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Government trying to hold back documents from Arar inquiry
Last Updated: Apr 30 2004 08:58 AM EDT

OTTAWA - Maher Arar says he is concerned he may never see most of the evidence at the public inquiry that's looking into his arrest and deportation to Syria.

Maher Arar, pictured here when he first spoke publicly about his ordeal last November (File photo)

Maher Arar, pictured here when he first spoke publicly about his ordeal last November (File photo)

Lawyers for the federal government are objecting to Arar's involvement in hearings to decide whether some documents remain secret.

Arar was deported by U.S. officials in September of 2002. He spent nearly a year in prison where he says he was tortured. The commission looking into Arar's arrest is hearing arguments from police, civil liberties groups and concerned individuals who want to take part in the inquiry, set to begin in June.

Arar is expecting the inquiry into his case to answer a long list of questions, all focused on how Canadian officials were involved in his ordeal.

Lorne Waldman, Arar's lawyer, says "the public information that has been made available to date raises the very grave and serious question of whether the Canadian government, and in particular the Canadian security services, are involved in contracting out torture, in violation of Canadian and international law."

The answers may be contained in some of the thousands of pages of documents the commission has sought from 10 government departments and agencies, including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

But Marlys Edwardh, Arar's co-counsel, says her client may never see most of those documents.

"Certainly we have been told there is a large body of documentation that the government of Canada does not wish to put into the public domain. Obviously we haven't seen it."

The government of Canada can ask the inquiry's commissioner, Justice Dennis O'Connor, to declare any evidence secret on the grounds its publication could harm national security, national defence or international relations.

O'Connor will make those decisions in secret, at times with only government lawyers present.

"We have taken the position that we do not agree Mr. Arar needs to be present, or his counsel need to be present, that the interests necessary can be addressed by commission counsel," said Barbara McIsaac, the lawyer representing the attorney general of Canada.

Arar says this isn't his definition of a public inquiry. "If the government is going to take this position 'we're going to always state national security concerns,' so how are we going to know the truth?"

McIsaac won't say how much of the potential evidence the government will want to keep secret. Commission counsel Paul Cavaluzzo says every request from the government will be carefully balanced against the need to protect Arar's civil liberties and human rights.

"It will be seen by Justice O'Connor, it will be seen by me. I have top security clearance and I can assure you that any information that is going to be in camera will be tested thoroughly," he said.

But Arar's lawyers are also concerned that even if O'Connor rules that information should be made public the attorney general can always apply to the Federal Court to stop the release.

The first evidence will be heard in June.

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