A Canadian citizen detained by U.S. authorities in 2002 on suspicion of having links to al-Qaida, and sent to Syria where he was tortured, has testified for the first time before a congressional committee. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, Maher Arar addressed a panel examining extraordinary rendition, in which U.S. authorities have sent terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation.
A Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Arar was detained in September 2002 at New York's Kennedy Airport, on suspicion of having links to al-Qaida, which was responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The information came from a Canadian police report describing him as well as his wife as Islamic extremists with suspected terrorist links.
Against his protests and after interrogations by U.S. officials, he was deported to Syria via Jordan, where he says he suffered severe torture for 10 months at the hands of Syria's Military Intelligence, before his release in October 2003.
Arar was never formally accused of any crime in the United States or Canada. A two-and-a-half-year Canadian investigation cleared him of any links with terrorist organizations or activities, and ordered that he be paid more than $10 million in compensation.
Testifying by video link from Canada, because he remains barred from the United States, Arar condemned what he calls the immoral practice of rendition.
"Let me be clear, I am not a terrorist, I am not a member of al-Qaida or any other terrorist group," he said. "I am a father, a husband, and an engineer. I am also a victim of the immoral practice of rendition."
U.S. lawmakers offered Arar apologies and regrets, and voiced disappointment that the U.S. government has not done the same.
Democratic Congressman William Delahunt, chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee on human rights issues:
"Mr. Arar, let me personally give you what our government has not, an apology," he said. "Let me apologize to you and the Canadian people for our government's role in this mistake."
While they also offered apologies, Republicans Trent Franks and Dana Rohrabacher nevertheless defended the U.S. rendition program as an effective anti-terrorism tool.
"I sincerely believe that the story of Mr. Arar will ultimately not be shown to be a failure of U.S. rendition policy, but instead an anomalous failure in the particular circumstances caused by false intelligence and information from Canada," Franks said.
"An error in a program does not mean that program in and of itself is a wrong program," said Rohrabacher.
In dramatic testimony, Arar described torture he was subjected to in a Syrian prison, treatment he says left him with permanent emotional scars.
"I was beaten with an electrical cable and threatened with a metal chair, [a] tire and electric shocks," he said. "I was forced to falsely confess that I had been to Afghanistan. When I was not being beaten I was put in a waiting room so I could hear the screams of other prisoners. The cries of the women still haunt me the most."
Arar's principal counsel Kent Roach, of the University of Toronto, reviewed key conclusions of the Canadian investigation headed by the Associate Chief Justice of Ontario, Dennis O'Connor.
"He recognized the importance of information sharing between Canada and the United States, but stressed that that information must be accurate, precise and reliable," said Roach. "He identified the danger of guilt by association in national security investigations, and identified the impossible position that a person is put in when they have to defend themselves against secret information that they do not know."
Although no Bush administration officials appeared at the hearing, the administration position has been that it complies with U.S. legal obligations because foreign governments provide diplomatic assurances they do not use torture.
Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat calls this unreliable at best, and asserts that rendition violates international and U.S. law.
"It seems to me that as a nation we must not evade these important legal prohibitions by rendering suspects to countries for torture," he said.
Expert legal witnesses agreed that diplomatic assurances from countries with a record of torture are unreliable.
Daniel Benjamin, of The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. says rendition harms U.S. credibility.
"The issues of rendition and torture have become intertwined in the public imagination in our nation and in the minds of our friends abroad," he said. "Abuses that have been committed in the name of the Global War on Terror trouble the conscience of those who care about America's reputation and those who have been proud of our nation's role as a champion of the rule of law."
Frederick Hitz of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, says rendition should be illegal.
"I view it much as I do the executive order prohibition on political assassination," he said. "We should not be in the business of coercive torturous interrogations, directly or indirectly."
Another witness, David Cole of Georgetown University's Law Center suggested that Congress should call for an independent investigation of the Bush administration's rendition policy.