From his return to Canada on Oct. 6, Syrian-born software engineer Maher Arar has spoken out articulately and forcefully against his treatment. This Canadian citizen was summarily shipped off to a Syrian prison, with the apparent, or at least alleged, connivance of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and/or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Arar has won the sympathy of many of his fellow Canadians. His description of himself as a man gravely wronged has been widely accepted at par. There has been considerable denunciation of the security agencies, and of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Newspaper letters to the editor ran strongly in his favour. Canadian authorities up to and including former prime minister Jean Chrétien have been castigated for doing too little to defend him. It is now past time for a public inquiry, as comprehensive as possible in a time of security concerns.
It was obviously in response to their public relations catastrophe that unnamed senior officials, Canadian and American, have told reporters - or simply reiterated - that Arar was known to both the FBI and the RCMP when he was arrested in New York in September 2002 and spirited away to Syria for interrogation. Even if this is true, it does not justify what happened to him. We need to know more about what happened and why.
According to one source, there were six Mounties waiting for Arar at Dorval airport when he was intercepted. This information is hard to reconcile with the prevailing theory the RCMP authorized the Americans to deal with a Canadian citizen however they saw fit.
The most intriguing allegation from the unnamed sources is that Arar, who continues to deny he ever set foot in Afghanistan, in fact underwent terror training in Khaldun. This is the same camp that counts among its alumni the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, the 1998 African embassy bombers, and Ahmed Ressam, the Montrealer and would-be Y2K bomber who was stopped on his way from Vancouver to Seattle.
Some former trainees say their presence at Khaldun was more a matter of routine Taliban conscription than an active choice to join Al-Qa'ida and the war on the West. But Arar is no Afghan national. If he attended the camp - and lied about it - it would be rewarding to know why.
The operative word, of course, is if. There are many ifs in the Arar case, which neatly encapsulates the endless effort to balance the protection of civil rights against public safety in an age of terrorism. It is ludicrous to perpetuate a media war of allegations and denials. This is unfair to Arar personally and no aid in investigating other cases.
CSIS and RCMP involvement is under scrutiny by internal watchdogs, but they are under no obligation to make a public report. That's not good enough.
The Arar case is now as public as the weather, and as hard to predict. An inquiry can't hurt. Some officials might refuse to divulge certain details on the grounds of public security. Let them. The only way to move beyond the present chaos is to launch a public inquiry.