OTTAWA -- Canada would have intensified efforts to free Maher Arar if the government knew he was being tortured, former foreign minister Bill Graham said yesterday.
"It certainly would have raised alarm bells and pushed the urgency element of what we were trying to do," Graham told a public inquiry.
"That knowledge certainly would have energized us."
But he quickly added it might not have made any difference in the end, since Arar's fate ultimately rested with his jailers in Damascus.
Senior Bush administration officials also told Graham they had valid reasons for deporting Arar to Syria.
Arar was held for more than a year on suspicion of terrorist activity before Syria finally freed him in the fall of 2003.
Alarm bells were beginning to go off at the Foreign Affairs Department under Graham. Gar Pardy, then chief of consular services, has testified that diplomatic reports early in Arar's captivity aroused suspicion.
But Graham said he had no recollection of that information making its way up the chain of command to him.
He said he knew Arar was imprisoned in less than ideal conditions and was "not being treated the way we would treat people" in Canada.
But Graham said the bottom line of his briefings was there was no actual torture.
He acknowledged he may have misunderstood his officials on at least one occasion.
In August 2003, he said Arar had "personally totally rejected all allegations of torture" during a meeting with Canadian consular officials.
Graham claimed the diplomats had "independently interviewed" Arar.
Inquiry evidence has shown the meeting took place in the office of Gen. Hassan Khalil, the head of Syrian military intelligence, where Arar was hardly able to speak freely.
Graham, who has since moved to the defence portfolio in Prime Minister Paul Martin's government, also testified that:
- He was frustrated by his inability to get detailed information about the affair from the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
- The RCMP and CSIS balked at efforts by Foreign Affairs to draft a letter to the Syrian government saying Arar had been cleared of any suspicion of terrorist activity in Canada. They insisted although he wasn't a direct suspect, he was a "person of interest" because of contacts with other Arab-Canadians who were under surveillance.
- U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci and then secretary of state Colin Powell repeatedly told Graham that unnamedCanadian police or security officials had acquiesced in Arar's deportation to Syria -- a claim eventually retracted, but only after the affair was over and Arar was free.
Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen, was arrested by U.S. authorities in September 2002 on a stop in New York as he flew home to Canada from Tunisia.
U.S. officials deported him to Syria 12 days later because they believed he had links to al-Qaida.