|May. 1, 2004. 01:00 AM|
The Star retraces Arar's steps in Syria Ottawa sought Damascus' help: EnvoyCanadian aims to clear name
Case sheds light
DAMASCUS—Beyond a sign in English that reads "No Photography" stand the fortified gates of Syria's military intelligence branch, guarded by a half-dozen bored-looking officers. Watchtowers loom atop concrete walls and the only sound on this unusually quiet street, aside from a few disembodied voices, is the distant cacophony of car horns and traffic.No civilians or journalists get through the entrance unless they themselves have been summoned for questioning. Those who have say it's similar to a military barracks, with clusters of concrete buildings fronting a few, dusty roads. It's here, through the gates of military intelligence's Far Falasteen (Palestine Branch), that Canada's Maher Arar was brought, handcuffed and blindfolded, on Oct. 9, 2002. He was interrogated there, according to Syria's senior diplomat in Ottawa, at the request of Canadian and U.S. intelligence agencies. Canada's involvement was officially confirmed for the first time by Syrian Ambassador Ahmad Arnous, in a recent interview with the Star. "We were asked by Canadians and the Americans to investigate this situation," Arnous said. "When you receive from security agencies, a person with a file connecting him with terrorism, you have to verify that file. And we went verifying that file through different directions."The role played by Canadian and U.S. agencies in Arar's deportation is the focus of a public inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O'Connor, starting in June. Hearings to determine which groups get standing at the inquiry ended in Ottawa yesterday. Arnous' counterpart in Washington, Imad Moustapha, told CBS' 60 Minutes earlier this year the investigation found nothing to link Arar to terrorism — "(Syria) traced no links. We traced relations. We tried to find anything. We couldn't." But Syria's ambassador to Ottawa now says the investigation was cut short when the Canadian government requested that Arar be returned to Canada.Arnous says he believes Arar is not as "innocent as he has claimed." Officials in Damascus are uncomfortable with the international attention the Arar case has aroused. It has shone a harsh light on the country's human rights record at precisely the time when President Bashar Assad wants to emphasize Syria's modernization efforts. Syrian officials are, however, reluctant to comment on the case. "We prefer to leave it to the professional channels at this time," foreign ministry representative Bushra Kanafani says, adding that deputy foreign minister Walid Moualem remains in close contact with Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs about the case.Arar, 34, a Canadian living in Ottawa with his wife and two young children, was shipped to Damascus after he tried to return home to Canada on Sept. 26, 2002, after a visit with his wife's family in Tunisia.When his flight to Montreal touched down in New York, U.S. security and immigration authorities held Arar for nearly two weeks. Despite his demands as a Canadian citizen to be returned to Canada, he was deported to Jordan, then Syria.In Damascus he was imprisoned and interrogated. Arar says his interviewers tortured him with electrical cables for the first week. A year later, on Oct. 5, 2003, Arar was released and returned to Ottawa.From the day he first recounted his story last fall, his wife at his side during an emotional televised press conference, up to and including an interview at his home last month, Arar has unwaveringly denied any connection to terrorist groups.An intensely private man, Arar says going public with his story has been incredibly difficult and as the inquiry draws near, his anxiety is building."I was kidnapped and sent to Syria and tortured. And then I came back and I expected my nightmare to end," Arar said at his Ottawa home. "It's a different kind of torture here."Haitham Maleh is surprisingly direct for a man who has spent seven years in various prisons for expressing his views. Even now his Damascus office is under constant surveillance by security agents parked outside. "Human rights itself is very new here in Syria," the 73-year-old explains, while extending a welcome to his modest office. "To work for human rights is very difficult, very difficult. But we have no choice: this is our country and we have to pay the price for freedom." Maleh is chairman of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS) and a lawyer. His organization monitored Arar's detention when it first became public in October, 2002 — but it wasn't until the following August, just two months before Arar's release, that he was called by the Canadian Embassy in Damascus to take on Arar's case.Maleh's office sits behind a small reception room just off a narrow