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Canada Finds Citizen Improperly Sent to Syria

LYNN NEARY, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here are the bare facts of this next story. A man arrived at the airport at New York. The United States government seized him there and sent him to Syria. While in Syria he was tortured, and now he's been cleared of any suspicion of wrongdoing. The man who is no longer described as a terrorist suspect is a Canadian computer engineer. A Canadian government commission says he was wrongly detained and wrongly deported.

The commission says Canada and the United States both failed him. Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto.

RICHARD REYNOLDS: From the time he was returned to Canada from a Syrian prison in 2003, Maher Arar insisted he was completely innocent.

Mr. MAHER ARAR (Former Terrorist Suspect): I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al-Qaida.

REYNOLDS: Arar was pulled aside at JFK Airport in New York just before he was to board an airplane returning him to Ottawa, his home. He was held for almost two weeks in New York. He had no access to a lawyer, no phone call to his wife to let her know where he was and no access to Canadian consular officials, as is required by treaties the U.S. has signed. A CIA plane shipped him first to Jordan, then he was driven to Syria.

Yesterday, Canadian judge Dennis O'Connor, who had investigated Arar's case for almost two years, said that Arar had no links to terrorists.

Mr. DENNIS O'CONNOR (Associate Chief Justice, Ontario Court of Appeal): I'm able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada.

REYNOLDS: Justice O'Connor did lay some of the blame for Arar's mistreatment at the foot of Canada's federal police, the RCMP, who the judge described as inept. He said the RCMP inflated the flimsy and circumstantial evidence against Arar and told U.S. authorities he was a likely al-Qaida supporter.

While that may have instigated U.S. action, the judge said the U.S. bears all the responsibility for actually deporting Arar to Syria, where the judge agrees he was seriously tortured.

Many Canadians with dual nationality like Arar, who was also a Syrian citizen, are now wary of traveling through the U.S. Alex Neve is the head of Amnesty International in Canada.

Mr. ALEX NEVE (Secretary-General, Amnesty International Canada): This was a Canadian citizen traveling on a Canadian passport. And really his Canadian citizenship and the fact that he was using that passport was totally disregarded, offered him no protection at all. And a lot of Canadians therefore - and especially Canadians of dual nationality like Mr. Arar - have asked themselves: In the United States, does my citizenship mean anything?

REYNOLDS: Arar is one of the few well documented cases of extraordinary rendition, where the U.S. removes people to countries where they can be tortured for information. The Arar case has likely yielded no intelligence to speak of, but has earned the U.S. enormous ill will in Canada.

Arar has launched a lawsuit against the U.S. government, but it was dismissed by a U.S. court earlier this year. Arar has appealed that decision, but even his lawyers admit it is an uphill battle suing the U.S. government.

The Canadian government has offered financial compensation to Arar to be decided in January.

For NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds, in Toronto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Reynolds