MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
On Monday, Canadian citizen Maher Arar got official confirmation of what he's known all along. He is not a security threat. He was falsely accused of being an Islamic extremist, and his imprisonment and torture in a Syrian prison have had devastating effects. Those are among the conclusions of an 800-page report from a Canadian government commission that investigated his case.
BLOCK: Maher Arar was born in Syria. He's a software engineer, married, with two children. He was detained at New York's Kennedy airport in September of 2002, held in U.S. custody for nearly two weeks then deported to Jordan and taken to Syria through a process known as rendition. He was held there in a tiny, underground cell for nearly a year. He was interrogated repeatedly, beaten with a metal cable, forced to make false confessions. He was released in October of 2003 and allowed to return to Canada.
When I spoke with Maher Arar today, I asked if there were any surprises for him in the Canadian commission's report that cleared his name.
Mr. MAHER ARAR (Canadian Citizen Falsely Imprisoned in Syria): The most surprising thing for me was that they placed my name as well as my wife's name and my kids' names on a watch list. And that was extremely shocking, and given the fact that, you know, my daughter was only 6 years old at the time and my son was 6 months old at the time, my immediate reaction was my God, why did they do that? You know, and I say at times God, you know, when I was in Syria, no one informed me about that. Otherwise, this would have made my situation worse.
BLOCK: You would've been worried about your family?
Mr. ARAR: Of course. You know, constantly I've been thinking about them when they put me in that underground cell, you know. How are they doing? How are they surviving financially? You know, is anyone harming them? And just, you know, to learn yesterday that they were placed on a watch list, it's unbelievable. This led me to ask the question - how many other innocent people and innocent kids and babies are on this type of watch list?
BLOCK: Now, you and your family were put on that watch list by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and as I understand it, that information describing you and your family as Islamic extremists suspected of being linked to the al-Qaida movement - that information was passed on to U.S. authorities and that's what led to your detention. Is that what the commission found?
Mr. ARAR: That is correct. And in fact, the commissioner expanded on that and he basically said that to describe people like that without any evidence, you know, in a post-9/11 environment, it's very dangerous. And he said it is likely that this information led the Americans to take the action they took.
But I would like to emphasize that ultimately the people who are responsible for sending me to Syria are American officials.
BLOCK: American officials.
Mr. ARAR: They are the ones who took the decision to send me to Syria against my will. So even though this false information came from Canada.
BLOCK: I'd like to ask you more about that. Yesterday the U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, was asked about your case and about the commission's report. Let me play you a little bit of what he had to say.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (United States Attorney General): We were not responsible for his removal to Syria. I'm not aware that he was tortured, and I haven't read the commission report. Mr. Arar was deported under our immigration laws. He was initially detained because his name appeared on a terrorist list and he was deported according to our laws.
BLOCK: What do you say to that?
Mr. ARAR: Well, the facts speak for themselves. You know, I was not afforded due process in the States while I was there. You know, I asked for a lawyer. I didn't have full access to my lawyer. I requested to make a phone call to my family, and only seven days after my arrest I was allowed to make a brief phone call. I complained to them about the fact that if they send me to Syria I'll be tortured, and finally they bundled me on a private jet to send me to Syria, where I was tortured.
I mean, the report clearly concluded that I was tortured, and for him to say that he does not know about the case or does not know that I was tortured, it's really outrageous because, as you know, I filed a lawsuit and in this lawsuit I clearly say that the American government sent me to Syria for the purpose of extracting information using methods that would be illegal to use in the United States.
So my case has been, you know, in the public domain for about three years, and my lawsuit was dismissed last year based on state secret. So it's really quite shocking to hear him saying that now.
BLOCK: I believe the federal judge who dismissed your lawsuit did so on grounds that there were national security interests at stake here that would be jeopardized.
Mr. ARAR: Right.
BLOCK: What is the basis of that lawsuit? You're appealing that decision now, the dismissal of your case. What are you seeking?
Mr. ARAR: Well, basically a couple of things. The main one, I would like to be able to clear my name through this lawsuit. Second, I would like to hold the people who did this to me accountable. And third, it is my hope that through this lawsuit, I will be able to prevent this from happening to other people.
You know, I would like the American people to understand that there are innocent people getting caught in this so-called war on terror, and if governments make mistakes or they send people to torture, their officials need to be held accountable. And one way of doing that is through a lawsuit.
BLOCK: And when you say you would like to hold them accountable, what would that mean for you in concrete terms?
Mr. ARAR: Well, if these officials are found to be complicit in torture, I would like the American law to be applied to them. The American law clearly prohibits any American to be complicit in torture. That's all what I'm asking for.
BLOCK: This may seem like a very minor point, given what's happened to you, but are you seeking something as simple, or maybe as fundamental, as an apology from the Canadians or the Americans?
Mr. ARAR: Well, an apology would be basically on my wish list. Given the history of the U.S. government, it is unlikely this will happen. Of course, they could change their mind, and if they do, that will be, I would call the start of my healing process.
BLOCK: What is your life now? Are you working again? What's going on with your family?
Mr. ARAR: Well, one of the damning conclusions of the inquiry report is that some Canadian officials leaked false information to the media after I returned to Canada to intentionally damage my reputation. So as a result, I have not been able to find a job. This created a lot of stress for me and my family, and it was devastating from psychological and from financial point of view. So I would like, you know, I hope one day I'll be able to work as an engineer like I used to be, fly freely, you know, walk freely and to just be able to enjoy life like everyone else.
BLOCK: Mr. Arar, thanks very much for talking with us today.
Mr. ARAR: Okay. Thanks.
BLOCK: Maher Arar, speaking with us from Ottawa. A Canadian government investigation has cleared him of any involvement in terrorism.