Syria, US Torture Center

By Cole, David | The Nation, December 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Syria, US Torture Center


Cole, David, The Nation


Travel agents booking international flights may have to issue a new warning to their customers: Changing planes in the United States could be hazardous to your health. Consider the plight of Maher Arar. A Canadian citizen born in Syria, Arar was returning home to Montreal from Zurich on September 26, 2002, when he stopped at New York's JFK airport to change planes. As he passed through immigration, solely for the purpose of reaching his connecting flight, authorities pulled him aside, denied his requests for a lawyer, interrogated him at length and ultimately accused him, on secret evidence, of being a member of a terrorist organization.

Arar then asked to be deported to Canada, where he had been heading anyway, and where he'd been a citizen for sixteen years. But federal authorities refused and instead put him on a government jet to Jordan, where he was immediately transported to Syria. He spent ten months incarcerated there without charges, much of it in solitary confinement in a three-by-six-foot cell that Arar describes as a "grave." He says he was beaten with cables, threatened with electric shocks and placed in "the tire," which immobilizes prisoners for beatings. About one year later, Arar was released and returned to Canada, where, on November 4, he publically told his story. He denies any connection to terrorism and faces no criminal charges. The Center for Constitutional Rights has asked Congress and Attorney General Ashcroft for a criminal investigation into the role of the intelligence agencies and demanded that Ashcroft investigate whether US officials condoned or aided torture.

Arar's story raises a multitude of questions about how far our government will go in its "war on terrorism." The first concerns the use of secret evidence. George W. Bush went out of his way in the presidential campaign to condemn its use in immigration proceedings, and his Administration has maintained that even after 9/11 it has not relied on secret evidence. Yet in Arar's case, it did just that: He was expelled on evidence he never saw. Second, what right did the United States have to take a Canadian citizen and put him on a government jet to Syria? The technical justification is that Arar had dual citizenship, and the government had the option to send him to either place because he was denied entry to the United States.

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