Maher Arar, a 36-year-old Canadian telecommunications engineer, is afraid of flying. He is worried not that the plane will crash, but that it will land in the United States. There, he fears, he will be kidnapped and taken to a country notorious for its human rights abuses, where he will be beaten, whipped and thrown into a tiny, dank, dark, dirty cell, from which he will emerge only by the grace of his torturers.
The most horrifying thing about Arar’s nightmare is that it has already come to pass, courtesy of the U.S. government. The way it happened, as described in a recent report from a Canadian commission of inquiry, shows the folly of assuming that anyone suspected of links to terrorism must be guilty.
Arar’s troubles began on Oct. 12, 2001, when he had a cup of coffee at an Ottawa cafe with Abdullah Almalki, an acquaintance who was a target of a terrorism investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP later discovered Arar had listed Almalki as an emergency contact on an apartment rental application.
But the RCMP never found any evidence that Arar was involved in illegal activity. Justice Dennis O’Connor, head of the commission that examined the government’s handling of the case, concluded "there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada."
Arar, his wife, and their two small children nevertheless were added to Canadian and U.S. lists of travelers who merit extra scrutiny. In the process Arar, a "person of interest" who had never been considered a suspect, and his wife, an economist whom the authorities had no reason to think was involved in terrorism, somehow were transformed into "Islamic extremist individuals suspected of being linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist movement" — a description O’Connor called "inaccurate, without any basis and potentially extremely inflammatory."
The Canadians shared other inflammatory misinformation with the U.S. government, including the assertion that Arar had abruptly left the country after refusing to be interviewed by the RCMP. In fact, Arar had agreed to an interview under conditions the RCMP rejected, he left for a trip to Tunisia with his family five months later, and they were visiting his wife’s ailing father, not leaving Canada for good.
Returning from Tunisia on Sept. 26, 2002, Arar was detained at New York’s JFK International Airport and held for 12 days. Concluding that Arar was a member of Al Qaeda, the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent him not to Canada but to Syria, where he was born, despite his repeated objections that he would be tortured there.
While in Syrian custody, O’Connor found, Arar was tortured into signing a confession saying he had undergone Al Qaeda training. He spent 10 months in a filthy, barren cell measuring about 7 feet high, 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, after which he was transferred to another prison for two months before finally being released.
The U.S. government says it "sought assurances with respect to Mr. Arar’s treatment," a risible excuse coming from officials who would not trust the "assurances" of Syria’s brutal, despotic regime on any issue that mattered to them. In effect, the United States sentenced Arar to torture and a year’s imprisonment in horrendous conditions.
Arar’s ordeal raises obvious questions about "extraordinary rendition," in which the United States arranges for governments with no compunctions about torture to interrogate suspected terrorists. More fundamentally, the case highlights a fact that’s often forgotten in the debate over how to treat "enemy combatants": People make mistakes.
Rather than blame Canada for the misinformation that led U.S. officials to believe Arar was a terrorist, we should take seriously the potential for such errors. To Syria’s government, procedural safeguards designed to protect the innocent are a sign of weakness. To America’s government, they should be a point of pride.