U.S. won't back off on Arar
- A White House official insists there's `good reason' to keep Maher
Arar on a U.S. watch list, but neither he nor the U.S. ambassador will
say what it is
U.S. won't back off on Arar
Toronto Star - Dec 19, 2006
OTTAWAThe mystery about why the United States continues to blacklist
Maher Arar deepened yesterday with statements by senior administration
officials suggesting there is "good reason" for keeping the Canadian
software engineer on a border watch list.
Questioned by members of a business audience here and again later by
reporters, U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins refused to clarify why his
government refuses to accept the declaration of a judge-led Canadian
inquiry that Arar is innocent.
However, Wilkins flatly rejected suggestions the U.S. decision to keep
Arar on the watch list is tied to efforts to avoid liability in a
pending lawsuit filed by Arar against the U.S. government.
"I certainly think it would be a mistake for you to read that into the
position that's been taken by the United States," Wilkins told
reporters. "That's incorrect to assume that."
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said the
Bush administration made "a conscious decision" to keep Arar on a list.
"People tell us that there is good reason for his being on the watch
list," he said. "These watch lists are something that are constantly
reviewed. If there's any other information that comes to light ...
that would lead to his being taken off, of course the people who
regulate these things would take a look."
But Wilkins appeared to shrug off the two-year, $13.4-million
commission of inquiry that revealed for the first time that RCMP
officers had erroneously tagged Arar and his wife in a border lookout
request as an "Islamic Extremist" with ties to Al Qaeda.
In fact, Justice Dennis O'Connor found the RCMP not only had no
evidence to support such an inflammatory description of Arar, but made
many other errors in communicating its Arar file to U.S. officials.
It all amounted to a damning but baseless picture of a terror suspect,
O'Connor found, one that "very likely" led the U.S. to deport Arar to
Syria, where he jailed and tortured.
Wilkins defended a U.S. decision not to participate in the Arar
inquiry, saying it was chiefly about Canadian officials and the
actions they took.
Wilkins and McCormack referred to a "process" that people can follow
to apply to be removed from the watch list (there are actually several
But Wilkins said his comments were merely general in nature, and not
to be taken as encouragement that Arar would have any luck going that
The U.S. ambassador would not say why the U.S. government refuses to
divulge whatever information it has on Arar purportedly "from a
variety of sources" to Canadian law enforcement or security
officials, despite his luncheon speech that argued the two countries
had to co-operate on border security.
Wilkins did acknowledge the litigation Arar is pursuing in the United
States means government officials cannot speak freely about the case.
Yesterday, Arar's civil lawyer Julian Falconer said in a written
release that "negotiations and mediation" with federal government
officials regarding "an apology and compensation to Mr. Arar are
ongoing," but neither he nor Arar would "be in a position to comment
until early January."
Ottawa must press U.S. to clear Arar's name
Toronto Star- Dec 19, 2006
If Maher Arar were Brandon Mayfield would he be $2 million richer
today and, more important, above suspicion? It's an impossibly
abstract question with alarmingly concrete implications for any
Canadian unfortunate enough to raise Uncle Sam's eyebrows.
Arar and Mayfield have Islam and a bungled investigation in common.
What's different about them is the Canadian engineer remains trapped
in a twilight zone of innuendo while the Oregon lawyer is enjoying the
clarity of innocence.
For Arar there is no apparent end to a recurring nightmare. It begins
again with comments by David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada,
that Arar is still listed there as a terror threat.
That's not Justice Dennis O'Connor's conclusion. After an exhaustive
$16 million inquiry, O'Connor found that the RCMP wrongly fingered
Arar to U.S. agents as an Islamic extremist.
Arar was seized in New York while in transit to Canada and airlifted
to the Middle East as another victim of the then secret operation to
remove suspects to countries known for torture. Arar was held in a
coffinlike Syrian prison for nearly a year while the government here
made half-hearted rescue efforts.
With the important exception of Arar's lawsuits against Canada and the
United States, this should have come to a merciful end in September
with the first of two inquiry reports.
But it's being kept alive by the U.S. refusal to first tell O'Connor
what it knows and now by its claim Arar was deported on the strength
of a confidential internal threat assessment.
Why Arar remains on the list is a matter of conjecture. U.S. rights
activists argue George W. Bush's administration won't admit mistakes
and there's widespread speculation that it's more about defending
Washington against Arar's lawsuits than protecting Americans from
None of that changes two realities. One is that a country that stands
proud for the principle of innocent until proven guilty is reversing
the onus on Arar; the other is that the U.S. Patriot Act makes it
possible for this to happen to anyone.
Mayfield's case is instructive for its similarities to Arar's and
Like Arar, Mayfield ran afoul of false police information. Based on
fingerprints Spanish authorities insisted were not his, the FBI
arrested him as a material witness in the 2004 Madrid bombings.
He was held in prison and says he was threatened with death while U.S.
authorities used their extraordinary security powers to dig into his
personal and business affairs.
Perhaps coincidentally, Mayfield is a Muslim convert who also
represented clients in terrorism-related cases.
Unlike Arar, Mayfield managed to free himself from the spider web of
Less than three weeks ago, the U.S. government apologized, agreed to
destroy all information gathered through electronic surveillance, and
wrote him a $1.9 million cheque along with smaller ones for his wife
and three daughters.
Arar isn't nearly so fortunate. While the O'Connor report clears him
and "sorry" has finally crossed RCMP, if not government, lips, Arar
remains shackled by the smoke-and-fire syndrome. A disturbing number
of Canadians can't see past his dual citizenship, Arab roots and
Muslim religion to unequivocally uphold his civil, legal and human rights.
Wilkins's comments and Arar's name on the watchlist only fuel those
Arar's horror, one shared by anyone wrongly singled out for special
attention, is that proving innocence is impossible when the evidence
is secret. Washington won't share what it says it knows and the result
is a Star Chamber conviction.
Nations have every right and obvious reason to protect their national
Individuals have equal right to protect themselves from intrusive,
often incompetent, state agencies as well as increasing reason to
worry that defining principles are being eroded by fear. That fear is
particularly corrosive in a country where almost every family is
originally from somewhere else.
Encouraged to suspect each other, we run a risk far greater than that
of terrorist attack: the risk of riding roughshod over rights to tear
It took too long and the cost was driven too high by RCMP efforts to
conceal its guilt, but the federal government finally did what was
necessary for Arar.
In subjecting him to closer scrutiny than even a criminal trial, it
cleared his name by exposing the systemic failures that made a citizen
Now it must take the next step by relentlessly pressing the U.S. to
either reveal its evidence or admit it was as wrong about Maher Arar
as Brandon Mayfield.
Justice demands no less.
James Travers's national affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and
Saturday. jtraver @ thestar.ca
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