CSIS visited Syria during Arar's detention

Maher Arar

Canadian Press
Updated: Wed. May. 25 2005 11:29 PM ET

OTTAWA — Canada's spy agency paid a mysterious visit to Syria in the fall of 2002 while Maher Arar was in detention there on suspicion of terrorist activity.

But the information, which came to light Wednesday at a public inquiry, raised more questions than it answered about the role of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Gar Pardy, a former Foreign Affairs officer, testified that CSIS did not speak directly to Arar.

There was no explanation, however, of exactly who the spy service did speak to -- much to the dismay of Arar's lawyer Marlys Edwardh.

"To say that CSIS did not meet with Mr. Arar directly leaves open a thousand questions," Edwardh said later outside the hearing room.

"Did they meet with other people and discuss Mr. Arar? Did they meet with (Syrian) military intelligence? Did they meet with somebody else?"

Justice Dennis O'Connor, the head of the inquiry, hinted that he knows some of the answers. But they likely won't be known to the public until he delivers an interim report toward the end of this year.

"I guess I can just reassure the public that we have, in camera, heard all the evidence," O'Connor said when Edwardh raised the point.

"I will be reporting fully on it in reaching my conclusions."

Arar, an Ottawa telecommunications engineer, was arrested by U.S. authorities in September 2002 on a stopover in New York as he was flying home from Tunisia.

Twelve days later the U.S. deported him to Syria, the country of his birth, even though he has Canadian citizenship and was travelling on a Canadian passport.

Arar says the Syrians tortured him into confessions of terrorist contacts that he now denies. He was eventually released without charge, and returned to Canada after a year in captivity.

O'Connor is examining the role Canadian officials played in the affair, but much of the testimony has been heard behind closed doors for national security reasons.

Government lawyers lifted the blanket of secrecy long enough Wednesday for Pardy to confirm the CSIS visit to Damascus in November 2002, about a month after Arar was imprisoned.

Pardy, who was head of consular operations at Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa, said he couldn't recall being tipped in advance that CSIS was going to Syria.

Had he known, he said, he would have objected for fear the trip would complicate diplomatic efforts then underway on behalf of Arar.

Documents tabled at the inquiry have painted a picture of inter-agency turf war, as Foreign Affairs pressed for Arar's release while CSIS and the RCMP raised concerns about his alleged terrorist links.

"It was difficult to achieve (consensus) and in the end we didn't achieve it - other than through the prime minister intervening directly," said Pardy.

That was a reference to Jean Chretien, who stepped in and sent a letter to the Syrian government in July 2003 personally seeking Arar's repatriation.

Pardy credited the letter with paving the way for Arar's release three months later.

By contrast, conflicting messages sent earlier by the government appeared to have sown confusion in Damascus.

Liberal MP Marlene Catterall, who met with the Syrian ambassador to Ottawa in March 2003, later told Foreign Affairs that the Syrians believed Canada didn't want Arar returned to this country.

That was because CSIS apparently told the Syrians at one point that Arar was of "no interest," said Catterall.

The security service may have meant simply that it didn't consider Arar a terrorist suspect. But the Syrians took it to mean Ottawa had no interest in getting him out of jail and sent home.

Edwardh wondered whether it was a simple misunderstanding, or whether the spy agency had a darker motive.

"CSIS said something which gave the Syrians the view that Canada didn't want (Arar) back," said Edwardh.

"We need to know and make them accountable for that ... I'm not at this time prepared to attribute the misunderstanding just to the Syrians."

Questions have also been raised about the role of Franco Pillarella, the Canadian ambassador to Damascus, who asked the Syrians in the fall of 2002 to hand over any evidence they had against Arar.

That material -- including a confession of terrorist training in Afghanistan that Arar says is false and was obtained under torture -- was later passed on not only to CSIS but also to the RCMP.

The Mounties considered Arar a "person of interest" because of his personal ties to other Arab-Canadians who had been targeted as part of Project A-O Canada, a top secret anti-terrorist operation in Ottawa.

© Copyright 2002-2006 Bell Globemedia Inc.