alley in central Damascus. In the smoke-filled front room, four employees of HRAS work amid posters of Martin Luther King and an American flag with one large Star of David in place of the normal 50 five-pointed stars, and the message "Don't use American goods" in Arabic.It's here, with sunlight streaming through the barred windows, that Arar's cousin talks about his distant relative. "Maher's family lived a quiet life and never dealt with politics," Anwar Arar says through a translator. "They were religious, not overly so, but like most Syrians."Maher Arar spent his youth reading, studying and hiking up the trails of the Qassyoun Mountain that at the peak yields a breathtaking view of the city. Near the top is the middle-class neighbourhood known as Al Bashkateb, where Arar grew to be a teenager.Neighbours say they don't remember him — if they do, they're afraid to admit it.As the youngest in a family of nine, Arar had watched most of his siblings and relatives leave Damascus for a more prosperous life in Canada, Kuwait, Finland and the United States. In 1987, at the age of 17, Arar also left their third-floor home here, located just across the street from a busy barbershop, to come to Canada.Anwar Arar learned of his cousin's detention through the Al-Jazeera satellite network's Web site, and he contacted the Canadian embassy. Using his position as a lawyer, he tried many times to contact the High Security Court to get information, but was turned away.Anwar Arar believes, based on what he's heard from the community and those who knew him in prison, that the sole reason Maher Arar was detained was to provide information on another Canadian: Abdullah Almalki. When Arar was detained in New York, Almalki, whose father was once Syria's assistant district attorney, had already been imprisoned in Damascus for five months. He'd been detained in May, 2002, after returning to Syria from Malaysia. By all accounts, his detention was hard. Friends say he entered weighing about 220 pounds, but quickly dropped to about 155.Sources close to the family confirm that he was tortured.Maher Arar knew Almalki's brother in Ottawa, where they worked together at a high-tech firm, and Arar also once had Abdullah Almalki witness his apartment lease. Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that document during a search of Arar's Ottawa apartment and — to his shock — a copy of the lease was shown to him during questioning by U.S. authorities in New York before he was deported to Syria.Almalki was finally released in March on bail of 5,000 Syrian pounds (about $125 Canadian) — but since then he hasn't strayed far from his parents' house in Damascus. He's forbidden from travelling until Syrian security closes his case, which could take as long as a year.One of the few people who have actually spoken with Almalki is Ottawa MP Dan McTeague, who quietly spent two days here in March. McTeague, who was appointed by Prime Minister Paul Martin to look after the interests of Canadians detained abroad, said Almalki appeared healthy and relieved to be free during their brief meeting in a hotel room. He would say little else, citing privacy concerns. "Syrian officials went out of their way to accommodate my visit," McTeague said. "I think it helped establish a link that will help with cases in the future."A friend, Mohammad Issa — a Jordanian Communist who has spent much of his adult life in jails in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — said he met both Almalki and Arar in a Syrian prison. He warmly recalls the Canadians who taught him English.Issa says Almalki's detention is a classic example of the fears in the West triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Almalki's full beard, religion and relief work abroad, he says, are "enough to be (seen as) Al Qaeda."Almalki's brother Youssef says Almalki and his wife were aid workers among Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the early 1990's.Youssef Almalki said in an interview racial profiling contributed to his brother's detention. But authorities told the family it was because electronic equipment Almalki sold through an Ottawa-based firm changed hands numerous times and ended up in the possession of terrorists.Again, the question of how information about the Almalki case was shared between Canada and Syria is unclear.Then there's a third Canadian, Egyptian-born Ahmed Elmaati, who has also been connected to Arar and Almalki, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He, too, was detained in Syria before being transferred to an Egyptian jail and then released earlier this year.Elmaati's lawyer Rocco Galati told the Ottawa hearings for the Arar inquiry yesterday that the cases were "inseparably intertwined."In fact, Elmaati may have started a chain of events that led to the detentions of Arar and Almalki.