`I wish I could buy my life back'
- Long-awaited apology from PM `most important' part of settlement,
computer software engineer insists
`I wish I could buy my life back'
Maher Arar has a long-awaited formal apology finally in hand, $10.5
million and official recognition at last of his innocence.
But there is one thing he lacks.
"I wish, if there is a way, if I could buy my life back. That's my
biggest wish," said the 36-year-old computer software engineer and
father of two.
A deal to settle Arar's lawsuit was reached Jan. 19 between lawyers
for Arar and the Conservative government, approved mid-week by the
federal cabinet, and announced yesterday at a news conference by Prime
Minister Stephen Harper. The payment, believed the highest in a human
rights lawsuit, is formal redress for Canada's role the sloppy
policing, bureaucratic foot-dragging, and malicious media leaks in
Arar's nightmare deportation by the United States in 2002 to a year of
torture and imprisonment in Syria.
"On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you,
Monia Mazigh, and your family for any role Canadian officials may have
played in them terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and
2003," Harper said, reading from the text of a written apology that
Arar's wife had insisted upon.
"I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and
your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your
Arar's deportation called a halt to a promising career. Since his
nightmare began, he hasn't been able to get a job in his field.
And he still remains under an American cloud, with the refusal of the
U.S. government to remove his name from its no-fly list. But for Arar,
the apology and compensation mean a fresh start, official confirmation
at last of his innocence.
Visibly relieved, Arar spoke of lost time with his wife and children,
a lost career, and his lost peace of mind.
"Is there really a price on this? I don't think so. But in a way for
me, really the compensation is a way of acknowledging my innocence and
a message the government is sending me: `Here's a way to help rebuild
But he added, "there's no amount of money that would compensate me for
what myself and my family have gone through. ... The most important
thing for me is the apology."
"It's an historic settlement for an exceptional case," said Arar's
lawyer Julian Falconer.
Paul Cavalluzzo, commission counsel to Justice Dennis O'Connor's
two-year inquiry, agreed, saying there is no other comparable case in
Canada. He noted an Oregon lawyer, also a Muslim, who was wrongly
jailed on suspicions of terrorist links for just two weeks in an
American prison was recently awarded $2 million (U.S.) in
compensation, and he had not been deported to torture.
"Mr. Arar suffered a great deal more than this gentleman," said
Cavalluzzo. "He suffered psychological injury. He suffers from
post-traumatic stress. He cannot get a job. And it goes on. If you
take all of those circumstances into account, I think the government
came to a very fair resolution."
Harper said some Canadians might view the payment as high. "That
figure is within this government's realistic assessment of what Mr.
Arar would have won in a lawsuit. And that is the basis on which we
concluded this settlement," he told reporters.
The Conservative government, which again yesterday made a point of
noting the events "occurred under the last government," will also
cover Arar's legal fees in the lawsuit launched in March 2004. The
deal allows for $1 million in legal costs, said Falconer.
Initially, Arar claimed $400 million in damages. That amount was later
amended to $37 million after O'Connor reported he found no evidence
Canadian officials deliberately participated in or willingly allowed
Arar's deportation, but had wrongly tagged Arar as a terror suspect
and "very likely" led the U.S. to deport him.
Falconer would not break down the $10.5 million in damages for
physical suffering and lost reputation, citing confidentiality. But he
said it was more than justified, pointing to the physical and
psychological torture Arar endured in Syria.
Falconer, an experienced civil litigator, became choked up, and Arar
also appeared moved, when Falconer told of how Arar's wife insisted on
an apology in writing from the Prime Minister from the beginning, "so
that when her children are old enough they have written proof from the
Prime Minister of Maher's innocence."
"No one should have to prove their good name to their children. That
is simply abominable. The Prime Minister and his government deserve
credit for helping to restore these people's lives," Falconer said.
But the Arar family's troubles have not ended. The U.S. government
insists Arar will stay on its border watch list and be refused entry
to that country, despite the findings of the O'Connor inquiry, which
cleared Arar last fall of any suggested links to terrorism.
Yesterday, a U.S. State Department official told Canadian Press Arar's
personal associations and travel history are enough to keep him on a
U.S. watch list, even if they may not warrant Arar's presence on a
Canadian security roster.
But Harper said bluntly yesterday the U.S. is wrong.
"We believe the evidence is clear that Mr. Arar has been treated
unjustly. He should not be on a watch list. I personally believe that
if there was evidence suggesting that any of these suspicions against
Mr. Arar were justified that case would have been made a long time
before today. In our judgment, it has not been made."
Harper said his government will continue to press the U.S. to reverse
its decision, and took a swipe at U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins who
earlier this week called Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day
"presumptuous" in his expectations.
"Canada fully understands, appreciates and shares the United States'
concerns about security," said Harper. "However, this government the
government of Canada has every right to go to bat for one of its
citizens when the government believes a Canadian is being unfairly
treated by another country."
Wilkins said while the U.S. appreciated Harper's "clear" expression of
his government's view, it will not change its decision on Arar.
"We are standing by that decision," said the statement.
Syria's ambassador to Canada, Jamil Sakr, refused to comment.
Whether the Arar compensation package sets a precedent for how three
other Muslim Canadians (whose cases were similar to Arar's) will be
treated is not clear. Those cases are set for a year-long review by
former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci.
Lawyer Barbara Jackman, who represents two of the three, says the
unprecedented settlement is good news for Arar, but it is too early to
say how it affects her clients, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin.
The settlement of Arar's lawsuit is unlikely to affect a similar
lawsuit he is attempting to pursue against the U.S. government, said
his American lawyer Maria LaHood.
LaHood said by telephone from New York she hoped the Canadian
settlement will put more pressure on the U.S. executive "to do the
right thing here."
The Conservatives' political opponents, the Liberal and New Democratic
parties, applauded the apology and compensation deal. But both vowed
to continue to press the Harper government to implement all the
recommendations of the O'Connor inquiry.
In fact, the government claims to have responded to all 23
recommendations of the first report, but has not yet responded to the
call for a new oversight body for the RCMP. The other recommendations
included ones for better control over information shared with foreign
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