On September 26, 2002, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian engineer, ended his vacation in Tunisia with his wife and two children to return to Canada, his homeland since the age of 17. During a layover at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, U.S. immigration officials pulled him aside, questioned him for eight hours, handcuffed him, and told him he did not have the right to an attorney. Maher was questioned, strip searched, vaccinated, and eventually put on a plane and sent to a Syrian jail where he languished for almost a year in a 3-foot-by-6-foot underground cell. He was tortured by Syrian officials trying to obtain information that he did not have.
Arar was found innocent, released, and in 2007 received a formal apology from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a payment of more than $10 million (U.S.) in damages from the Canadian government.
But when Arar sued the United States for denying him his civil rights, the District and Supreme courts dismissed his claim on the grounds that hearing the case would jeopardize national security. “This is an individual who was not only tortured, but tortured because of a mistake, and if the U.S. cannot even apologize for such a serious human-rights violation, it has to cause serious concerns about respect for the rule of law and human rights,” said Paul Champ, Arar’s Canadian lawyer. But an apology is unlikely, Champ said, because “apologizing would open the door to the U.S. government acknowledging other human-rights violations.”
A Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday cites Arar as one of many individuals subjected to U.S.-sponsored torture. The 107-page report argues a criminal investigation of former-President George W. Bush and senior officials in his administration is warranted. According to Andrea Prasow, senior counsel in Human Rights Watch's Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program, “the volume of information is really shocking. It’s hard to imagine that people haven’t been criminally investigated for this sort of conduct.”
Among the arguments is the Bush administration’s self-confessed use of waterboarding, the existence of secret detention sites, and interrogation techniques that, when used by foreign governments, have been labeled by the United States as torture.
The report discusses extraordinary rendition—the practice of transferring a detainee abroad for interrogations—and describes how many detainees were sent to countries known to practice torture. “Rendition is just another way to allow someone to be tortured,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “To the extent that we send people to countries that practice torture as a way of interrogating them—to me that’s just as bad as having it done on U.S. soil. Torture is torture no matter where it is and it’s wrong.”
So far, Bush administration officials have had no charges brought against them, something that frustrates Maria LaHood, Maher Arar’s U.S. lawyer. “It means that the president and the executive branch can do whatever it wants in the name of national security,” she said. “It can torture, it can kill … and it can expect that courts will just look the other way.”
In June, Department of Justice officials announced that they would end an investigation into all past CIA activities with the exception of a formal investigation into the deaths of two detainees. In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said “The department has determined that an expanded criminal investigation of the remaining matters is not warranted.” Current Department of Justice officials were unavailable for comment.
The lack of prosecution in the United States, argued Andrea Prasow, damages international credibility. The report outlines how criminal complaints have been filed in Germany, Spain, and France implicating U.S. officials. “How can the U.S. call on another country to comply with its obligations?” asked Prasow. “I think it really jeopardizes U.S. moral authority.”
Former members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees also declined to comment.