at all. US freedoms are certainly under assault, but from within.

For a frightening but absolutely compelling overview of the fictional trade off between security and freedom, see Al Gore’s speech of a couple of weeks ago. It pulls together beautifully many specific instances of rights abuses and keeps relating them back to what most of us think of as core American values; rule of law, due process, habeas corpus, rights of the accused, freedom from unlawful search and seizure, etc.

It’s a worrying but essential read.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 8:48 am

Not only have the US authorities in question refused to back down, apologise, or in any way make amends or recompense, they in fact continue to assert that the guy is guilty. Of something.

Well, maybe he is. I’m not in a position to judge. I learned my lesson with that Silicon Valley guy.

I think his guilt or innocence is beside the point. For everyone on both sides of this debate, it’s a good exercise to read his account and the related commentary with the opposite assumption that one holds and ask oneself if it changes anything. I think for many, many people it would; and that bothers me. But maybe I’m wrong.

To me, though, guilty or innocent, I don’t think this man was treated fairly and humanely. Yeah, I know, only us liberal woosies think that guilty people should be treated fairly and humanely. Sigh.


dop 11.20.03 at 3:50 pm

Regardless of whether he was guilty of something, for a country that preaches human rights to others, this is ghastly behavior. There is no doubt that Syria tortures prisoners, and that US officials knew this when they packaged up a Canadian citizen and sent him there. You just can’t get around the fact that, no matter where this guy was born, he was a Canadian citizen and sending him to Syria was not a legal option.

Even if some of the 9-11 hijackers came in through Canada (I don’t know if they did, though I’ve heard some people say they did), none of them were Canadian citizens.

Not only that, but this guy was not staying in the US — he was only there to catch his flight into Canada (it’s very difficult to fly internationally into Canada without a layover or plane-switch somewhere in the US). So again, he is much unlike the 9-11 hijackers.

I’m sure this happens more than we know. Take the case of Berna Cruz earlier this year — a Canadian citizen who had her Canadian passport destroyed by US customs agents who then stuck her on a Kuwaiti airlines flight for India (with no valid ID now). She’s only one more case of this sort of abuse that comes to mind.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 4:02 pm

Dop, I’m in agreement with you. I was just saying that I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to discover that he was guilty of something, and I don’t find the suspcion of him unwarranted, given what he says in his own words. But, as both you and I say, his guilt or innocence is beside the point. I don’t like this extrajudicial crap, and I don’t like this disregard for human rights. But human rights always get thrown out the window during wartime, at least in the US, and there’s lots of folks who think the US has been continually at war since 9/11, and, I suppose, will be forever.

But a different Attorney General might make a big difference.


dop 11.20.03 at 4:16 pm

I wasn’t arguing with you so much as tossing in my 2¢. :-)

I guess that even though I realize the human-rights-get-tossed-during-war argument is out there, I think it’s a pathetic cop-out for our government to make.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 4:21 pm

I think it’s a pathetic cop-out…”

I think it’s worse than a pathetic cop-out. Didn’t someone say something about it being most important to protect rights when they are the least convenient and popular? Or did I dream that?

Probably I dreamt that. I live in Texas.


Ted Barlow 11.20.03 at 4:21 pm


I think that most people would agree that it would have been appropriate to take some sort of action, based on his apparent association with a suspected terrorist. If the Justice Department had asked Canada to interrogate him, there’d be no problem. If they had grabbed him at JFK, asked him some questions, and searched his posessions, I wouldn’t think to complain.

If they held him overnight to question him some more, that’s getting near the line of decency. If they were holding him based on his answers, or based on some sort of real evidence, that would be understandable. If they had charged him and gave him some semblance of due process, I could live with that. No one wants to let the next Mohammed Atta slip through our fingers.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. I think you’re right, a new Attorney General would be a great first step.


Thomas 11.20.03 at 6:33 pm

1. Arar is a citizen of Syria. He is also a citizen of Canada. Deportation to Syria doesn’t seem out of bounds.

2. There is no constitutional obligation to “charge” immigration detainees, and that has never been the practice under any Attorney General.

3. If the complaint is that this man was sent to Syria, then does it follow that no one should be sent to Syria? Or just no suspected terrorists?

4. If the deportation to Syria was accomplished on the recommendation of the CIA, should that recommendation have been ignored? Is the CIA’s expertise valuable only when it leads to particular conclusions?

