Stand Up For Torture Victim Maher Arar

Maher Arar

Maher Arar, ©Amnesty International

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:

There's nothing backwards about accountability.

What’s all this talk about not wanting to look backward?

Inquiries from the ACLU to the U.S. Senate produce more and more evidence that the U.S. government not only violated the human rights of freedom from torture and indefinite detention, but that such violations came from directives from the highest levels of the administration. Yet the sentiment from some of our representatives in Washington seems to find criminal accountability politically inconvenient.

If a person shot and killed another in the streets of Anytown, USA, would we say, oh, just let ‘em go, we wouldn’t want to look backward? Not in a million years. But somehow when criminals occupy fancy offices wearing fresh-pressed suits, we start to believe that bringing them to justice isn’t quite appropriate.

Smells like American exceptionalism. When leaders of “repressive regimes” do bad things, we not only call for their prosecution, we invade their country, put them to death and kill a couple thousand civilians while we’re at it.

At least the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture hasn’t lost sight of the big picture. Last week he reminded the world of our obligation to prosecute Bush, Rumsfeld and all those responsible for torture.

It’s very nice that outgoing Bush gave incoming Obama a tour of the White House and that they shook hands. The niceties should stop there. Any other form of protection of human rights violators only disgraces us. Some, like Reps. Conyers (MI) and Price (NC), have been real leaders on these issues – their colleagues in the House, White House and Senate need to follow suit.

See: AI Dec 2008 paper, “USA: Investigation, prosecution, remedy