In recent weeks, US officials have been falling over one another to denounce the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. President Obama has accused it of committing “outrageous bloodshed” and called for Assad to stand down; Hillary Clinton has referred to the Syrian leader as a “tyrant”; Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser under George W Bush, has called Syria a “vicious enemy”.
I can’t help but wonder what Maher Arar must make of such comments. Arar, a telecommunications engineer born in Syria, moved to Canada as a teenager in 1987 and became a citizen in 1991.
On 26 September 2002, he was arrested at JFK airport in New York, where he had been in transit, on his way home to Canada after a family holiday abroad. Following 13 days of questioning, the US authorities, suspecting Arar of ties to al-Qaida based on flawed Canadian police intelligence, “rendered” him not to Canada, where he lived, but to his native Syria, from where his family had fled 15 years earlier.
For the next 10 months, he was detained without charge in a three-foot by six-foot Syrian prison cell where, according to the findings of an official Canadian commission of inquiry, he was tortured. Arar says he was punched, kicked and whipped with an electrical cable during 18-hour interrogation sessions. He received C$10.5m in compensation from the Canadian government and a formal apology from prime minister Stephen Harper for the country’s role in his ordeal.
A decade on, the question remains: why did the US deport Arar to a “vicious enemy” country run by a “tyrant”? Was it because Canada couldn’t use torture to interrogate Arar, so they decided to send him to Syria, which would?