U.S. lawmakers have questioned a State Department official about the validity of diplomatic assurances the United States receives from foreign governments that they will not use torture. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, testimony to a House subcommittee came in the wake of a U.S. government decision to reopen an investigation of the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who alleged he was tortured after being deported to Syria in 2002.
A 37-year-old engineer with dual Canadian-Syrian citizenship, Arar was detained in September 2002 at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, questioned and later deported via Jordan to Syria where he alleges he was subjected to torture. He was released in October 2003.
Arar made this statement in televised testimony to a congressional committee last year: "I also hope to convey how fragile our human rights have become, and how easily they can be taken from us by the same governments that have sworn to protect the," he said.
In 2006, a Canadian judicial inquiry cleared Arar of any links to terrorists or terrorist groups, and criticized an early Canadian federal police description of him as an Islamic extremist.
Arar received a formal apology from the Canadian government and was awarded $10 million compensation, but his attempts to sue the U.S. government have been dismissed, and he remains barred from entering the U.S.
Last week, Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner pointed to additional information, which he did not detail, contradicting one of the conclusions in the department's original report on the Arar case.
And he said this about diplomatic assurances given to the United States by Syria regarding the use of torture. "We concluded that assurances upon which I.N.S (Immigration and Naturalization Service) based Arar's removal were ambiguous regarding the source or authority purporting to bind the Syrian government [in its assurance regarding torture]."
On Tuesday, State Department legal adviser John Bellinger defended the practice of obtaining diplomatic assurances, describing it as part of a process that helps protect Americans from threats. "Simply that a country has a bad human rights record and we may be pounding on them every day with respect to their human rights record, doesn't mean that every individual that is returned to that country would be tortured," he said.
These are individual determinations, Bellinger said, while noting that the U.S. has a legal obligation not to send individuals to countries where "it is more likely than not" they would be subjected to torture.
Critics have described the Arar case as one of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. has sent suspected terrorist suspects to foreign countries for interrogation.
Bellinger reiterates the Bush administration position that Arar's case falls under the legal framework of an immigration-related deportation. "This is a myth that it was a rendition. A rendition as I have always understood the term as a lawyer, is a transfer of an individual outside of the extradition or other legal framework," he said.
Subcommittee chairman William Delahunt questioned the reliability of diplomatic assurances against torture. "As a matter of policy, to ask people to make these kinds of decisions that inherently are going to result in mistakes, further mistakes, it is a policy that really needs to be reviewed," he said.
One panel Republican, Congressman Joe Pitts, asked if members of Congress could examine specific diplomatic assurances on torture received from foreign governments.
Such details, Bellinger responded, are part of U.S. government foreign affairs functions and are not normally provided to Congress. That brought a rebuke from Congressman Delahunt who said any lawmaker has a right to obtain such information.
An attorney for Arar has said it is clear U.S. officials knew he would be tortured or was likely to be, if sent to Syria, pointing to Inspector General Skinner's description of diplomatic assurances in the Arar case as ambiguous.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice acknowledged in congressional testimony last year that the Arar case was not handled properly. "The United States absolutely does not wish to transfer anyone to any place in which they might be tortured," she said.
Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged the Bush administration last week to provide what he called a full explanation of the Arar matter, and to follow the Canadian government's example in accepting responsibility.