Saturday, June 19, 2010

Obama, the Supreme Court and Maher Arar: No Accountability for Torture

June 18, 2010

I don’t have time to write about the US Supreme Court’s shameful refusal to hear the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was rendered to Syria by the US in 2002, where he endured brutal torture for 10 months, so instead I’m cross-posting a suitably acerbic article by David Cole (one of Arar’s lawyers), as published in the New York Review of Books. Cole explains how, "In twenty-five years as a civil rights and human rights lawyer, I have never handled a case of more egregious abuse," and expresses palpable disgust that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration that was responsible for Arar’s torture, has had the effrontery to claim in court that "torture is never permissible, but [has] then [gone] on to argue at length that federal officials accused of torture should not be held accountable." As an additional note to readers, Maher Arar’s case is cited in the final part of the UN Secret Detention Report that I posted yesterday, which also discusses other men — and boys — rendered by the US to Syria up to eight years ago who have never been heard from since.

He Was Tortured, But He Can’t Sue
By David Cole, New York Review of Books, June 15, 2010

On Monday, June 14, the Supreme Court declined to hear Maher Arar’s case, conclusively shutting the door on the Canadian citizen’s effort to obtain redress from US officials who stopped him in September 2002 while he was changing planes on his way home to Canada and shipped him instead to Syria, where he was tortured and imprisoned without charges for nearly a year. In so ruling, the Court refused to reconsider the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, sitting en banc, which had ruled in November 2009 [PDF] that Arar’s case raised too many sensitive issues of national security and confidential information to permit its adjudication in a court of law. If he is to obtain any remedy now, it must come from Congress and the President. The courts have washed their hands of the affair, but that does not mean that it is resolved.

I am one of Arar’s lawyers, along with others at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. In twenty-five years as a civil rights and human rights lawyer, I have never handled a case of more egregious abuse. US officials not only delivered Arar to Syrian security forces that they regularly accuse of systematic torture, but did everything in their power to ensure that Arar could not get to a court to challenge their actions while he was in their custody. When they finally permitted him to see a lawyer, on a Saturday ten days into his detention, the government hastily scheduled an extraordinary hearing for the next night — Sunday evening — and only "notified" Arar’s lawyer by leaving a voicemail on her office answering machine that Sunday afternoon. They then falsely told Arar that the lawyer had declined to participate, and questioned him for six hours, until 3 a.m. Monday.

When Arar’s lawyer retrieved the voicemail message later that Monday morning, she immediately called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They told her falsely that Arar was being moved to New Jersey, and that she could contact him there the next day. In fact, he remained in New York until late that night, when he was put on a federally chartered jet and spirited out of the country. US officials never informed Arar’s lawyer that he had been deported, much less that he had been delivered to Syrian security forces.

Arar was beaten and tortured while Syrian officials asked him questions virtually identical to those US officials had asked him in New York. He was locked up for a year without charges and in complete isolation, most of the time in a cell the size of a grave. After a year, Syria released him, finding no evidence that he had done anything wrong. He returned to Canada — this time avoiding any change of planes in the United States.

Canada responded to Arar’s case as a nation who has wronged a human being should. It established a blue-ribbon commission to investigate his case, which wrote a 1,100-page report fully exonerating Arar, and faulting Canadian officials for erroneously telling US officials that Arar was the target of an investigation into possible al-Qaeda links. In fact, Arar was merely listed as one of many persons "of interest" to the investigation, because he was thought to know one of the individuals who was targeted. The commission found, however, that Canadian officials did not know that the United States was planning to send Arar to Syria. That decision was made by US officials with the Syrians and not shared with the Canadians.

Canada, in other words, played a relatively small part in Arar’s injuries, as compared to the United States. Yet Canada’s Parliament issued a unanimous apology, and the government paid Arar $10 million (Canadian) for its role in the wrong done to him.


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