June 27, 2006 - 19:03

Arar inquiry moves closer to report, but some evidence may stay secret


OTTAWA (CP) - The inquiry into the Maher Arar affair is finally on track to deliver its long-delayed report in September - but it's still unclear how much of the evidence will be made public.

The inquiry's chief counsel said Tuesday he's made progress in a dispute with government lawyers, who claim some material should stay secret for national security reasons.

But two days of closed-door hearings this week before Justice Dennis O'Connor didn't produce total agreement.

"The government will have one final review of everything, and then give us an indication of whether there are still outstanding issues," said chief inquiry lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo.

"The important thing is that it's not going to hold up anything."

If federal lawyers continue to raise objections, O'Connor plans to go ahead and publish his report with some material blacked out. Lawyers for the inquiry will then go to Federal Court to argue for release of the rest of the material.

Marlys Edwardh, one of Arar's lawyers, said she'd be happier if the government had simply let O'Connor have the final say on how much the public should see and hear.

Edwardh and colleague Lorne Waldman weren't allowed to participate in the closed-door arguments on the matter.

But she said she saw enough, during the course of the inquiry, to suggest some federal officials are more concerned about their own reputations than about true national security.

"They made objections and caused things to be heard in camera to protect their interests," said Edwardh.

The inquiry called for bids last week for printers to handle production of O'Connor's report - three volumes in English and three in French, to be delivered by Sept. 1.

But Francine Bastien, a spokeswoman for the inquiry, said that timetable is only a "working schedule" that could change.

No firm date has been set for public release of the report, but it will probably come in mid-September, she said.

That would be 31 months after O'Connor began work.

Much of the delay has been attributed to the need to vet documents and tailor oral testimony to take account of the national security concerns raised by federal lawyers. Well over half the evidence ended up being heard in camera.

Arar, a 36-year-old telecommunications engineer, was arrested by U.S. authorities on suspicion of terrorist activity in September 2002, during an airline stopover in New York.

Although he is a Canadian citizen and was travelling on a Canadian passport, the Americans deported him to his native Syria, where he says he was tortured into false confessions of links to al-Qaida.

The inquiry was called by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin to examine the role played by Canadian officials in the affair.

RCMP investigators, in the public portion of their testimony, acknowledged they had Arar under surveillance in his hometown of Ottawa and shared information about him with U.S. officials.

But the Mounties denied any role in the decision to send him to Syria. So did the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, although CSIS discussed the case with the Syrians once he was in Damascus.

Foreign Affairs officials insisted they worked from the start to win Arar's release. But there are allegations that some senior diplomats were more interested in building an intelligence-sharing partnership with Syria than they were with protecting his rights.

Arar was freed without charge in the fall of 2003, after a year in captivity, and returned to Canada. He adamantly denies any terrorist ties and has filed a civil suit for damages against the government.

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