Arar freed after appeal from Chrétien

Former PM wrote letter to Syrian leader


UPDATED AT 4:45 AM EST Wednesday, Nov 10, 2004


Newly obtained documents shed light on how Maher Arar was freed from Syria only after direct communications between former prime minister Jean Chrétien and the President of Syria.

"Excellency, in these troublesome days I would hope that you give urgent attention to this matter," Mr. Chrétien wrote to Syrian President Bashar Assad in July, 2003. People close to the Arar case say that the correspondence was crucial to winning the Canadian citizen's release from a Syrian jail three months after the letter was delivered.

"I would further ask that consideration be given, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, to having Mr. Arar released and permitted to return to Canada," Mr. Chrétien wrote. "I can assure you there is no Canadian government impediment to his return."

The letter was hand-delivered by Senator Pierre de Bané as the case was causing a growing public outcry in Canada. By the time the letter was sent, Mr. Arar now says, jailers in the police state had tortured him. And at the time, he was still facing the prospect of being tried as an alleged al-Qaeda member.

The Chrétien correspondence will be examined at the public inquiry into Mr. Arar's detention, though there are no plans as yet to call the former prime minister as a witness. The inquiry, led by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, has been bogged down by national-security issues. Public hearings that were suspended in the summer are not expected to resume before the mid- to late winter.

Researcher Ken Rubin obtained the Chrétien letter, which has not been made public before, through the Access to Information Act. Mr. Rubin obtained the materials on behalf of Mr. Arar, who spent a year jailed in the Middle East, and is now suing Canadian, U.S. and Syrian officials.

In September, 2002, the computer engineer was deemed an al-Qaeda suspect by U.S. immigration authorities, who arrested him in a New York airport. They sent the Ottawa resident to his native Syria against his wishes. The U.S. suspicions flowed, at least partly, from an RCMP national-security investigation that continues today but which has yet to result in any arrests.

Two Syrian-Canadians with whom Mr. Arar was acquainted in Canada were major targets of the probe and had, by the time of Mr. Arar's deportation, already been separately jailed as they travelled to Syria. These men were freed early this year and allowed to return to Canada without charge.

In the letter to Syria's President, Mr. Chrétien focused on the Arar case and said that it was a "kind and most gracious gesture" for Mr. Assad to meet with Mr. de Bané on such short notice.

During that trip, Mr. de Bané also visited Saudi Arabia to push for the release of another then-imprisoned Canadian, William Sampson, who was freed later that summer. By that time, Ottawa officials, including the prime minister, had already spent years pushing for Mr. Sampson's release.

Mr. Chrétien's phrasing about there being "no Canadian government impediment" to Mr. Arar's return to Canada echoed a letter previously sent by Bill Graham, then the minister of foreign affairs, to his Syrian counterpart. That letter was delivered by two MPs in the spring of 2003.

Previously released documents showed that top Mounties objected to early drafts of Mr. Graham's letter, which stated that "the government of Canada has no evidence that Mr. Arar was involved in any terrorist activities." These documents show that because the RCMP still considered Mr. Arar "a subject of great interest," it successfully fought to excise the phrase from all diplomatic correspondence to Syria.

The documents obtained by Mr. Rubin show that Mr. Chrétien wrote to Mr. Arar's wife in the spring of 2003, in response to her letters appealing for help. Mr. Chrétien said that he would do all he could for Mr. Arar, but the Syrians had said that they planned to put him on trial as an al-Qaeda member.

But after the letter to Mr. Assad, the trial did not take place.

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