Arrow-right Camera


Fri., Nov. 6, 2009, midnight

An extraordinary injustice

“Extraordinary rendition” is White House-speak for kidnapping. Just ask Maher Arar. He’s a Canadian citizen who was “rendered” by the U.S. to Syria, where he was tortured for almost a year. Just this week, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York City, dismissed Arar’s case against the government officials (including FBI Director Robert Mueller, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Attorney General John Ashcroft) who allegedly conspired to have him kidnapped and tortured.

Arar is safe now, recovering in Canada with his family. But the decision sends a signal to the Obama administration that there will be no judicial intervention to halt the cruel excesses of the Bush-era “Global War on Terror,” including extraordinary rendition, torture and the use of the “state secrets privilege” to hide these crimes.

Arar’s life-altering odyssey is one of the best-known and best-investigated of those victimized by U.S. extraordinary rendition. After vacationing with his family in Tunisia, Arar attempted to fly home to Canada. On Sept. 26, 2002, while changing planes at JFK Airport, Arar was pulled aside for questioning. He was fingerprinted and searched by the FBI and the New York Police Department. He asked for a lawyer and was told he had no rights.

He was then taken to another location and subjected to two days of aggressive interrogations, with no access to phone, food or a lawyer. He was asked about his membership with various terrorist groups, about Osama bin Laden, Iraq, Palestine and more. Shackled, he was moved to a maximum-security federal detention center in Brooklyn, strip-searched and threatened with deportation to Syria.

Arar was born in Syria and told his captors that if he returned there, he would be tortured. As Arar’s lawyers would later argue, however, that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Arar was eventually allowed a call – he got through to his mother-in-law, who got him a lawyer – and a visit from a Canadian Consulate official.

For nearly two weeks, the U.S. authorities held the Syria threat over his head. Still, he denied any involvement with terrorism. So in the middle of the night, over a weekend, without normal immigration proceedings – without anyone telling his lawyer or the Canadian Consulate – he was dragged in chains to a private jet contracted by the CIA and flown to Jordan, where he was handed over to the Syrians.

For 10 months and 10 days, Maher was held in a dark, damp, cold cell, measuring 6 feet by 3 feet by 7 feet high, the size of a grave. He was beaten repeatedly with a thick electrical cable all over his body, punched, made to listen to the torture of others, denied food and threatened with electrical shock and an array of more horrors. To stop the torture, he falsely confessed to attending terrorist training in Afghanistan. Then, after nearly a year, he was abruptly released to Canada, 40 pounds lighter and emotionally destroyed.

The Canadian government, under conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, investigated, found its own culpability in relaying unreliable information to the FBI and settled with Arar, giving him an apology and $10 million. The U.S. government, on the other hand, has offered no apology and has kept Arar on a terrorist watch list. He is not allowed to enter the U.S. Two years ago, he had to testify before Congress via video conference.

He said: “These past few years have been a nightmare for me. Since my return to Canada, my physical pain has slowly healed, but the cognitive and psychological scars from my ordeal remain with me on a daily basis. I still have nightmares and recurring flashbacks. I am not the same person that I was. I also hope to convey how fragile our human rights have become and how easily they can be taken from us by the same governments that have sworn to protect them.”

Given the excesses of the Bush administration and Barack Obama’s promise of change, it has surprised many that these policies are continuing and that Congress and the courts have not closed this chapter of U.S. history. President Obama has never once condemned extraordinary rendition.

Arar’s lawyer, Maria LaHood, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, calls the court decision against Arar “an outrage.” In his dissent, Judge Guido Calabresi wrote, “I believe that when the history of this distinguished court is written, today’s majority decision will be viewed with dismay.” Given the torture that Arar suffered, his own response was remarkably measured: “If anything, this decision is a loss to all Americans and to the rule of law.”

Amy Goodman hosts a daily international TV and radio news hour called “Democracy Now!” that airs on more than 800 stations in North America. Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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