May. 1, 2004. 01:00 AM
Maher Arar is seen in Toronto last week. A public inquiry is being held to establish what Canada's role was in the 2002 deportation to Syria of the Ottawa resident.
Ottawa won't reveal all (Apr. 30) 
Detainees want to be heard (Apr. 29) 
New lawsuit targets Canadian (Apr. 23) 
Media attack police action (Jan. 23) 
Arar ties leaked file to torture (Jan. 23) 
Suit filed against U.S. (Jan. 22) 
Cotler steps back (Jan. 17) 
Arar to sue Syria, Jordan (Nov. 25) 
Full text of Arar's Nov. 5 statement 
Untangling tale of tortured Canadian
The Star retraces Arar's steps in Syria Ottawa sought Damascus' help: EnvoyCanadian aims to clear name

Case sheds light


DAMASCUS—Beyond a sign in English that reads "No Photography" stand the fortified gates of Syria's military intelligence branch, guarded by a half-dozen bored-looking officers.

Watchtowers loom atop concrete walls and the only sound on this unusually quiet street, aside from a few disembodied voices, is the distant cacophony of car horns and traffic.

No civilians or journalists get through the entrance unless they themselves have been summoned for questioning. Those who have say it's similar to a military barracks, with clusters of concrete buildings fronting a few, dusty roads.

It's here, through the gates of military intelligence's Far Falasteen (Palestine Branch), that Canada's Maher Arar was brought, handcuffed and blindfolded, on Oct. 9, 2002. He was interrogated there, according to Syria's senior diplomat in Ottawa, at the request of Canadian and U.S. intelligence agencies.

Canada's involvement was officially confirmed for the first time by Syrian Ambassador Ahmad Arnous, in a recent interview with the Star.

"We were asked by Canadians and the Americans to investigate this situation," Arnous said.

"When you receive from security agencies, a person with a file connecting him with terrorism, you have to verify that file. And we went verifying that file through different directions."

The role played by Canadian and U.S. agencies in Arar's deportation is the focus of a public inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O'Connor, starting in June. Hearings to determine which groups get standing at the inquiry ended in Ottawa yesterday.

Arnous' counterpart in Washington, Imad Moustapha, told CBS' 60 Minutes earlier this year the investigation found nothing to link Arar to terrorism — "(Syria) traced no links. We traced relations. We tried to find anything. We couldn't."

But Syria's ambassador to Ottawa now says the investigation was cut short when the Canadian government requested that Arar be returned to Canada.

Arnous says he believes Arar is not as "innocent as he has claimed."

Officials in Damascus are uncomfortable with the international attention the Arar case has aroused. It has shone a harsh light on the country's human rights record at precisely the time when President Bashar Assad wants to emphasize Syria's modernization efforts.

Syrian officials are, however, reluctant to comment on the case.

"We prefer to leave it to the professional channels at this time," foreign ministry representative Bushra Kanafani says, adding that deputy foreign minister Walid Moualem remains in close contact with Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs about the case.

Arar, 34, a Canadian living in Ottawa with his wife and two young children, was shipped to Damascus after he tried to return home to Canada on Sept. 26, 2002, after a visit with his wife's family in Tunisia.

When his flight to Montreal touched down in New York, U.S. security and immigration authorities held Arar for nearly two weeks. Despite his demands as a Canadian citizen to be returned to Canada, he was deported to Jordan, then Syria.

In Damascus he was imprisoned and interrogated. Arar says his interviewers tortured him with electrical cables for the first week. A year later, on Oct. 5, 2003, Arar was released and returned to Ottawa.

From the day he first recounted his story last fall, his wife at his side during an emotional televised press conference, up to and including an interview at his home last month, Arar has unwaveringly denied any connection to terrorist groups.

An intensely private man, Arar says going public with his story has been incredibly difficult and as the inquiry draws near, his anxiety is building.

"I was kidnapped and sent to Syria and tortured. And then I came back and I expected my nightmare to end," Arar said at his Ottawa home. "It's a different kind of torture here."

Haitham Maleh is surprisingly direct for a man who has spent seven years in various prisons for expressing his views. Even now his Damascus office is under constant surveillance by security agents parked outside. "Human rights itself is very new here in Syria," the 73-year-old explains, while extending a welcome to his modest office.

"To work for human rights is very difficult, very difficult. But we have no choice: this is our country and we have to pay the price for freedom."

Maleh is chairman of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS) and a lawyer. His organization monitored Arar's detention when it first became public in October, 2002 — but it wasn't until the following August, just two months before Arar's release, that he was called by the Canadian Embassy in Damascus to take on Arar's case.

Maleh's office sits behind a small reception room just off a narrow alley in central Damascus. In the smoke-filled front room, four employees of HRAS work amid posters of Martin Luther King and an American flag with one large Star of David in place of the normal 50 five-pointed stars, and the message "Don't use American goods" in Arabic.

It's here, with sunlight streaming through the barred windows, that Arar's cousin talks about his distant relative.

"Maher's family lived a quiet life and never dealt with politics," Anwar Arar says through a translator. "They were religious, not overly so, but like most Syrians."

