Looking Back to Move Forward: The Case of Maher Arar

An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times highlights a key opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to human rights and the rule of law. Today, when President Obama meets with Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the President should take time to discuss the case of Maher Arar.

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was passing through the United States in 2002 on his way from Zurich to his home in Canada when he was stopped by U.S. immigration officials and FBI agents under suspicion of having links to al-Qaeda. Twelve days later, chained and shackled, he was flown by the U.S. government to Jordan, where he was turned over to Syrian officials. In Syria he was held in a tiny underground cell and there was beaten and forced to make a false confession before pressure from the Canadian government resulted in his release a year later. He is the most well-known victim of the Bush Administration’s notorious policy of extraordinary rendition, the transfer of detainees to other countries that are known to torture and otherwise abuse prisoners, without judicial process.

A September 2006 report produced following the Canadian government’s inquiry into his case exonerated Mr. Arar of any wrongdoing. The report concluded that there was no evidence that he had committed any offense or constituted a security risk and that the information which led to his detention and deportation was inaccurate and misleading.

In 2007, the Canadian government formally apologized and offered millions of dollars in compensation to Mr. Arar. In contrast, the Bush Administration did not acknowledge any inappropriate conduct. It has also become clear, from a redacted report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security released in June 2008, that U.S. officials involved in the rendition of Mr. Arar to Syria knew that it was likely that he would be tortured. The U.S. government has long been critical of Syrian detention practices and has condemned the Syrian government for abuse of prisoners.

The Arar case is a clear example of the tragic consequences of extraordinary rendition, To restore our country’s reputation as a world leader on human rights, President Obama should pledge to review the case, and issue a full report on Mr. Arar’s mistreatment, along with an apology and an offer to compensate him for his injuries.

The case also underscores the need for a full investigation of the United States’ use of torture. In order to move forward, we must confront incidents such as the Arar case, acknowledge past mistakes, and take the necessary corrective measures. Human Rights First is calling for the establishment of a Truth Commission to evaluate the intelligence that has been gathered through torture – including the torture of prisoners who have been rendered to other countries – to evaluate the value of this intelligence and weigh it against the enormous costs to our moral authority and national security.

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Published on February 19, 2009

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