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Ottawa aware of torture in Syria, probe told

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Ottawa — Canadian Foreign Affairs officials received detailed allegations of torture by a Canadian in Syria two months before Maher Arar's arrest and deportation to that country in 2002, a public inquiry heard yesterday.

“I was extremely concerned when I read this report,” Myra Pastyr-Lupul told the Arar inquiry. “Exactly for that reason I made sure it was distributed to [former consular affairs director Gar Pardy] and to my superior, but also to my colleagues . . . I thought I should bring it to their attention as soon as possible and I did, the very same day.”

The revelation by Ms. Pastyr-Lupul, then a Middle East desk officer and now a consular officer in Los Angeles, raises further questions about controversial testimony earlier this summer by Canada's former ambassador to Syria, Franco Pillarella.

Mr. Pillarella said he was unaware of any human-rights abuses in Syria, sparking outrage from rights groups and harsh criticism from some of his own diplomat colleagues. Mr. Pillarella also said he had no reason to believe that Mr. Arar would be tortured in captivity.


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Mr. Pillarella was not listed among the recipients of the report Ms. Pastry-Lupul received by e-mail. But he asserted in June that he was the Canadian government's senior and only voice in Damascus.

He also acknowledged that he arranged for RCMP investigators to meet with Syrian officials to aid in their terrorism-related investigation of Ahmed El-Maati, a dual citizen of Canada and Egypt. Mr. El-Maati was arrested after flying to Damascus in November of 2001.

It was Mr. El-Maati who told Canadian consular officials, according to the memo released yesterday, that he was beaten on his feet and legs and tortured with electric shocks during 2½ months at the Palestine branch of Syrian military intelligence in Damascus — the same prison in which Mr. Arar was later held. Like Mr. Arar, Mr. El-Maati said he was tortured until he confessed involvement in terrorism and named other “terrorists.”

The memo was written by Stuart Bale, a consular official in Cairo. He e-mailed it to Ms. Pastyr-Lupul, Mr. Pardy, and a handful of other Foreign Affairs officials.

This corroborates earlier testimony by Mr. Pardy, who said there was a broad understanding within the Department of Foreign Affairs that torture was common in Syrian prisons and that, therefore, Mr. Arar also had probably been tortured.

This view was later contradicted by Mr. Pillarella, and by former Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, who insisted that he had no inkling of any torture until Mr. Arar's release in October of 2003. Indeed, as late as August of 2003, and even after the Syrian Human Rights Committee issued a report saying that Mr. Arar had been tortured, Mr. Graham asserted otherwise.

Over several days of combative testimony in mid-June, Mr. Pillarella, now Canada's ambassador to Romania, said he couldn't remember having tried to obtain consular access to Mr. El-Maati while he was in prison in Damascus.

But he also said that he'd “opened the door” for RCMP officers to meet with a Syrian intelligence officer, believed to be General Hassan Khalil, to help them in their investigation of Mr. El-Maati.

Asked when he became aware of Mr. El-Maati's allegations of torture, Mr. Pillarella said “not at that time, the information came to me much, much later.” He said he could not specify when he found out.

Mr. Pardy, who did receive a copy of the e-mail report of torture in August of 2002, was in direct and regular contact with Mr. Pillarella throughout the time of Mr. Arar's captivity, the inquiry has heard.

Nevertheless, in June, Mr. Pillarella said he had seen no evidence of human-rights violations during his three-year term as ambassador to Syria. “I was not aware that there were any serious human-rights abuses being committed that I could verify.”

In fact, Mr. Pillarella wrote a memo in 2003 expressing a desire for a consular visit to Mr. Arar to “rebut” allegations of torture.