Maher Arar spent his youth reading, studying and hiking up the trails of the Qassyoun Mountain that at the peak yields a breathtaking view of the city. Near the top is the middle-class neighbourhood known as Al Bashkateb, where Arar grew to be a teenager.

Neighbours say they don't remember him — if they do, they're afraid to admit it.

As the youngest in a family of nine, Arar had watched most of his siblings and relatives leave Damascus for a more prosperous life in Canada, Kuwait, Finland and the United States. In 1987, at the age of 17, Arar also left their third-floor home here, located just across the street from a busy barbershop, to come to Canada.

Anwar Arar learned of his cousin's detention through the Al-Jazeera satellite network's Web site, and he contacted the Canadian embassy. Using his position as a lawyer, he tried many times to contact the High Security Court to get information, but was turned away.Anwar Arar believes, based on what he's heard from the community and those who knew him in prison, that the sole reason Maher Arar was detained was to provide information on another Canadian: Abdullah Almalki.

When Arar was detained in New York, Almalki, whose father was once Syria's assistant district attorney, had already been imprisoned in Damascus for five months. He'd been detained in May, 2002, after returning to Syria from Malaysia.

By all accounts, his detention was hard. Friends say he entered weighing about 220 pounds, but quickly dropped to about 155.

Sources close to the family confirm that he was tortured.

Maher Arar knew Almalki's brother in Ottawa, where they worked together at a high-tech firm, and Arar also once had Abdullah Almalki witness his apartment lease.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that document during a search of Arar's Ottawa apartment and — to his shock — a copy of the lease was shown to him during questioning by U.S. authorities in New York before he was deported to Syria.

Almalki was finally released in March on bail of 5,000 Syrian pounds (about $125 Canadian) — but since then he hasn't strayed far from his parents' house in Damascus. He's forbidden from travelling until Syrian security closes his case, which could take as long as a year.One of the few people who have actually spoken with Almalki is Ottawa MP Dan McTeague, who quietly spent two days here in March. McTeague, who was appointed by Prime Minister Paul Martin to look after the interests of Canadians detained abroad, said Almalki appeared healthy and relieved to be free during their brief meeting in a hotel room.

He would say little else, citing privacy concerns.

"Syrian officials went out of their way to accommodate my visit," McTeague said. "I think it helped establish a link that will help with cases in the future."

A friend, Mohammad Issa — a Jordanian Communist who has spent much of his adult life in jails in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — said he met both Almalki and Arar in a Syrian prison. He warmly recalls the Canadians who taught him English.

Issa says Almalki's detention is a classic example of the fears in the West triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Almalki's full beard, religion and relief work abroad, he says, are "enough to be (seen as) Al Qaeda."

Almalki's brother Youssef says Almalki and his wife were aid workers among Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the early 1990's.

Youssef Almalki said in an interview racial profiling contributed to his brother's detention. But authorities told the family it was because electronic equipment Almalki sold through an Ottawa-based firm changed hands numerous times and ended up in the possession of terrorists.

Again, the question of how information about the Almalki case was shared between Canada and Syria is unclear.

Then there's a third Canadian, Egyptian-born Ahmed Elmaati, who has also been connected to Arar and Almalki, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He, too, was detained in Syria before being transferred to an Egyptian jail and then released earlier this year.

Elmaati's lawyer Rocco Galati told the Ottawa hearings for the Arar inquiry yesterday that the cases were "inseparably intertwined."

In fact, Elmaati may have started a chain of events that led to the detentions of Arar and Almalki.

`We look at Canada as an important country. The potential of economic co-operation is rather huge.'

Bushra Kanafani, Syrian official

`I'm just happy the inquiry will be able to clear my name and get the facts out.'

Maher Arar, Canadian who was deported to Syria via Jordan in 2002

He said in his sworn affidavit released this week that he was forced to "divulge everyone I knew," while in detention in Syria in November, 2001.

He said he gave his captors both Almalki's name and Arar's — and, under torture, falsely confessed to a plot to bomb the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.

Elmaati's brother, whose whereabouts are unknown, is wanted by the FBI for possible terrorist connections.

Elmaati said CSIS agents who had been watching him since early 2001 told him they'd block his fiancée from coming to Canada. He had planned to move to Damascus and marry his fiancée but was arrested at the airport in Syria.

He now lives in Toronto.

Arar says he's still not sure why Elmaati mentioned his name, that the connection is tenuous.

"I saw (Elmaati) at a garage in Montreal, that was about four years ago," Arar said in a recent interview. "I don't remember everything we talked about, nothing special."

The Syrian government is striving for more openness. As one official puts it: "We're still working on our public relations but we are much better than before."

The residents of Damascus are already there.

Known for their generosity, it's not uncommon for foreigners asking directions to find themselves accompanied directly to their destination by a helpful citizen.

Thought to be the world's oldest continually inhabited city, Damascus is an intoxicating mix of modernity and old-world charm: from the beautifully preserved 1,200-year-old Umayyed mosque and the teenagers who sell sweet tea off silver trays in parks, to the clogged highways and stores hawking electronic Qur'ans.

