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Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar and his wife, Monia Mazigh, stand in their Ottawa home in this photo from Jan. 2004.
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A federal appeals court in New York will hear arguments today in the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was detained on a layover at JFK International Airport in 2002. The U.S. government accused him of being an al-Qaida member and sent him to Syria for interrogation.
No charges were ever filed against Arar. The lawsuit he is now pursuing charges that the U.S. government violated his right to due process, as well as his right to choose a country of removal other than one in which he might be tortured. A version of his lawsuit has already been thrown out by a U.S. court.
Arar told NPR's Renee Montagne that he hopes his case will highlight human rights abuses in situations like his. He also described to her his rendition — and the months he spent in a Syrian jail.
"The first day I arrived there, they interrogated me for about four hours," Arar said. "After that, they took me to a basement, and they locked me up in a small cell" measuring around 3 feet wide by 6 feet deep.
Arar thought that he would only be in the dark and cramped cell for a short time — a way for his questioners to apply some pressure to him. But, he says, "That place, which I eventually called 'the grave,' ended up being my home for the next 10 months and 10 days."
He was beaten regularly, Arar says, and his questioners kept asking him about Afghanistan — and the beatings intensified. On the second and third day, Arar says, his interrogators began hitting him with segments of electrical cables, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick.
"At the end of that day, I just couldn't take it, and I told them what they wanted to hear," Arar said — he told them that he had been to Afghanistan.
Asked by Montagne if he had in fact been to Afghanistan, Arar said, "No."
But his captors were glad to hear him say he had been there, Arar recalls. "They started smiling right away, and they became very happy. This did not stop the torture completely. But I could tell you, the torture became less severe."
The evidence against Arar came from Canadian police. The Canadian government has formally apologized to Arar for its part in his case; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also acknowledged that mistakes were made in handling it.
But Arar says that the biggest factor in his eventual release from a Syrian prison was the work his wife did. She pressured the Canadian government to reveal what had happened to her husband — and to have him regain his freedom. Eventually, then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien sent a letter to the Syrian leader asking that Arar be released.
"Had she decided to stay quiet, I think I would still be in prison today," Arar said.
Asked about his hopes for his lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Arar said that no U.S. official has been held accountable for violating his human rights.
And, he said, there are "hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent people that have been rendered" — or detained and turned over to a foreign government in violation of their rights of due process.
"This needs to stop. It's more than me," Arar said. "It's about time to stand up to this administration and say, 'This is wrong.' "
Despite his release and return to Canada — and extracting both an apology and a settlement from the Canadian government — Arar says that he is still recovering from his ordeal.
"Looking back at the old person I was, and the person I am right now, I'm not the same. And this is what I want the American people to understand, that torture is not just about physical torture."
The mental effects, Arar said, far outlast the physical wounds. And chief among them, he said, is a lack of confidence and a fear of the unknown. And then, he said, there are the memories and nightmares.
"Can I go back to the same person I was?" Arar asked. "I have doubts right now about that."