Feb. 1, 2004. 01:00 AM
`I want to be able to clear my name'
Maher Arar counting on public inquiry

Wants answers on deportation to Syria


OTTAWA—Maher Arar is now focused on the public inquiry that Justice Dennis O'Connor will conduct into his deportation and detention.

"I think we should be consulted on the terms of reference," he said, sitting in the living room in his apartment in Ottawa's west end. "Because the inquiry is only as good as the terms of reference are."

Arar, 33, was astonished when Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan announced the inquiry to "assess the actions of Canadian officials in dealing with" the Syrian-born Canadian's deportation from the United States in September, 2002 to Jordan and Syria, where he was interrogated and detained for almost a year.

Only a few days before, McLellan had written him saying that the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) and the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC) were doing inquiries.

"Once the SIRC and CPC processes are completed, I will review the findings and recommend to the Prime Minister what further steps, if any, are needed," she wrote in a letter dated Jan 21.

But that was the day the RCMP raided the home and office of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill — who wrote a story last fall based on the RCMP file of allegations of Arar's links to terrorism — looking for evidence of who leaked their file. Suddenly, plans changed.

"The name of it is `public inquiry,' so we hope to get as much of it in public as is possible," Arar said. "That will be up to the judge, but I have to make sure that (with) this inquiry I will be able to clear my name.

"And I want to make sure this does not happen again."

He has a long list of questions on every stage of his ordeal, which he lists on his website http://www.maherarar.ca.

"I really need to know to what extent Canadian officials were involved in the whole affair," he said.

"I want to be able to go back to normal life, I want to be able to clear my name."

So far, he has been getting answers only through the media — and from U.S. officials who insist publicly that Canada was not involved (and say privately to reporters that it was).

"We need answers here. The problem started here," Arar said. "I've said many times, I have nothing to hide. If the government has anything against me, they should show it in court."

What he finds most troubling about the whole affair has been the leak of his RCMP file.

"How moral is it to use information obtained under torture?" he asks. "The other question is, how moral is it to deal with a country that is known to practise this?

"If the RCMP and CSIS rules say they can exchange information with disregard to this country's history of human rights and the way it interrogates prisoners and detainees ... that is very serious."

Arar says he still suffers side-effects from his detention. There are moments of high stress, periodic nightmares and he still has pain in his hips. He also has the sensation that insects are crawling on parts of his body, and thought an ointment would help. But his doctor, who has treated torture victims before, told him this is a common after-effect torture victims feel.

Arar says that his faith sustained him through the ordeal, and taught him to be patient.

"I believe, like all Muslims, that if you stay steadfast, if you accept what God wanted for you, you are going to be rewarded," he said.

"That's how I survived in Syria the whole year, and that's how I'm surviving nowadays."

He tries not to show the anger he feels, but sometimes expresses it when he is alone.

"I'm still asking for justice, I'm not asking for revenge," he said. "There is no good in showing your anger to people. Just state the facts, and let people conclude and analyze. I try to keep patient all the time. One thing I try avoid, is I try to avoid making speculations. I'm going to continue this way."

For he feels he was a victim of speculation.

Arar is taking what he calls "baby steps" toward reviving his consulting business.

He went to a meeting with a former client, a software company, and some potential customers to talk about giving training sessions on using software designed for engineers. It was a very preliminary step — and he says there was an RCMP officer keeping an eye on him.

As Arar talks, his wife Monia Mazigh is helping their daughter with homework as her mother puts their toddler to bed.

A year and a half ago, they lived very different lives. Arar was immersed in the life of a high-tech engineering consultant.

Now, his decision to speak out, which he took a month after he returned to Canada, has transformed him into a public person, and he is trying to cope with what he calls "this new reality."

He still wonders sometimes if it was worth the stress. "The hardest thing is waking up in the morning and seeing your picture in the newspaper," he said.

People recognize him, and express support — "You don't have to introduce yourself" — but they know more about him than he does about them. He has given up a lot of privacy — but for a reason.

"Before, I should admit, I was not very social," he said. "I was a workaholic. I worked all the time. But now I was forced to meet with people, to go to public meetings. I discovered a new life. I discovered the power of speaking out."

But the ground had been laid for him by his wife, who campaigned for a year for his release, and attracted a team of supporters led by Amnesty International.

"My wife had the courage to speak out," he said. "I always knew there was freedom of expression in this country, I always knew the media had a very powerful effect on the government. But unless you experience it, you don't understand what it really means."

Mazigh, who has a PhD in finance from McGill, and a thesis that developed a linear model on the term structure interest rates, had been taking care of their young children.

"I always wanted to teach at universities; that was my objective," she said. "I applied, but I was never hired."

But the last 16 months have transformed her life as well. Events brought out her eloquence, and her effectiveness.

It is a commonplace observation in Ottawa that, were it not for her, Arar would still be in a Syrian jail.

Additional articles by Graham Fraser

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