U.S. Rendition to Torture Illegal

Washington, DC – The release today of a still-heavily redacted report from the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) makes clear that the rendition by the U.S. government of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria violated U.S. law and the obligations of the U.S. government under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (CAT). “The evidence shows that Arar was tortured during the year he spent in Syrian custody, and the IG report that has been partially released today makes all-too-clear that the U.S. officials involved in turning Arar over to the Syrian government knew that was likely to happen,” said Kevin Lanigan, Director of the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.

Arar 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 alleged 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 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.

Although the IG report finds that a “CAT review” was done by U.S. officials in Arar’s case, it makes clear that this review was undertaken only after U.S. officials had already put in motion their plan to transfer Arar to Syria, and that the results of the review should have blocked the rendition.

The redaction in the IG report of nearly all sections related to “diplomatic assurances” – the process by which the U.S. government requires a commitment from a foreign government not to mistreat a detainee before the detainee is transferred – including even the IG’s recommendation addressing the issue, prevents a fair evaluation of the role of assurances in upholding our CAT obligations. According to Lanigan, “The Maher Arar rendition strongly suggests that assurances are unreliable when issued by governments of countries where torture is a serious problem or where a particular person is at risk of torture. By keeping secret the facts of how these assurances were acquired and redacting the related recommendation, the IG is obstructing efforts to evaluate the U.S. government’s implementation of its obligations not to transfer persons at risk of torture.”

Under U.S. law, the government may not transfer a detainee to the custody of another government where it is more likely than not he will be tortured. The IG report found that U.S. immigration officials concluded that Arar was entitled to protection from torture under the CAT, and that he was indeed likely to be tortured if turned over to Syria. “To turn him over to Syria in spite of this – or perhaps it was because of this – was a violation of U.S. law,” said Lanigan.

The U.S. government has long been critical of Syrian detention practices and has condemned the Syrian government for abuse of prisoners. With Maher Arar the U.S. government could have returned him to Switzerland or transferred him to Canada, but did not.

According to the State Department’s 2001 report on human rights practices in Syria – the then-current report available at the time to U.S. government officials involved in Arar’s rendition – although the Syrian government denied that it uses torture,

there was credible evidence that security forces continued to use torture . . . . Former prisoners and detainees report that torture methods include administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyperextending the spine; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim’s spine. In September Amnesty International published a report claiming that authorities at Tadmur Prison regularly torture prisoners, or force prisoners to torture one another. Although torture occurs in prisons, torture is most likely to occur while detainees are being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, and particularly while the authorities are attempting to extract a confession or information . . . .

U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Syria (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2001), online at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/nea/8298.htm (accessed June 5, 2008).

The redacted IG report released today was completed in March, but the only public release at that time was a 1-page, unclassified and uninformative “summary.” Human Rights First and other organizations called on DHS in April to release the full report. While the release today of the heavily redacted 50-page report – the appropriate Congressional oversight committees reportedly have been given unredacted copies of the report – is a start, there still are numerous unclassified passages in the report that have not been made public, and the totality of the report itself is much less substantial than a Canadian government inquiry into the Arar case that was completed in 2006.

The DHS IG reported stated today that its review of the Arar case has been reopened because of additional information received within the last month that contradicts one of the report’s conclusions. If the conclusion proves incorrect the IG has stated a supplement to the report will be published.


Published on June 5, 2008


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