The Arar insinuations

UPDATED AT 1:10 AM EST Saturday, Jan. 3, 2004


If Maher Arar is known beyond a doubt to be an alumnus of the notorious Khalden al-Qaeda training camp in eastern Afghanistan, as anonymous parties within the federal government seem hell-bent on insinuating, why won't they come out of the shadows and state their case against him publicly?

And why won't Prime Minister Paul Martin, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and Foreign Minister Bill Graham call the public inquiry that is so clearly warranted in light of the increasingly bizarre series of accusatory leaks about Mr. Arar from "official" sources?

On the record at least, the 33-year-old Syrian-born Canadian has never been accused of any crime, either in Canada or anywhere else. All we know for certain is that, on Sept. 26, 2002, he was seized by American officials while trying to change planes at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. He was returning to Canada from a family visit in Tunisia, and travelling on his Canadian passport.

We also know that, after interrogation in the United States, he was deported to Syria, in contravention of his passport rights and his rights to due process under U.S. law, and jailed for a year.

During those months in a Syrian prison, Mr. Arar has said since his release, he was repeatedly tortured. His account, seen on television by millions of Canadians, was credible.

This week, a published account cited anonymous Canadian and U.S. intelligence officials as being "100-per-cent" sure that Mr. Arar trained at the Khalden camp in 1993. Another unknown source, this one identified as Canadian, offered that "this guy is not a virgin."

Coming as they do without evidence, and anonymously, such statements are reprehensible. What's more, there has been no indication of the source of these nuggets of intelligence. Was it a document? An informant? Or was it Syria, using information gleaned under torture? It would be particularly contemptible if the Canadian government were found to have used the vile rewards of torture in any way.

On Tuesday, Mr. Arar again denied that he had ever been to Afghanistan, let alone trained in an al-Qaeda camp. He reiterated that a statement he made to the contrary in Syria was a lie he told to stop the torture. And he again demanded a public inquiry. He wants an opportunity to clear his name.

Mr. Arar is right. The case for an inquiry was already strong. It is stronger now. If there is evidence to suggest he has lied about his past, let it be known -- or not.

Prime Minister Martin, who suggested before he took office that he would be open to a public inquiry into the Arar affair, has recently begun waffling. In a published report before Christmas, he said he had seen no evidence of wrongdoing by Canadian officials. He alluded to mysterious security issues that might require that the book on Mr. Arar be kept closed.

Nonsense. Any specific information whose release would imperil national security could be dealt with in camera, as was the case with the McDonald Commission that examined the RCMP's activities in the late 1970s. The government of the day resisted that inquiry, too, saying it would imperil national security. It went ahead anyway. The houses of Parliament did not come tumbling down.

And what of Justice Minister Cotler? Has he suddenly lost his voice? Until his elevation to cabinet, he was one of the loudest voices calling for a transparent accounting of the Arar case. Surely his principles have not changed now that he is in the Prime Minister's inner circle.

That a Canadian citizen should suffer Mr. Arar's fate, without recourse to any judicial process, is bad enough. But that, upon release, he should be repeatedly smeared by faceless bureaucrats in the federal security apparatus is unconscionable. Now more than ever, only a public inquiry can clear the air.

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