When Maher Arar arrived at New York’s JFK airport in 2002, he was only supposed to change planes and continue his journey from visiting relatives in Tunisia back to his home in Canada. But the routine layover was a fateful one: while briefly on U.S. soil, Arar was snatched by authorities, kept incommunicado and away from lawyers for two weeks, then shipped to Syria. Arar endured a year of captivity and alleged torture at the hands of the brutal Syrian regime. Now, after the Canadian government formally apologized to him five years ago, rights groups are demanding that the U.S. do the same.
Three American groups that oppose torture — the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Amnesty International USA, and the Center For Constitutional Rights — delivered a petition with 60,000 signatures to the White House this week demanding an apology.
In 2007, the Canadian government admitted Arar had been mistakenly pinpointed as an Al Qaeda ally, apologized, and compensated him.
President Obama ended the “extraordinary rendition” program in 2009 and Politifact noted that the Obama administration “has announced new procedural safeguards concerning individuals who are sent to foreign countries” but some rights groups claim those safeguards aren’t adequate.
Citing the requirement for “remedy and redress” in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — which prohibits knowingly transferring detainees to countries, like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, that engage in torture — the letter campaign (PDF) asked signees to themselves apologize and then demand the U.S. do the same. An Amnesty press release said:
“It was so painful,” Maher Arar said of the beatings he endured, “that I forgot every enjoyable moment in my life.”
Released without charge and allowed to return home to Canada, Maher Arar received an apology and compensation from the Canadian government for its role in his treatment. But the U.S. government has failed to apologize or offer Maher Arar any form of remedy – despite its obligation to do so under the UN Convention Against Torture and other human rights treaties.
The letter campaign emphasized that additional steps need to be taken for accountability in the Arar case, including more explicit prohibitions on transfer, not relying only on diplomatic assurances about the treatment of detainees before transfers, ending discrimination in “no fly lists” and investigating and prosecuting those who broke the law.
Amnesty also released an infographic — using a mock-up of Arar’s 3-foot-wide, 7-foot-high and 6-foot-deep Syrian cell — highlighting the numbers around his detention: 12 days of incommunicado detention in the U.S., 351 in Syria while enduring torture, and 0 charges filed against Arar. However, there is no figure for the “number of people like Maher Arar subjected to the U.S. government’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program.” That number? The Amnesty infographic boldly states, “UNKNOWN.”