September 8, 2004
Arar inquiry set to hear secret evidence; family has concerns about witnesses

OTTAWA (CP) - The Maher Arar inquiry is set to go behind closed doors to examine the role Canada's spy service may have played in the Ottawa man's deportation and imprisonment.

Following a brief hiatus, the commission resumes hearings next week in an effort to get to the bottom of how and why Arar landed in a Syrian jail as a terrorism suspect. Inquiry sessions to date, intended to gather context about the events, have been public.

But the two weeks of hearings that begin Monday will be closed to outside scrutiny because they involve information about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the federal government considers confidential.

After hearing the evidence in secret, Justice Dennis O'Connor, who is leading the inquiry, will decide what portion may be made public.

All potential evidence before the commission, including more than 20,000 documents, must be assessed for national security claims made by the government.

Paul Cavalluzzo, lead commission counsel, said in a statement Wednesday that despite the confidential nature of the coming hearings, the inquiry has put in place "a process that is unprecedented and that ensures the public interest is fully represented."

Arar, his wife Monia Mazigh, and lawyer Lorne Waldman will appear with Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, at a news conference Thursday to express concern about incidents involving some inquiry witnesses.

In July, the commission decided to postpone witness sessions until several thousand additional documents had been reviewed.

The inquiry had been slated to hear evidence from Arar's family members, including Mazigh, as well as his former counsel and Toronto-area geologist Muayyed Nureddin, who was also imprisoned in Syria. Their testimony was to be rescheduled for the fall.

In a brief filed with the inquiry, Arar's lawyers contend CSIS quietly visited Syria in late 2002 and received copies of confessions Arar made under torture.

His counsel have also requested information "disclosed to and by" Mazigh while she was being questioned in 2002 by Tunisian officials - an encounter that reveals "information about Mr. Arar had been shared with the Tunisian Security Services."

There has been no shortage of intrigue in the long-running affair.

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained in New York in September 2002 on suspicions of involvement in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

The telecommunications engineer, travelling on a Canadian passport, was subsequently deported to Syria via Jordan by U.S. authorities.

Arar, who turns 35 next week, says he was tortured for months by Syrian officials before being released. He denies any participation in terrorism.

Abdullah Almalki, another Ottawa man who spent time in a Syrian prison as a terrorism suspect, may well be a witness at the inquiry.

Syria recently turned down a request to assist the commission, saying it lacks a formal legal co-operation agreement with Canada.

Yet another player in the Arar affair who was imprisoned in Syria, Toronto truck driver Ahmad Abou El-Maati, has refused to take part.

El-Maati has been denied official standing at the inquiry, but was likely to be a witness.