5. Were Canadian officials involved in the decision to deport him to Syria? Shouldn’t we know that fact before accusing the US of wrongdoing? Aren’t there indications in the Canadian press that the Canadian government was involved in the decision? If one is going to take Canadian opposition party complaints on this matter seriously, shouldn’t we at least consider the entirety of the complaint (i.e., that the Canadian government cooperated with the US in this deportation)?


Jeremy Osner` 11.20.03 at 7:49 pm

If you’re really into self-abuse, head over to this Calpundit post and watch “moderate Bush supporters” justify the administration’s actions.


Katherine 11.20.03 at 8:10 pm

“I strongly feel that anyone on US soil has the right to Due Process.”

Not only a feeling, but the law of the land. The 14th amendment says that “no person”, not “no citizen” shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process.

But for immigration law purposes, an airport or other port of entry is not treated as part of the United States (not until you clear passport control). This doesn’t mean there aren’t statutes and regs that govern, but it’s a Constiution free zone.


Gwendolyn 11.20.03 at 8:28 pm

With regards to Thomas’ post above – I’m not familiar with every detail of what the Canadian Alliance has been saying, and I don’t know what exactly happened between our two governments over Mahar Arar. However, Wayne Easter’s current story is that the RCMP shared some information – what information exactly is unclear – with US officials. I have heard some allegations that the US officials involved wouldn’t deport Arar to Canada because there were no promises that he would be detained in this country. No one is admitting to actively cooperating with the decision to send Arar to Syria. I’m sure there are other posters here who know more.

Some details here: http://www.thestar.ca/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1069283411628&call_pageid=968332188492&col=968793972154

Apologies for the length of the URL.

With regards to a comment by Keith M Ellis, as far as I have ever heard, there was never any confirmation that any of the September 11 hijackers came through Canada.

That said, I find it hard to believe that it’s legal in the US to deport people – even from airports – to countries where they may be tortured, no matter what the circumstances.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 8:31 pm

It’s not held to apply to illegal immigrants, port of entry, or no.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 8:39 pm

The US, notably, doesn’t have as expansive human-rights asylum laws as do Canada and many other nations.

This is because A) the US isn’t as concerned about human rights as it claims to be; B) expansive asylum laws on a human rights (not anti-communism, natch) basis would antagonize important allies; C) the US values soverignity highly and is loathe to interfere with it…except with bombers and armies, of course. Or a CIA action.

Jeez. I’m in a very leftist mood, today, aren’t I? And so many people think of me as a centrist, and some as a conservative. See what The Chimp has done to me and my ilk? I was afraid I was going to catch the same disease that Paul Krugman got. Damnit.


BruceR 11.20.03 at 10:35 pm

1. None of the Sept. 11 terrorists came “through Canada.” Period.

2. Coming to Canada with your parents back in the mid ’80s at the age of 17 does not, in most quarters, count as “coming as an adult.” Did any of the Sept. 11 hijackers live in the west for 15 years? Did any of them have kids and a wife here? Did any of them run a company? He’s the opposite of any terrorist profile… other than the fact he’s Muslim.

3. Whether Syria still considered Arar a citizen, desite him renouncing his citizenship and never visiting in 15 years, is irrelevant. He was a Canadian citizen travelling under a Canadian passport.

4. He was shipped off without a word to his wife and kids back home; they only found out where he was weeks later, when Arar managed to get in touch with them from Syria. Surely if anyone involved in this thought their actions were defensible, they wouldn’t have done it in total secrecy. The man’s incredibly lucky he wasn’t just shot on arrival.

5. The official Syrian position is that Arar was being held as a favour to the Americans, who had told them he was Al Qaeda (they had no evidence, or reason of their own to hold him). They continued to hold him after Canadian officials began negotiating for a release, presumably also as a favour to the U.S. So if nothing else, the United States is culpable in prolonging his imprisonment, by not supporting Canadian pleas for his release.


Katherine 11.20.03 at 11:08 pm

“It’s not held to apply to illegal immigrants, port of entry, or no.”

it is, in fact. I’m taking immigration law right now. It’s applied in idiosyncratic, half-a**ed ways, and it doesn’t apply to people paroled by the attorney general, and U.S. statutory law has made the distinction based on legal/illegal status rather than location, and if Scalia got his way it wouldn’t apply at all.


psetzer 11.21.03 at 1:22 am

I’ve reached the point of cynicism where I know that they’ll use the fact that Arar was tortured to invade Syria on human-rights violations.


dop 11.21.03 at 3:58 am

Hah! You’ve brilliantly seen through their evil ploy!

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