Posted by: sean | September 19, 2006

Torturing innocent people

The Canadian government has released a report about the American rendition of Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year until the Syrians realized that he was innocent and then let him go:

A government commission on Monday exonerated a Canadian computer engineer of any ties to terrorism and issued a scathing report that faulted Canada and the United States for his deportation four years ago to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured.

The report on the engineer, Maher Arar, said American officials had apparently acted on inaccurate information from Canadian investigators and then misled Canadian authorities about their plans for Mr. Arar before transporting him to Syria.

“I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada,” Justice Dennis R. O?Connor, head of the commission, said at a news conference.

I’m not sure what’s more diconceritng, the Canadian government’s incompetence or the American government’s dishonesty and callous cruelty. I find it interesting that the US will only talk to Damascus when they want someone tortured.

More information about the commission can be found here.

Here is an extract from the report (pdf):

On September 26, 2002, Mr. Arar, who had been in Tunisia with his family, was returning to Canada by plane via Switzerland and the United States. He boarded an American Airlines flight in Zurich and, at about two o?clock in the afternoon, arrived in New York, where he was pulled aside by American customs officials. Two hours later, he was fingerprinted and photographed, and told this was regular procedure. His possessions were searched and his passport photographed.

Mr. Arar was then placed under arrest and strip-searched, an experience he found “humiliating.” He was held, first at the John F. Kennedy International Airport and later at the Metropolitan Detention Centre, for 12 days, during which time he was interrogated by American officials. Initially, he was denied access to a lawyer. His request to pray during the interrogation sessions was denied.

On October 8, 2002, Mr. Arar was awakened at three o’clock in the morning and told that he was to be removed to Syria. Mr. Arar told Professor Toope that, at that point, he had begun to cry and say that he would be tortured if sent to Syria. He said he had felt “destroyed.”

Mr. Arar was taken to New Jersey, put on a corporate jet, and flown to Amman, Jordan, with brief stops in Washington, D.C., Portland, Maine, and Rome, Italy. Throughout the journey, he was chained and shackled in the back of the plane. The shackles were removed only at the end of the trip, when he was given the opportunity to have a meal with his guards. He could not eat.

It was the middle of the night when he arrived in Amman and was transported to a detention centre. He had not slept since leaving New York. He suffered blows at the hands of his Jordanian guards and was blindfolded. He was then taken into a room, where the blindfold was removed. He was asked routine questions and then blindfolded again before being led to a cell. The next morning, he was told that he was going to Syria. Later that day, he was blindfolded and put into a car or van. By the time he arrived at his destination at around five o?clock in the afternoon, Mr. Arar was exhausted, hungry, and terrified. His blindfold was removed, and he saw portraits of Presidents Assad, father and son. Mr. Arar later learned that he was in Syria, in the Far Falestin detention centre, also called the Palestine Branch, which was run by the Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI).

Later that day, Mr. Arar was interrogated for approximately four hours by a man called “George,” subsequently identified as George Salloum, the head interrogator at the Palestine Branch. Two other interrogators were present, taking notes. The questions mostly concerned his family. Mr. Arar told Professor Toope that, at this point, he had decided to “say anything” necessary to avoid torture. Although no physical violence was used during this interrogation session, ominous threats were made. Whenever Mr. Arar was slow to answer, George would threaten to use “the chair,” a reference Mr. Arar did not understand.

By the next day, October 9, 2002, Mr. Arar was even more exhausted, as he had not been able to sleep in the cell. He was called up for interrogation. When George arrived, he immediately started hitting Mr. Arar. The chair on which Mr. Arar had been sitting was taken away, so that he was now on the floor.

George brought a black cable, which might have been a shredded electrical cable, about two feet long, into the room with him. Mr. Arar told Professor Toope that, when he had seen the cable, he had started to cry. George told Mr. Arar to open his right hand, then raised the cable high and brought it down hard. Mr. Arar recalled the moment vividly; he told Professor Toope that he had felt like a bad Syrian school boy. He stood up and started jumping, but he was forced back down and the process was repeated with his left hand.

Mr. Arar was then made to stand near the door, and the questions began. The theme throughout was “you are a liar.” He was given breaks, during which he was put into a different room, where he could hear other people screaming. Sometimes, he was blindfolded and left to stand in the hallway for an hour or more. The screaming continued. Each time Mr. Arar was brought back into the interrogation room, he was beaten about the upper body and asked more questions.

