RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today, a court hears one of the few known stories about the secret U.S. program of extraordinary rendition. Maher Arar is trying again to get American authorities to listen. He says he was traveling home to Canada in September 2002. He had a layover at New York's JFK Airport, and he vanished.
MONTAGNE: We know now that the Canadian citizen was detained. He was questioned about his alleged links to al-Qaeda. U.S. officials were acting on misinformation about him given to them by Canadian officials. The innocent man was put onto a Gulfstream jet, and he was sent to a jail in his native Syria, interrogated and tortured.
Mr. MAHER ARAR: The first day I arrived there, they interrogated me for about four hours. And after that, they took me to a basement, and they locked me up in a small cell, which was about 3 feet wide, about 6 feet deep, and about 7 feet high. It was dark. It was filthy. And frankly and naively, I thought they would put me there for a few days to put pressure on me. That place, which I eventually called the grave, ended up being my home for the next 10 months and 10 days.
MONTAGNE: What did it take to get you to say what they wanted to hear?
Mr. ARAR: You know, at the very beginning, they just kept asking questions and they didn't give me any hints but then eventually, they wanted me to say that I had been to Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: And had you?
Mr. ARAR: No. I told them what they wanted to hear and - I mean they started smiling right away, and they became very happy. And this did not stop the torture completely, but the torture became a lot less severe. They used the cables - electrical rubber cable. It's about one and a half to two inch thick, and I still remember vividly the first time they used it with me. It was - you know, I was just sitting in the chair, and the head of the interrogation team came in without uttering a word. He asked me to open my right palm, and I complied. And they hit me with it. And the other end of the cable almost touched the ceiling. And he hit me on my palm. And you know, the pain is so intense, really, you just forget every enjoyable moment in your life.
MONTAGNE: A year after he arrived, Syria released Maher Arar without ever charging him. An investigation in Canada then cleared him of any links to terrorism. His lawsuit against American officials was dismissed by a U.S. court, but a federal appeals court in New York will now decide whether Arar's case can proceed.
You know, the Canadian government has formally apologized and awarded you some millions in damages. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted that mistakes were made in your case. But I wonder how much your release from that Syrian prison was due to the fact that your family back in Canada never let up trying to find you and pressuring your government to explain what had happened to you.
Mr. ARAR: Well, I think, yes, the work that my wife did on my behalf was the major factor why I was released. She pressured from the very beginning the Canadian government to get me back to Canada. Eventually, the prime minister of Canada, Jean Chretien at that time, sent a letter to his Syrian counterpart. Had she decided to stay quiet, I think I would still be in prison today.
MONTAGNE: In this appeal that will be heard today, what are you hoping to accomplish?
Mr. ARAR: My main objective is really to raise awareness through the legal system, through the media, that this needs to stop. There have been hundreds of people who have been tortured, and it's about time to stand up to this administration and say this is wrong. And what is a better place than courts to do that?
MONTAGNE: Do you know firsthand about any of these other cases? You speak about hundreds who have been involved in extraordinary rendition.
Mr. ARAR: Well, when I was detained at the Syrian military intelligence, I could hear other prisoners nearby in the nearby cells. And eventuall,y we had the opportunity to speak from under the door. And I could tell you that some of them have been rendered. And we're talking about human lives here that are being destroyed.
MONTAGNE: After Syria released you and after you got back home to Canada, do you feel yourself to be back to the man that you were before this experience with extraordinary rendition?
Mr. ARAR: That is my biggest wish. I'm not the same. I - and this is what I want the American people to understand, that the psychological and mental torture are far worse and far lasting than the physical torture. This idea of - the fear of the unknown is still haunting me, you know. Can I go back to the same person I was? I have not been able to do that so far.
MONTAGNE: Maher Arar, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. ARAR: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan will hear oral arguments today in the case of Maher Arar.