Nov. 18, 2003. 01:00 AM
Arar case `embarrassment' to U.S.
Symbol of post-9/11 excess, rights group says

Ouster of Bush's attorney-general demanded


WASHINGTON—Maher Arar's treatment was described here yesterday as a symbol of post-9/11 excess in this country by a human rights group seeking the ouster of U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft.

The Centre for Constitutional Rights stepped up its campaign for answers in the case of the Syrian-Canadian who was deported from New York to face torture in Damascus, as Canadian Solicitor-General Wayne Easter prepares for a meeting with Ashcroft tomorrow.

In an interview published in The New York Times, Arar, an Ottawa computer consultant, said he was given an injection in a Brooklyn detention centre while being held there in September, 2002. He said guards would not tell him what they had injected him with.

"This case crystallizes the danger of this period in U.S. history — when you can be held on the flimsiest of evidence, or non-evidence, based on the suspicion that one might have done something," said Ron Daniels of the New York-based rights centre.

"This is exactly the point — Americans, even as they want to fight the war against terrorism, do not want to sacrifice what this country stands for in the pursuit of this war on terrorism.

"Because if we do that, we have lost our soul as a nation."

Canada is still demanding answers from Washington as to why Arar, a dual Syrian-Canadian national, was deported to Syria, where he was tortured during a 10-month stay in a dank, cramped cell he described as a "grave."

One senior source in Ottawa said the future of intelligence sharing between the two governments could be at risk unless some answers are forthcoming from Washington.

The outgoing government of Jean Chrétien has refused calls for a public inquiry. For its part, the Bush administration maintains there was strong evidence Arar had links with suspected Islamic militants in Canada, a charge Arar has denied.

He has never been charged and critics in the U.S. — where the Arar case is gaining more attention — accuse the government of breaking international law by, in essence, sub-contracting torture of suspects to other countries.

"This has become an embarrassment to the justice department and the various intelligence agencies, and we hope members of Congress of the United States would raise their voices on this particular matter," Daniels said.

The Centre for Constitutional Rights, which represents Arar as well as some of the so-called "enemy combatants" who are challenging the legality of their long detention without charge in the American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, launched a "people's indictment" against Ashcroft yesterday.

They say the Patriot Act, enacted hastily following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, tramples civil rights and they are trying to create a popular movement to force Ashcroft's removal from U.S. President George W. Bush's cabinet.

Daniels' charge that intelligence agencies here are embarrassed echoed an assessment from an unnamed Bush official who told the Times the Arar case has become a public relations disaster for the government.

"We need to say something because Arar is going to become shorthand for excess in the name of security, running roughshod over the rule of law," the source said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has promised his Canadian counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, some clarification on the case and is seeking more information from Ashcroft. The U.S. justice department would not say whether Ashcroft would provide an update, or any new information to Easter tomorrow.

When Deputy Prime Minister John Manley raised the case privately last week with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, he was told Powell was handling the Arar file.

Easter, while rejecting a call for a probe into the RCMP role in the Arar case, is considering a new watchdog agency to oversee how the Mounties use new security and intelligence-gathering powers under Canada's anti-terrorism law, the Star's Tonda MacCharles reports from Ottawa.

That move would be a dramatic turnaround from two years ago when the Liberals drafted the Anti-Terrorism Act and gave police broader powers under the Criminal Code to investigate suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. Then, the federal Liberal government flatly rejected the idea of setting up any separate oversight agency. It said existing complaints bodies, like the Public Complaints Commission, were enough to keep tabs on any potential abuses, or Canadians could seek redress in the courts.

Easter has denied he has specific concerns about the RCMP but said the time had come to examine the "checks and balances" in place.

Additional articles by Tim Harper

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