OTTAWA -- A government-sponsored "culture of secrecy" surrounding the Arar inquiry has become so pervasive that it may block the truth about Maher Arar's yearlong detention in Syria from ever becoming public, independent observer Ron Atkey charged yesterday.
"I fear that the public disclosure, your interim public report, to be submitted next fall, may never see the light of day, because of continued national security claims," Mr. Atkey said in a formal submission at the commission's first public hearing in nine months.
"This is fair neither to Mr. Arar, nor the Canadian public."
Mr. Arar is the Syrian-born Canadian who says he was tortured in Syria after U.S. authorities sent him there on suspicion of terrorist links after detaining him in New York.
Stephen Bindman, a spokesman for the Department of Justice legal team at the inquiry, called Mr. Atkey's charge "baseless speculation."
This came as government lawyers sought to prevent RCMP officers from ever testifying publicly before the inquiry, and Mr. Arar's lawyers argued that he can't in fairness testify, because he has been kept in the dark about all commission testimony for the better part of a year. As a result, he has no idea what may have been said about him.
In order that Mr. Arar's account might still become public, his lawyers yesterday urged the commission to appoint a special fact-finder, whose duties would include interviewing Mr. Arar in detail about his detention and torture.
Also yesterday, a coalition of human-rights organizations intervening at the inquiry reiterated their long-standing request for a broadening of its scope to include the cases of three other Canadian men -- Ahmad Abou El Maati, Abdullah Almalki, and Muayyed Nureddin -- who say they were also tortured in Syria.
Mr. Arar, an Ottawa software engineer, was deported Oct. 8, 2002, from the United States to Syria, a country known to U.S. and Canadian officials for brutal treatment of political prisoners, and for torture.
Mr. Atkey, an expert in constitutional law and security issues, was appointed amicus curiae, or friend of the court, last year by commissioner Mr. Justice Denis O'Connor. His role is to determine whether government requests for secrecy on grounds of national security are legitimate.
"The open-court process should not be precipitously displaced in favour of an in camera proceeding," Mr. Atkey said.
He noted that all of the evidence heard by the commission so far has come from the government or its agencies, and that most of it has been kept secret, not just from the public but from Mr. Arar.
"My submissions to you today are simply to underscore the apparent unfairness to Mr. Arar, given the way this has played out."
Barbara McIsaac, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, said Mr. Atkey's criticisms were unfounded. "I think it's unfortunate for him to comment now on an interim report we have not seen."
Mr. Justice O'Connor's mandate, set out early last year, was to publicly examine and report on "the actions of Canadian officials in relation to Maher Arar."
He was directed to investigate Mr. Arar's detention in the United States, his deportation to Syria via Jordan, the conditions of his imprisonment, his return to Canada, and any other circumstances that he felt relevant.
Previous government releases of evidence in the Arar inquiry, including a CD-ROM last week that contained about 800 pages of information, have been heavily censored.
Yesterday, human-rights advocates at the inquiry released two versions of the same Foreign Affairs e-mail from Oct. 23, 2002 -- a complete copy obtained under access to information, and another "redacted" by the government.
The complete version reads: "When asked if he wished the Embassy to provide him with anything he might need he answered that his needs were all taken care of by his Syrian hosts (his answer was dictated to him in Arab by the Syrians.)"
In the government-released version, the bracketed clause is blacked out.