U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft says the Bush administration received — and believed — assurances from Syria that it would not torture Maher Arar before deporting the Ottawa man to that Middle Eastern country.
His statement Thursday was met with derision by human-rights groups because it appears to be at odds with official U.S. government reports that say torture is a routine interrogation tool in Syria.
Mr. Arar, 33, a Syrian-born Canadian software engineer, says he was tortured and kept in solitary confinement in a dark, small, rat-infested prison cell in Damascus for more than 10 months.
He says he pleaded with U.S. officials to deport him to Canada because he feared torture in Syria.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ashcroft maintained that the deportation order was legal because the Syrians promised that Mr. Arar would not face torture if he was returned to the country of his birth.
Noting the Syrian government's recent denial that Mr. Arar had been tortured, Mr. Ashcroft told reporters “that statement is fully consistent with the assurances that the United States government received prior to the removal of Mr. Arar.”
As recently as two weeks ago, U.S. President George W. Bush denounced the Syrian regime for leaving its people “a legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin.”
The U.S. State Department, in its most recent report on human-rights abuses in Syria, said torture is common and the methods include beatings, electric shocks, pulling out fingernails, forcing objects into the rectum, and bending prisoners into the frame of a wheel while whipping exposed body parts.
It is illegal for the U.S. government to deport any individual to a country where it can expect the person will be tortured, said Joe Stork, a Middle East expert with Human Rights Watch.
The use of torture is “well documented in the case of Syria and it is pretty shameful” for the U.S. to have deported Mr. Arar to that country, Mr. Stork said.
“It is preposterous that U.S. authorities would even consider asking the Syrian government –- a government that Washington itself has identified as having an abysmal human rights record –- to give that kind of assurance” that Mr. Arar would not be tortured, Alex Neve, the secretary-general of the Canadian branch of Amnesty International, said.
“It is outrageous that anybody in the U.S. government would believe such promises from a government like Syria, which regularly, consistently and cavalierly [flouts] international human-rights obligations,” Mr. Neve said.
The Arar case is receiving attention in U.S. news media and has started to raise uncomfortable questions for the Bush administration.
Mr. Ashcroft defended the decision to deport Mr. Arar to Syria on national security grounds even though he was travelling on his Canadian passport when he was arrested in September, 2002, at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Mr. Arar was the subject of a lookout list for being a member of a known terrorist organization,” Mr. Ashcroft said. Thus, the deportation, he said, was “fully within our laws and the applicable international treaties and conventions.”
Mr. Ashcroft said he believes Canada has a “better understanding of our actions” after his meeting Wednesday with Solicitor-General Wayne Easter.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Easter told CTV's
Canada AM that he did not think Mr. Arar had been treated fairly by the Americans.
But Mr. Easter, who is the minister responsible for both the RCMP and CSIS, said Canada will continue to share intelligence with the Americans in anti-terrorism and criminal investigations.U.S. officials have said Mr. Arar was deported as a suspected member of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, an allegation he denies.
Mr. Arar has never been charged with an offence in any country, although it would be illegal in both Canada and the U.S. to belong to or support al Qaeda. The Canadian government considers Mr. Arar to be innocent, said Amy Jarrett, a spokeswoman for Mr. Easter.Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham told the Chicago Council for Foreign Relations that the war on terrorism must not lead to the repression of Muslim communities in Canada and the United States.