On the second day in the Palestine Branch, the interrogation lasted approximately 10 hours. Day three, October 11, 2002, was the most “intensive” for Mr. Arar. He was questioned for 16 to 18 hours, and was subjected to great physical and psychological abuse. The questions were in part about Abdullah Almalki. Mr. Arar was beaten with the black cable on numerous occasions throughout the day, and was threatened with electric shock, “the chair” and “the tire.” The pattern was three or four lashes with the cable, then questions, followed by more beating. After a while, he became so weak that he was disoriented. He remembers being asked if he had trained in Afghanistan. By this time, he was so afraid and in so much pain that he replied, “If you want me to say so.” He was asked which border he had crossed and whether he had seen Mr. Almalki in Afghanistan. Mr. Arar told Professor Toope that he had urinated on himself twice during this questioning, and had had to wear the same clothes for the next two and a half months. He had been “humiliated.” Mr. Arar was questioned about his relationships with various people, his family, his bank accounts, and his salary. His interrogators could not understand what he did for a living. They did not believe his description of providing services in the computer sector or the amount he said he was paid in salary, which they thought impossibly high. Mr. Arar was beaten for these “lies.”

After the beatings on the third day, the interrogation became less intense physically. There was much less use of the cables, and more punching and hitting. On October 16 or 17, even those beatings diminished. However, the threats intensified, and the psychological pressure remained extreme. For example, Mr. Arar was put in “the tire,” though not beaten. Warnings about “the chair” were also used to scare him. At the end of each interrogation session, an interrogator would say “tomorrow will be tough” or “tomorrow will be worse for you.” Mr. Arar found it almost impossible to sleep for more than two or three hours a night.

Mr. Arar’s conditions of detention were atrocious. He was kept in a basement cell that was seven feet high, six feet long, and three feet wide. The cell contained only two thin blankets, a “humidity isolator,” and two bottles — one for water and one for urine. The only source of light in the cell was a small opening in the middle of the ceiling, measuring roughly one foot by two feet.

According to Mr. Arar, cats would sometimes urinate through the opening. There were also rats in the building; Mr. Arar stuffed shoes under the door to his cell to prevent them from entering. The cell was damp and very cold in the winter and stifling in the summer. Mr. Arar was known to guards only by his cell number: Two.

Over time, as the beatings diminished in intensity, the most disturbing aspect of Mr. Arar’s detention came to be the daily horror of living in the tiny, dark and damp cell all alone and with no reading material (except the Koran later on). While at first the cell was a refuge from the infliction of physical pain, later it became a torture in its own right. Mr. Arar described for Professor Toope nights alone in his cell, when he had been unable to sleep on the cold concrete floor and had had to turn over every 15 minutes or so. He had thought of his family constantly, worrying about their finances and safety, and had been “bombarded by memories.”

Mr. Arar remained in this cell for 10 months and 10 days, during which he saw almost no sunlight other than when he was transferred for consular visits. His first visit to the courtyard of the prison did not take place until April 2003. Mr. Arar described the cell as “a grave” and a “slow death.” By June or July of 2003, he had reached his limit. Although he had tried to keep in shape by doing push-ups and pacing in his cell, he was losing all hope and stopped his modest exercise regime.

In July 2003, one of his interrogators, “Khalid,” upon seeing him for the first time in months, told Mr. Arar that his wife would divorce him if she saw him as he was then: thin, listless and crying. The consular visits with Léo Martel, the Canadian consul, provided a little hope and some connection to Mr. Arar’s family, but Mr. Arar also found them immensely “frustrating.”

On August 20, 2003, Mr. Arar was transferred to Sednaya Prison, where conditions were “like heaven” compared with those in the Palestine Branch. On October 5, 2003, he was released from custody after signing a “confession” given to him in court by a Syrian prosecutor.

Mr. Arar was guilty of being seen with someone who was under surveillance at a café and having this same person listed as an emergency contact on his rental lease. The punishment was being whisked away to Syria where he was tortured and imprisoned for a year.

Is this the war on terror?

The commission report quotes Kofi Annan, who said, “Let us be clear: torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror.”

Until the US learns this lesson, things are only going to get worse.

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