An American atrocity

October 26, 2006|By Myron Beckenstein

The nightmare still isn't finished for Maher Arar and, through him, for those who care about what is happening to what once were considered bedrock American values - such naive concepts as liberty, trial by jury and innocent until proved guilty. The latest spasm showed up this month, four years after something that never should have happened had long passed the stage where it should have been over.

One of the reasons too many of us are willing to look the other way as these democratic frills are scrap-heaped in the so-called war on terrorism is that the people who are most affected have no names or faces. We can't visualize them. But Maher Arar gave us a name and a face.

Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen born in Syria. In 2002, he was returning to Canada from an overseas trip, and this required a brief stopover at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. He was not planning to even leave the airport. But he was seized by U.S. agents as a threat to American security, held for several days and then sent to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured for a year before being allowed to return home to Canada.

The U.S. said it acted on information from Ottawa that Mr. Arar might be considered dangerous. But if he were dangerous, why didn't Washington just make sure he got on that plane and let the Canadians deal with him? Why did it have to jump into the picture and send him off to certain torture? The Canadians were not even consulted before this was done.

The picture became more complicated by the recent revelation that days before Mr. Arar was flown to Syria, Ottawa had notified the FBI that the information it had posted on him was wrong. It could find nothing linking him to terrorism.

So we have a man with no known terrorist ties being arbitrarily, nonjudicially convicted of having terrorist ties and sent off to a punishment that until recently was deemed unconscionable.

The Canadian government set up a panel to investigate its role in the affair and, after two years, released a 1,200-page report. It was critical of the Canadian authorities but also found no evidence that Ottawa participated in or agreed to the U.S. decision to send one of its citizens to Syria. The report also urged Ottawa to formally protest the matter with Washington.

Washington's reaction has been neither apology nor even concern. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said he had not read the report and didn't know that Mr. Arar had been tortured, although this fact had been public for years. Mr. Gonzales added, "Well, we were not responsible for his removal to Syria."

The United States had shipped an innocent man to torture in a foreign country, but "we were not responsible." A day later, a clarification was issued: When Mr. Gonzales said "we," he was not speaking of the U.S. but just of his own Justice Department.

The deportation was carried out by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which in 2002 was part of the Justice Department. But now it is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Thus the Justice Department cannot be responsible for INS actions, even if they happened on its watch. And obviously DHS can't be responsible for something that happened before it was created. Responsibility has fallen safely into the bureaucratic cracks.

But it turns out the Justice Department did know. The deportation order was signed by Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson. Even John Ashcroft, the attorney general at the time, knew. When Canada learned of Mr. Arar's deportation and protested, Mr. Ashcroft assured Ottawa that Syria had assured him that Mr. Arar would not be tortured.

Last week, Mr. Arar was quoted as saying that an INS agent was on hand as he was being put aboard the plane to Syria. When he told the agent that he would be tortured there, he says the INS agent responded, "The INS is not the body or the agency that signed the Geneva Convention against torture."

As the details continue to come out, a White House spokesman said the other day that he couldn't comment on the case because Mr. Arar may be suing the United States.

After all he has gone through, Mr. Arar is still not in the clear. A human rights organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, was planning to honor him in Washington last week with its human rights award. But the sponsors could not get assurance from Mr. Gonzalez, or any member of the U.S. government, that Mr. Arar's name is not still on a watch list and that he wouldn't be arrested again if he entered this country. "We do not disclose names on watch lists," a Department of Homeland Security official said.

Although the Arar situation should be troubling to the government, it doesn't seem to be the least bit concerned. But what about the public? Are U.S. citizens upset about what is being done in the name of fighting terrorism? Or will the public keep looking the other way because the person involved is someone with an Arabic name, and after all, it couldn't happen to me?

Myron Beckenstein is a writer in University Park.

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