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    The Maher Arar Affair
    —or more like debacle
    —Finally Explained by a Journalist who Got Involved

    Tom Sandborn
     
    On January 28, the woman a friend of mine insists of referring to as the Minister for the Police State, Anne McLellan (less polemically known as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness) announced that the new Martin government was yielding to widespread public pressure and establishing a public inquiry into the Maher Arar affair. 

    Arar, most readers will recall, is the Syrian born Canadian citizen and engineer seized by US cops while he was changing planes in America and shipped off, apparently with the collusion of Canadian officials, to Syria, where he was held and tortured for nearly a year. All this because Canadian spies thought he had suspicious guilt by association connections with possible terrorist figures they had under surveillance.
       
    Was the creation of the inquiry, under the leadership of Mr. Justice Dennis R. O'Connor, the Ontario jurist who conducted the Walkerton Water Inquiry, a triumph for practical solidarity, a victory for all the groups and individuals who had been working over the winter to support Mr. Arar's demand for a public investigation into what role the Canadian security apparatus played in his nightmare?

    Or was it a cynical ploy by the Martinites to distract public attention from recent embarrassing revelations about just how deeply the PM's family firm had profited from government largesse while he was in power? Was it a clever move that will allow Liberal candidates in the upcoming federal election to refuse to discuss the case because it is being investigated? 

    Or was the inquiry established to pacify the nation's media, which had been stung into born-again enthusiasm for the cause of civil liberties by police raids on the home and office of an Ottawa reporter who had published allegations against Arar leaked by government insiders last fall?

    Most likely, it was all these things, and more. The Arar affair is a tangled tale of espionage, betrayal, government duplicity and human hope, a game of smoke and shadows that would make a wonderful premise for the next John LeCarre' thriller. Call it The Torturers' Accomplices, perhaps.

    Here are a few of the strands from this tangled tale.

    September 26, 2002, USA: American authorities arrested changing planes in New York after a family holiday, Arar, a Canadian citizen. During his tenure in American custody, Arar was confronted with a lease agreement from his Ottawa home that had been provided to American spymasters by their Canadian colleagues. (The lease had been co-signed by someone the Mounties had under suspicion.) 

    He was told that the Canadian government didn't want him sent home--a position implying Canadian collusion in the Americans' preferred scenario--which would see Arar shipped off to the less than tender mercies of Syrian government torturers who would act as outsource labour for the US.

    In the end, this is exactly what happened, and Arar spent nearly a year in a Syrian jail, where he was savagely tortured and, not surprisingly, signed every confession the Syrians put before him. It is worth noting that, despite these confessions (and perhaps this is no surprise, given the way they were extracted under torture) no criminal charges of any sort have been laid against Arar in Canada, the US or Syria.

    Fall, 2003: Finally released and back in Canada, Maher Arar and his family began campaigning for a public inquiry into what role Canada's espionage establishment played in denying him the passport protections he had every right to expect as a Canadian citizen. Who, they wanted to know, had helped in setting him up for a year in the Syrian torture chambers? 

    The call for an inquiry was widely echoed by prominent Canadian individuals and a broad array of civil society groups. The list of endorsers included Lloyd Axworthy and Flora McDonald, both former Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Marion Dewar, former Mayor of Ottawa, Reid Morden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Amnesty International Canada, the BC Civil Liberties Association  (which placed its own open letter to the Prime Minister in a paid ad in the Globe), the Canadian Bar Association, the Kairos Ecumenical Justice Initiative and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, as well as editorials in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Calgary Sun, the Brockville Recorder and Times and the Halifax Herald.

    The Liberal government, first under the ancient regime of Jean Chretien and then under new management by Paul Martin, responded to all this public pressure by at first denying Canadian involvement and then by stonewalling demands for an inquiry.

    Soon enough, they came up with another tactic. In early November, government sources leaked serious allegations against Arar (claims that appear to have been based on the "confessions" he had signed under torture) to Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill. These allegations, attributed to an anonymous "security source" had Arar admitting that he had trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan, a story he denied once he was safe at home and out of the hands of the torturers.

    Over the last waning days of the old year and the dreary opening moments of 2004, the pattern repeated. More and more voices across Canada were raised to call for a public inquiry. The government continued to stonewall on this question, even making repeated claims that the issue would be dealt with by an investigation by RCMP Public Complaints Commission head Shirley Heafey, a claim recently denied by Ms Heafey.

    It seems that the Public Complaints Commission inquiry, described by the Prime Minister and other senior ministers as ongoing over the winter, was not even in existence during that period. Whoops.

    Jan.17, 2004, Vancouver:

    “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”

         This famous cautionary note about the costs of silence in the face of injustice, credited to Nazi-era Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, could have served as the theme statement for a rally held on the Art Gallery steps in downtown Vancouver January 17.
        
    More than two hundred Lower Mainland residents, obviously unwilling to remain silent while horrors are committed in their names, gathered to protest Canadian government complicity in the deportation and torture of Maher Arar in 2002-2003. They also endorsed a call by the BC Civil Liberties Association (the sponsors of the rally) for a public inquiry into the Arar case and a more general review of human rights and civil liberties abuses that have occurred under Canada's "security" legislation since 9/11.
        
    Rally attendees lined up enthusiastically to sign a petition and write personal letters to the Prime Minister. Both the petition and the letters echoed the BCCLA call for an Arar inquiry.  (Full disclosure: As part of my contract employment with the BC Civil Liberties Association, I played a role in organizing this rally, so I cannot be confused with a neutral observer in this matter.)

    January 21, 2004, Ottawa:
     
    Ten grim faced RCMP officers raided Juliet O'Neill's home, seizing notes and computer files, while other cops searched her office at the Ottawa Citizen.  The raids, conducted under the authority of the Security of Information Act, were part of an attempt to identify the source within government who had leaked incriminating claims against Arar to O'Neill for her November story. Cynics asked why no raids were conducted at RCMP and CSIS headquarters, but hey, everyone's a critic, eh?  The national media was outraged at this incursion into its own territory, and the country resounded to denunciations of "police state" tactics.

    January 28, 2004, Ottawa: Minister McLellan calls for the public inquiry that Arar and other Canadian citizens have been demanding for months. It remains to be seen exactly how the terms of reference will be drawn for this exercise, and whether it will provide the public with the full accounting that has been so widely demanded. It remains to be seen whether the process will clear Maher Arar's name and let him and his family begin the painful process of putting their lives back together. So it is far too early for unreserved celebration.

    However, many of us have spent decades demonstrating and petitioning in support of demands that never got met. At least this time, we have a partial victory to record, and fascinating new questions to consider.

    We might have to wait for the LeCarre' novel for full plot resolution, but the creation of the public inquiry seems an occasion, in the words of another grumpy Englishman, for at least two cheers for democracy.

    The many folks across the country who rallied to support the demand for an Arar inquiry won a real victory this year for justice, transparency and due process. The final outcome of the inquiry will reveal how large that victory was. In the meantime, one can only hope that this partial victory can provide a little comfort to Maher Arar and his family, and a little political optimism for those of us who went into the streets to support them.






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