Maher Arar (U.S./Canada/Syria)

Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen who was forcibly sent to Syria in 2002 as part of the United States’ “extraordinary rendition” program. He was imprisoned in Syria for 10 months and tortured.

In 2004, after his release, Maher filed a lawsuit in the United States against several individual U.S. officials for their role in his detention and torture. In November 2009, a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the suit. CCIJ, along with other Canadian human rights organizations and scholars, filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of Maher’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 14, 2010, the high court refused to hear the case, effectively eliminating Maher’s final hope for justice in the U.S. judicial system.

Maher’s attempt to hold the governments of Syria and Jordan accountable in Canadian courts was also denied when those countries were given immunity under Canada’s State Immunity Act.

Canada’s Commission of Inquiry

On February 5, 2004, just days after Maher launched his lawsuit in the United States, Canada’s Governor in Council appointed Justice Dennis R. O’Connor to conduct a Commission of Inquiry into Maher’s case. The Inquiry was directed at the actions of Canadian officials. The role of the United States government was not the focus of the Commission although the involvement of U.S. officials were discussed. (The U.S. government refused to provide evidence or participate in the Inquiry.)

In September 2006, the Commission released a public version of its three-volume, 1200-page report. The report provides a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the events. Importantly, after hearing all of the evidence gathered by Canadian investigators about Maher, the Commission found no evidence that he had committed any terrorism-related offence or and found he was not a threat to the security of Canada.

Following the release of the Commission’s report, the government of Canada provided redress to Maher for the wrongdoing of Canadian officials. In January 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized to Maher for Canada’s involvement. The Prime Minister also provided a letter of apology. Canada’s Foreign Ministry sent the United States an official letter of protest, and the Minister of Public Safety asked the United States to remove Maher from their terrorist look-out lists.

To this day, Maher has not obtained redress from the other countries involved, including the United States.

Maher’s “Terrible Ordeal”

According to the Commission, Maher was first detained by American officials on September 26, 2002, while he was changing planes at New York’s JFK Airport, en route to Canada following a vacation in Tunisia. He was placed under arrest and strip-searched. The same day, RCMP officials were notified of Maher’s pending arrival in New York, and American authorities’ intention to question him. The RCMP submitted a list of questions to the FBI that contained inaccurate information that “portrayed [Maher] in an unfairly negative fashion and overstated his importance in [an] RCMP investigation.” According to the Commission, this information was likely relied upon by the U.S. in detaining and eventually deporting Maher.

Maher was held by the United States for the next 12 days and subjected to extensive interrogations by American officials. For the first four days, he was denied access to his family, a lawyer and Canadian consular officials. On October 1, after being contacted by Maher’s concerned family, Canadian consular officials began inquiring about the reason for Maher’s detention. Notwithstanding repeated inquiries, consular officials could not ascertain the charges against him or the reasons behind his detention.

On October 3, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency sent a fax to RCMP headquarters asking specific questions about Maher. The same day, a Canadian consul was able to visit Maher. During that visit Maher expressed concern that U.S. officials would send him to Syria. On October 5, an RCMP officer told the FBI there was insufficient evidence to charge Maher in Canada and that he could probably not be refused entry to Canada as he was a Canadian citizen.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) scheduled a removal hearing for Maher on Sunday, October 6. An INS official left a voicemail message for Maher’s lawyer that day, advising her of the hearing scheduled for the evening. But the message was not picked up until the next day. On October 7, Maher was ordered removed from the United States. The removal order accused Maher of being a member of a foreign terrorist organization-al-Qaeda.

On October 8, Maher was shackled, put onto a plane and flown to Amman, Jordan. The next day, he was put into a vehicle and taken to the Far Falestin prison in Syria, where he would spend the next ten months.

Upon arriving at Far Falestin, Maher was repeatedly interrogated and tortured by the Syrian intelligence service. Syrian officials also threatened him with additional torture techniques including electrical shock and “the chair,” an instrument that, according to the Commission, “bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim’s spine.” They hit Maher repeatedly and struck him with a two-foot shredded electrical cable. He was also at times intentionally placed where he could hear the screams of other inmates.

Throughout his time at Far Falestin, Maher was confined to a tiny basement cell. Maher slept on the concrete floor. The cell was cold and damp in the winter, and extremely hot in the summer. During this period, Maher rarely saw sunlight. Maher remained at Far Falestin until August 20, 2003, when he was transferred to another prison.

The Commission expressed “serious concern” with regard to a number of actions taken by Canadian officials during his imprisonment in Syria. In particular, there were mixed signals coming from Canadian officials. In particular, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) was demanding his release, intelligence officials may have created the impression that Maher was of continuing importance to its terrorism investigation.

The Syrians finally released Maher into Canadian custody on October 5, 2003, 374 days after he was detained by American officials in New York. Even after Maher’s return to Canada, there were leaks of confidential information intended to damage his reputation.

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