Canada's Syrian connection

posted on August 31, 2005 | in Category Canada | PermaLink

Original author: Alex Neve
Source: The Globe and Mail
URL: [link] (subscribers only)
Date: August 31, 2005

No one can now say that what happened to Maher Arar in the U.S. and Syria in 2002/2003 was an unfortunate misadventure beyond Canada's control, or the result of a series of mistakes due to poor training or inadequate resources. Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad El Maati's harrowing descriptions in this newspaper of arrest, torture and months of imprisonment without charge in Syria and Egypt make that wrenchingly clear.

Considered alongside testimony of imprisonment and torture in Syria provided by Muayyed Nureddin last year, it adds up to this: These are not tragic coincidences. Throughout 2001, 2002 and 2003, something was at play. A number of Canadians suspected as possible supporters of terrorist activities, either on the basis of undisclosed allegations or by virtue of whom they knew, ended up in foreign jails where torturers did their work -- with the apparent indifference of Canadian security agencies. Who allowed this to happen? And why?Critical questions about Canada's role in the detention of Mr. Almalki in Syria were brought to the government's attention by Amnesty International on Nov. 26. A letter was sent to the minister responsible for the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Public Safety, Anne McLellan. In August, the Prime Minister responded to our June letter about the growing number of cases. The PM's response said the matter had been referred to the minister (she also ignored this letter).

A critical front line in the current war on terror is to ensure that counterterrorism does not run roughshod over decades of hard-won human-rights protections. The dangerous assertion that we must roll back such critical rights as the protections against torture and arbitrary detention has been supported by some governments. The results are notorious: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, China's crackdown against the Uighurs, Russia's campaign in Chechnya . . . Canadians must know that our own law enforcement and security agencies are committed to the fundamental principle that true security is achieved through unwavering commitment to basic human-rights standards.

If that's true, who was skirting it in these cases? How were they allowed to get away with it? Who passed on information at just the right time to just the right people?

Not one, not two, but four Canadians were thrown into Syrian jails between November, 2001, and December, 2003. Did Canadian officials really not know the virtual certainty that it would lead to torture? As they exchanged information with Syrian and Egyptian counterparts, did they truly believe these Canadian citizens were being treated with respect for their fundamental rights? Was it not obvious that they should demand that these Canadians be allowed to return to Canada, once consular officials heard firsthand from Mr. El-Maati during a visit to Egypt in August, 2002, that he had, indeed, been tortured in Syria?

The challenges for the government are now clear. The Arar inquiry, soon to wrap up, must be encouraged to probe as widely as possible to examine the degree to which Mr. Arar's experience was part of a wider pattern or policy -- but even if the Arar inquiry does look broadly at the issue of pattern, it will not be able to provide the degree of accountability and redress owing to these other men. No one expects a lengthy public inquiry to be convened for each Canadian who returns from imprisonment abroad. But an impartial process is needed that will investigate these very serious concerns and report publicly. The government should appoint an independent expert to mount a full review of these cases. The review must include any other cases involving Canadian citizens who were "of interest" in Canadian national-security investigations, who have ended up in the custody of foreign governments, and where there is reason to believe that the arrest or continuing detention may have been with the tacit consent of Canadian officials.

A counterterrorism grounded in the rule of law and rooted in universal human rights is the best recipe for security. Clearly, Canada must have a counterterrorism strategy, pursuing leads, investigating suspicious activity, and charging anyone who has broken laws. But that must never include knowingly setting anyone up for torture. Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada's English branch.

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