Canadian police errors led to man's torture -probe

Reuters | September 18, 2006
By David Ljunggren

(Adds quotes from Arar, government, lawyer. Please note unusual spelling of Marlys Edwardh in second last paragraph)

OTTAWA, Sept 19 (Reuters) - Canadian police wrongly identified an Ottawa software engineer as an Islamic extremist, prompting U.S. agents to deport him to Syria, where he was tortured, an official inquiry concluded on Monday.

Maher Arar, who holds Canadian and Syrian nationality, was arrested in New York in September 2002 and accused of being an al-Qaeda member. In fact, said the judge who led the probe, all the signs point to the fact Arar was innocent.

Arar, 36, says he was repeatedly tortured in the year he spent in Damascus jails, and the inquiry agreed that he had been tortured. He was freed in 2003.

Judge Dennis O'Connor, who was asked by the Canadian government in 2004 to examine what had happened, found the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had wrongly told U.S. authorities that Arar was an Islamic extremist.

"The provision of this inaccurate information ... (was) totally unacceptable" and guaranteed the United States would treat Arar as a serious threat, O'Connor said.

"I am 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."

Civil rights advocates said the case of Arar and three other Canadians who ended up in Syrian jails raised suspicions that Canada might be outsourcing interrogation to nations where torture was commonplace.

O'Connor said the case of the other three men was troubling and warranted further investigation. But he found no evidence that the Canadian government had played any direct role in the U.S. decision to deport Arar to Syria.

Arar, calling on the government to hold accountable the officials he said were responsible for his ordeal, had tears in his eyes when asked by reporters for his reaction.

"Today Justice O'Connor has cleared my name and restored my reputation," said Arar, who has launched a lawsuit against Ottawa seeking compensation.

O'Connor's three-volume report castigated the Mounties for slipshod work in the wake of the 9/11 suicide attacks.

It said the Mounties exaggerated Arar's importance and later asked U.S. customs agents to put Arar and his wife on a special watch list, calling them "Islamic extremist individuals suspected of being linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist movement".

U.S. agencies declined to be questioned by O'Connor as to why they had deported Arar.

"I do conclude it is very likely that they relied on information received from the RCMP in making the decision to remove Mr Arar to Syria," the judge wrote.

Public Security Minister Stockwell Day, who has overall responsibility for the forces of law and order, said he was satisfied with the finding that Canadian officials had not played a direct role in the U.S. decision to deport Arar to Syria.

"What happened to Mr Arar is very regrettable. We hope ... never to see this happen again," he told reporters.

Arar first came to police attention in October 2001 when he was seen talking to another man already being investigated for possible al-Qaeda links.

O'Connor found that police made a number of serious mistakes in the Arar case.

The unit probing possible terror networks was poorly supervised and was comprised largely of financial fraud experts, who had little experience of national security cases.

Police gave all the files from their probe to the United States without screening the data for inaccuracies or following internal rules that limited what they could hand over.

"It was a breathtakingly incompetent investigation ... a disaster," said Marlys Edwardh, a lawyer for Arar.

O'Connor criticized unnamed Canadian officials, whom he said had leaked confidential and sometimes inaccurate information about Arar both before and after his release in a bid to demonstrate he really was a threat to national security.

(With additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa)