Today we mark the beginning of Torture Awareness Month by highlighting the case of Maher Arar.
Arar, a Canadian telecommunications engineer, was detained by US immigration while transiting New York on his way home from a family holiday and plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare of torture and abuse.
In September 2002 Arar was traveling through JFK airport when he was pulled aside by US officials. Canadian police had generated a deeply flawed intelligence report based on a brief social encounter in Ottawa between Arar and ‘a person of interest.’ US officials accepted it without question and Arar’s nightmare began.
Despite his citizenship and residency in Canada, Arar was handed over illegally to the Syrian government – a country whose human rights record the United States has routinely condemned. He was held for 374 days before he was finally released and returned home:
“[In Syria], I was put in a dark underground cell that was more like a grave. It was three feet wide, six feet deep and seven feet high. Life in that cell was hell. I spent ten months and ten days in that grave.
During the early days of my detention, I was interrogated and physically tortured. I was beaten with an electric cable and threatened with a metal chair, the tire and electric shocks. I was forced to falsely confess that I had been to Afghanistan. When I was not being beaten, I was put in a waiting room so that I could hear the screams of other prisoners. The cries of the women haunt me most.”
The United States has made no attempt to defend or justify what it had done to Arar. The then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged before Congress that his case had not been not handled as it should have been but no apology or effort of compensation was forthcoming from the Bush administration.
Indeed, Arar remains on the US ‘no fly’ list to this day and is still excluded from setting foot on US soil. Despite the fact that a Canadian government inquiry fully exonerated Arar and awarded him C$10.5m in damages, the ongoing taint of apparent US suspicions still makes it difficult for him to travel safely abroad.
Arar tried to restore his good name by seeking redress in the US courts but his case was frustrated first by the Bush administration and then the Obama administration, both invoking the ‘state secrets privilege’ to get the suit dismissed.
Arar appealed, but in June 2010 the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, effectively exhausting his legal options. The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, that national security concerns protected US officials from being held accountable for the brutalization of a fellow human being on the flimsiest of pretexts, stands.
Arar is not the only individual to see his efforts to hold the government accountable come to nothing in the US courts. Indeed, every other attempt to do so has also failed.
Last month the Supreme Court also refused to hear arguments relating to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow the government to hide behind the ‘state secrets privilege’ in the Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan case, despite the fact that almost all of the relevant information concerning the case was already in the public domain.
Just last week the Obama administration similarly urged the Supreme Court to refuse to hear arguments relating to Saleh v. Titan, a class action lawsuit brought by more than 250 Iraqi plaintiffs against the Titan Corporation and CACI International Inc, who supplied interpreters to support military interrogations. The plaintiffs charge that Titan and CACI staff participated in acts of torture and other illegal conduct at the notorious Abu Ghraib detention facility, and are seeking compensation.
The courts have completely failed to act as a check on government abuses. The executive branch has lined up behind the previous administration. The legislative branch is the only remaining avenue left to gain some small measure of justice for the victims of the extraordinary rendition program, and other Bush administration counterterrorism excesses.
Congress has the power to authorize a formal apology and arrange compensation for the victims of US-sanctioned abuse. This may seem like an impossible lift, but it is not.
In October 2007 Maher Arar testified via video before a joint hearing of House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Subcommittees on extraordinary rendition. Representatives Nadler (D-NY), Delahunt (D-MA), Conyers (D-MI) and Rohrabacher (R-CA) all took the opportunity to apologize to him for his ordeal at US hands.
This is the kind of small step in the right direction that a grassroots organization like Amnesty can build on.