Column for Sept 24: Arar and us

The Arar case is not the end

Reaction to Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor’s $15-million report into the wrongful arrest, deportation and torture of Maher Arar has been fascinating. And instructive.

Consider the Harper government. When the then-Liberal government began belatedly, timidly asking for Arar’s release from his Syrian torture chamber in the fall of 2002, opposition leader Stephen Harper was dismissive. The Liberals, he claimed, were "hitting the snooze button on security matters." His colleague, Stockwell Day, even argued the government’s "lack of vigilance" had allowed a notorious terrorist like Arar to avoid detection and detention in the first place.

Today, although Prime Minister Harper acknowledges Arar was indeed an innocent victim of injustice, he refuses to do the right thing and unreservedly apologize for the horrific fate Canada consigned him to. And, not coincidentally, for his own acquiescence in that fate. While the government has finally removed Arar and his family from Canada’s terror watch list, Stockwell Day, now our Public Safety Minister, has offered to do little more himself than oh-so-gently suggest to the United States — which illegally dispatched Arar to Syria to be tortured on the basis of the false information provided by Canadian authorities — that it "may wish to do the same."

The Conservative government is not alone in wanting to dance around the uncomfortable reality that it was our collective post-9/11 hysteria — perhaps even more than the Mounties’ admittedly bad behaviour — that led us to frame Maher Arar. And possibly others.

Many of the same MPs who last week passed the unanimous resolution apologizing to Arar for his treatment were among those who encouraged it by clamouring for the government to introduce tougher laws, and abrogate civil liberties and due process in the months following 9/11. There does not appear to be a lot of reflection about that.

And Ottawa journalists, who allowed themselves to be used by unnamed government and RCMP sources to foment public fear by falsely claiming there was hard evidence Arar was a terrorist, now seem far more interested in speculating about whether the commissioner of the RCMP will resign or be fired than they are in reporting on how and by whom they were duped.

At one level, the current fixation on the RCMP’s failures is understandable. After all, Arar’s journey into hell began with a flawed, incompetent RCMP anti-terrorist investigation known as Project A-O Canada. That hastily organized post-9/11 investigation identified him as a "person of interest" simply because he happened to have met with a number of other Arab Canadians who also – perhaps equally wrongly — were suspected of terrorist activities. In April 2002, investigators handed over an A-O Canada computer database full of raw data, including Arar’s name, to US authorities. Four months later, the Americans grabbed Arar and deported him to Syria to be tortured.

The Mounties then made the situation even worse by not only suggesting to American officials that Arar and his family really were indeed Islamic extremists but also misleading the government of the day about their own role in Arar’s detention and torture.

So the RCMP has much to answer for in the Arar case, as Justice O’Connor rightly pointed out.

But he also made it clear in his report that "systemic problems go beyond Arar’s case." He urged the government, for example, to launch an independent investigation into the cases of three other Arab-Canadian men who claim they too were set up by the Canadian government to be tortured by third countries.

And they aren’t the only Arabs to have been subject to cruel and unusual detention, including in Canada. Five men, in fact, are currently in jail or on strict bail under secret “security certificates” that allow the government to keep them in a kind of permanent limbo without ever having to test their evidence in a court.

The reality is that the Arar case is not the iceberg, but its tip. And the RCMP is not alone in its responsibility for what happened to Arar — and continues to happen to others.

Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as a novel, Reparations, which was published this spring by HarperCollins.

  1. Dear Stephen Kimber!

    Well spoken re: Arar! Thank you-.

    I am very upset about our country/province ever since the brutal police action against the Vanden***** family.
    The fact that the little girl has still not been returned to the parents disgusts me. I know about the damage done here. All this stinks terribly.

    In short: What is the state of affairs? Could you enlighten me?
    And let me say ‘Thanks’ for your concern!
    I do hope that an inquiry will be held yet!
    ( Michael Baker is my MLA )

    As well, I want to state that the whole notion of journalistic neutrality is bogus. A person will always show their conviction, even if it is in a single word choice. Any writer is subject to human-ness. It would help the public – and our democratic pretensions- to understand that.
    So I am glad that you feel able to be a whole person in this case.

    Christian Heyne


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