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Canadian Politics: Unanswered Questions About Maher Arar

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Imagine that one day you are walking down the street in the city of the country that you have lived in since you and your parents immigrated here when you were a teenager. You are suddenly arrested and held without charges by the nation's security forces. You have been arrested at the behest of a foreign power because they suspect you might be a terrorist.

The next thing you know is that you are being shipped to this foreign power to be secretly detained and questioned about your supposed terrorist activities. When they are through with you they decide to send you back to the country you came from. Not the country you've been living in since you were a teenager, but the one you immigrated from years ago.

You are sent back as a prisoner and thrown in jail and tortured. Occasionally you are asked questions about your supposed terrorist activities. All of a sudden you are released and sent back to the country you had been originally taken from and released from custody. You couldn't know it but your arrest has set off a furor of huge proportions that resulted in you finally being rescued from oblivion by the country that never should have let you go in the first place.

Sound improbable, like something from a bad spy novel or from the mind of a paranoid European writer from the thirties? Unfortunately it is also the story of Maher Arar, Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2002 by the Canadian security forces as per a request from the Americans. The Americans, it turns out, were acting on faulty and inaccurate information supplied them by the Canadians, information that gave the impression that Mr. Arar was a terrorist.

Four years after he was picked up, the mistakes leading up to his torture and imprisonment are now finally coming to light. Mr Justice Dennis O'Connor's oft-delayed report/inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Arar's detention were released on September 19. There is some question whether the complete report has been released as the government mentioned that some findings may remain sealed from the public due to issues of national security, and we can never know for sure if they have or not, what has been released is damning enough.

Even some of the Arar report's highlights are sufficient to make you question the use of the word intelligence when it comes to the gathering of information in regards to this case and many others. Even worse are the allegations that there were deliberate attempts on the part of both the police and the government to maintain the impression that Mr. Arar was indeed guilty as charged.

A partial list of the findings include:

  • R.C.M.P. provided inaccurate, overstated, and unfair information to Americans about Mr. Arar's terrorist leanings.
  • No evidence that Mr. Arar was in any way a threat to Canadian security or had committed any offence.
  • Canadian officials leaked inaccurate information to the media in order to protect their own credibility and damage his reputation.
  • The Mounties withheld information from the government so as to prevent them from finding out about mistakes.
  • They broke Canadian law by not ascertaining whether information supplied to them by the Syrians was obtained by torture or not.

One of the final recommendations the report gives is that government should use the report's findings when deciding how much of a compensation package should be given to Mr. Arar. In other words there is no question in the mind of Mr. Justice O'Connor that a horrible miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen in the name of supposed national security measures.

In the late 1970s, the R.C.M.P.'s intelligence duties were severely curtailed because it was found that they were continually stepping over the line and engaging in illegal activities. There was the great barn burning in Quebec where they torched some barns and tried to blame the Front de Liberation Quebecois for it so they would have an excuse to round up some suspects. It was behaviour like this that caused the government of the day to form our civilian spy agency C.S.I.S.

Which makes you wonder what the hell was the R.C.M.P. doing supplying unsubstantiated intelligence information to a foreign power in the first place? Isn't that the job of C.S.I.S., or have the R.C.M.P. been called back into the fray because of the other agencey's incompetence in handling the Air India bombing of 1985?

The thing is the R.C.M.P. have a track record of doing what they feel like to obtain a conviction, and yet they were allowed by their political masters of the day to do whatever they felt like and nobody thought to check up on them. Just because the Americans were and are willing to do away with the rights of their citizens, did that mean we had to as well?

What happened to our justice system, and proper extradition proceedings? One country's police service cannot just ask a police service in our country for a Canadian national. How could our Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply allow a Canadian citizen to be deported to a third country without extradition hearings? Who in Canada was asked and who approved the sending of Mr. Arar to Syria? Why didn't we protest when he was if we weren’t asked?

Those are the questions that I would like to see answered at some time, but as yet no one seems to have asked them. Maybe they're the ones considered too important to national security to let the public know the answers to, although the current Conservative government seems to have no problems letting the R.C.M.P. twist in the wind for a while, so who knows what the future could bring?

The Conservative Party of Canada finds itself in a quandary right now; on one hand they can gleefully say that it all happened under the previous administration and they had nothing to do with it, but on the other hand they want to be seen as tough on terrorists by their buddies in Washington. If they are too quick to condemn the treatment of Mr. Arar as an infringement of his civil rights, what kind of message does that send?

So they can't do that because that will make it look like they are soft on terror, but at the same time the people of Canada don't like to see their fellow citizens plucked off the street at the behest of another country, and then sent away to be tortured. There is also the slightly embarrassing matter of them having been the staunchest defenders of the laws that allowed Mr. Arar to be arrested, and in fact accused the Liberal government prior to them of not doing enough to fight the scourge of terrorism.

Oh how they must hate this, a golden opportunity to jump up and down on the corpse of the previous government and paint the current opposition with the same brush — but they can't use it. The simple truth is they would have done the same thing, and would do it again tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.

What will probably end up happening is they will dismiss it as the actions of over-zealous officers in the time of war that overstepped their bounds. They will probably fire the current commissioner of the R.C.M.P. (he was a Liberal appointee anyway) just to make it look good and like they take their responsibilities seriously, and nothing will change at all in the way business is conducted.

As for Mr. Arar, they will probably give him some money; half-heartedly apologise on behalf of the government, but not so as to admit that anything was wrong with the policy, and hope he will go away. It's a sordid end to a sordid story and another dirty little stain on Canada's supposedly lily-white hands that will never wash off.

The truly appalling thing is how little anyone seems to care about how (in a supposed democracy) a person can find their rights stripped away in the blink of an eye. There's a poem written by Martin Niemöller in response to what happened in Germany between 1932 and 1945 that goes something like this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left
to speak up for me.

Ask yourself who will be there to speak for you if you don't speak for the unpopular and the easy to blame now? What will happen when they knock on your door?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Steve Giles

    I have just one concern about the facts of the Arar case: why did he leave his family while he was heading to his holiday destination and fly to various sites in the middle east?

    The criminal code provisions on terrorism state that a person must believe in a cause, that that cause espouses extreme violence and the person aids the cause or plans violent actions. The person does not need to know what violent actions are being planned, just that the person is generally aiding the cause. Initial evidence can arouse suspicion: documentation on the cause, acquaintances who are associates of the cause etc. This type of evidence is always sketchy and could include anyone interested in world affairs and happens to meet a person being surveilled. So the police need to trigger some action to cause the person to reveal themselves.
    In the Arar case, I believe that the CIA sent Arar a fuzzy message indicating that he was being “called to the cause” – in his case simply a short note with a airline ticket to fly off to a new destination. The CIA did this twice before Arar realized that he had been done. The rest is history. No one including the RCMP or the CIA has any evidence to present in court. The method of sending the fuzzy message cannot be revealed since it is one of the favorite tricks of police – initiating an action and then listen on the wires – in this case, a little more tricky but in historical policing, a classic CIA manoevre.

  • Peter Paul

    Mahar Arar got what he deserved. If you want to enjoy dual nationality and travel to restricted areas on one or the other passport then you should be ready to face the music. The RCMP did it’s job and did it well. No one in Government or the RCMP should be apologize!