Security is everywhere: armed men on most blocks guard government buildings or the residences of the wealthy.

Still, Damascus today is a relaxed version of the country ruled for 30 years by the iron fist of the late president Hafez Assad.

"The environment in the mid-'80s was that of a police state that didn't have too many soft edges," remembers University of Toronto law professor James O'Reilly, who lived in Syria for part of Assad's rule and now chairs the university's Department of Middle Eastern Civilization.

Following an assassination attempt in 1980, Assad brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, the group Assad blamed and which led a rebellion two years later.

His troops killed an estimated 10,000 Syrians and sent thousands more to prison, where many died or still remain behind bars.

Political opponents and community activists were also routinely rounded up and imprisoned. Assad reigned virtually unchallenged until his death in 2000.

When Arar was first detained, Canadian officials were told that he was suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ambassador Arnous said the only file Damascus had on Arar's family involved a distant relative (Arar believes it was his mother's cousin) who spent time in prison for being a Brotherhood sympathizer, but has long since been released.

Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar Assad, a London-educated ophthalmologist who took on the presidency after the sudden death of his older brother.

There was an almost immediate political reawakening — a period now known as the "Damascus Spring." Bashar Assad introduced the Internet, cellular phones, satellite television and private banks, three of which finally opened this year.

Yet the recent arrests of some high-profile human rights activists led political commentators to warn that the father's old guard is still a potent force. The young president has said economic reform is his top priority, opening Syria to foreign investment and moving away from a centralized, state-run economy. While his father's reign was sometimes lauded for bringing stability to the region, his economic legacy was an unemployment rate of nearly 20 per cent.

With last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Syria lost one of its largest trading partners. Especially damaging was the loss of Iraqi crude, when the main Iraq-Syria pipeline was c losed in March, 2003. And Syria's opposition to the war last year created a deep chill in Washington, further leaving it bereft of economic partners. Some experts say that may have made Damascus more willing to investigate foreigners at the request of co-operating intelligence agencies; it also, they say, may have helped secure the release of imprisoned Canadian citizens.

A posting on Ottawa's Department of Foreign Affairs Web site, dated a month after Arar was released, talks of Canadian companies having gained "a strong position" in Syria's oil and gas sector. It notes that trade between Canada and Syria had risen from more than $67 million in 2002 to over $104 million in the first seven months of 2003.

"We look at Canada as an important country," says Kanafani, the Syrian foreign ministry official.

"The potential of economic co-operation is rather huge ... and we look forward to improving our (relationship)."

At a recent a gas and oil exhibition showcasing 203 international companies, one of the largest booths was Petro-Canada's. The firm was named last month as a "preferred bidder" for a petroleum exploration block in an unexploited region of Syria.

"Certainly there is a lot of attention now," Petro-Canada's country manager Ian Barden said at the exhibition, pointing to a map of Syria that showed the many areas still available for foreign exploration.

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States weighed heavily on Syria.

Its omnipresent and secretive security force, which consists of four distinct agencies with at least 15 branches,and virtually no communication between them, had been given enormous power to collect intelligence under the elder Assad's rule.

Since 9/11, HRAS, the Syrian human rights group, claims 26,000 confidential documents made their way from Syria to the U.S. in an attempt to curry favour in Washington.

The FBI was given unfettered access to Aleppo, an ancient city near Damascus, for an unprecedented two-week terrorism investigation, the HRAS also says.

"After the attacks in New York and Washington, we had to — we had to because this is the only objective thing to do, to co-operate in the (search for) suspects," Kanafani confirmed.

"Our assistance ... led to saving lives.

"We shared information and our co-operation was highly appreciated at that time but (the U.S.) continued to put us on the terrorist list because, and this is the problem, we differ on the definition of terrorism."

Syria remains on the U.S. State Department's list as a sponsor of terrorism, largely due to their public support of Hezbollah, a radical Islamic group that controls much of southern Lebanon.

And while officials say there are now no offices in Damascus of Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, groups that have carried out many suicide bombings in Israel, some of their leaders live in the Syrian capital.

On a recent warm Sunday night in April, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal could be seen in the Old City, welcoming visitors to an open house in a small ornate room surrounded by closed shops near the area's main market.

Kanafani says Syria does not view Hamas as a terrorist organization.

In his Ottawa living room, Arar looks wistfully at photos of his old Damascus neighbourhood shown to him by a reporter, and talks of a land he fears he may never set eyes on again.

His recent 34th birthday means he has now spent exactly half of his life in Canada.

"I've wanted many times to go back for a visit," Arar says.

In fact, the year before his arrest he had been granted permission to return. Syrians who leave before serving their mandatory military service must apply to the government to visit.

Instead he went with his family to Tunisia.

With all his energy now focused on the inquiry, he says he can think of little else.

"I'm just happy that the inquiry will be able to clear my name and get the facts out. Canadian people are very smart and they're waiting to hear what happened."

But he's distressed by the Syrian ambassador's comments and worries there will be a concerted effort to discredit his testimony before the inquiry begins.

And his weariness is evident.

"If I keep living in this limbo," he says, "I just can't see how I'm going to survive this."

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