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Kafka in Canada
The Hounding of Maher Arar

Syria tortured him. Ottawa cleared him. Washington hounds him.

The absurd has nothing on the war on terror. Maher Arar is the Canadian wireless technology consultant who’d been vacationing in Tunisia when, on a lay-over at John Kennedy Airport on Sept 26, 2002, American authorities seized him, sent him to Syria via Jordan (“rendered him” as part of their outsourced torture program) and let Arar languish in a Syrian jail, where he was beaten and “kept in a coffin-size dungeon” for ten months. He was then released, a tacit admission that neither the Syrians nor the Americans had managed to tag him with any link to terrorism. And in fact he had none. Last September, following a federal investigation, the Canadian government essentially said this: “our bad.” Canadians had sent the U.S. faulty information on Arar. “The inquiry, which focused on the Canadian intelligence services, found that agents who were under pressure to find terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, falsely labeled … Arar, as a dangerous radical,” the Post reported. They asked U.S. authorities to put him and his wife, a university economist, on the al-Qaeda “watchlist” without justification, the report said. Arar was also listed as “an Islamic extremist individual” who was in the Washington area on Sept. 11. The report concluded that he had no involvement in Islamic extremism and was on business in San Diego that day. (Makes you wonder how many of those 14,000 individuals illegally heldby American authorities in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, without charge, have been condemned on the basis of similarly bogus tips.) But the Canadian commission also found that at no point did Canadian authorities agree to the detention or rendition of Arar to Syria.

It gets worse. The Canadian government has since been trying to make amends. In December the Canadian Arar Commission released a second report, this time recommending a full review of intelligence agencies’ procedures, information sharing and cooperative methods with foreign agencies. But the Arar story has already been replicated. Arar himself at his web site explains why he made his story public three years ago. “My third objective,” he wrote, “was to make sure that this does not happen to any other Canadian. Unfortunately this has already happened to three other Canadian citizens: Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin. The similarities between their cases and mine are striking. We were all detained at the same branch of the Syrian military intelligence, tortured by the same people and asked questions that would be of interest to Canadian police and security agencies. It is my hope that the government acts on its promise and holds an independent review of their cases, as recommended by Justice O’Connor in his report.”

The United States, by the way, never participated in the original inquiry that cleared Arar. Why? Because the United States doesn’t do foreign policy or national security in tandem with other nations unless it has something to gain from it. In the all-telling words of Richard Armitage, the Bush junta’s deputy secretary of state and Colin Powell’s right-hand man, “Look, fucker, you do what we want.” And so, for a while, the Canadians did. This week, the Canadian government asked the U.S. government to remove Arar from a terrorist watch list. The list obviously keeps Arar from traveling freely to the United States, and given the American government’s tendency to share some damaging information about foreigners in its dossiers, it could also make it difficult for him to travel elsewhere. The U.S. government’s response? “It's a little presumptuous for [ Canada] to say who the U.S. can and cannot allow into our country,” the American ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, told reporters in Edmonton. So Arar’s story comes full circle. The man who’d have likely never raised an eyebrow from American border cops and the FBI but for a warning from Canada that proved false is now tagged for life as a potential terrorist because the United States refuses to comply with a Canadian inquiry clearing Arar of all suspicions.

Kafka wouldn’t have been surprised. The sad fact is that who among us is anymore? This is how the American government operates now, its methods (if not quite its actual governance, yet) no longer substantially dissimilar from those of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the old Soviet Union in those heady days of cold-eyed suspicions and hot-tempered intrigues. The absurdity of those cold war days lent itself to the sort of comical movies starring Double-Oh Seven and irony drenched novels by Graham Greene and John LeCarré. There was even a touch of humor in the whole situation. But where’s the irony, where’s the humor in any of these stories involving law-abiding citizens plucked out of their lives, literally tortured, returned to their former lives with half-apologies, then kept shackled to the very guilt by suspicion that their government has admitted fabricating?

“I hope that many lessons have been learned from my case,” Arar writes at his web site. “Canadians have invested time, effort and money in this inquiry. Now is the time to make sure this investment pays off, by insisting that the government implements all of Justice O'Connor's recommendations. Doing so will help Canada restore its tarnished reputation for promoting and protecting human rights around the globe.” But Canada is unfortunately a bit player in these affairs. It’s the United States that sets the tone, deciding a man’s fate whether he’s a lost sheepherder on an Afghan plain or a computer engineer across the border from Michigan.

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