“They have acknowledged my innocence. This means the world to me.”
With those words, Maher Arar finally loosened the long yoke that has followed him around since he was deported from the U.S. and sent to be tortured in Syria in 2002. It happened after the R.C.M.P. provided false information about his ties to terrorists.
He accepted a long awaited – and much cheaper – settlement package from the federal government Friday. He had originally been asking for $400 million. He settled for $10.5 million, along with another $1 million to cover his legal costs.
And he also received another benefit that may be beyond price – an official apology from Stephen Harper.
“In doing so, the government of Canada and the prime minister have acknowledged my innocence,” Arar explains. “This means the world to me, to Monia (his wife), to my kids, to my mother, and father, to my five brothers and sister.”
Saying his struggle has shown him how important it is to fight for human rights, Arar admitted he may never get over what happened to him.
“My suffering and the suffering of my family did not end when I was released,” he agrees. “The struggle to clear my name has been long and hard. My kids have suffered silently. And I feel that I owe them a lot. I feel now that I can devote more time to being a good father to them. And to being a good husband. And to rebuilding my life.”
He also thanked the Canadian people for pushing for the truth.
It was those same people on the mind of Harper as he offered an apology of behalf of Canada for the events that happened before he took over in Ottawa.
“Although these events occurred under the last government, please rest assured that this government will do everything in its power to ensure that the issues raised by Commissioner O’Connor are addressed. I trust, having arrived at a negotiated settlement, we have ensured that fair compensation will be paid to you and your family.”
Arar was tortured for almost a year and lost his job amid a cloud of suspicion. He was eventually cleared in an inquiry conducted by Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor and received an apology from R.C.M.P. Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, who would tearfully resign his post over the affair.
Both sides made reference to the large amount that taxpayers will dole out for the tragic mistake, and both insist that no amount of cash will ever be enough to undo the damage.
“I know to some Canadians that will sound like an awful lot of money,” Harper admitted. “But I can tell you that the reality is, given the findings of the O’Connor commission and the unjust treatment that Mr. Arar received, 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.”
Arar’s own lawyer was less diplomatic.
“No amount of money would cause a rational person to choose what Maher Arar and his family have been through,” Julian Falconer points out.
“I ask you to consider that he spent the 10 months and 10 days never knowing which day he would be tortured, never knowing whether he would live or die. To those who would suggest that money could somehow fix this or have rendered him whole, I say to you that is absurd. I would go further and suggest that at the end of the day, not one of us would trade our good names and our ability to live a normal life for that amount of money.”
The engineer was preparing to fly to Montreal from Tunisia when he was held at a New York airport in 2002 and subsequently sent to Syria by U.S. authorities after they received incorrect info about alleged al-Qaida ties from the Mounties. Canadian officials brought him home more than a year later, and a judicial inquiry eventually cleared him.
News of the deal comes two days after the U.S. Ambassador slammed Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day for demanding Arar be removed from the U.S. no-fly list, something they’ve refused to do.
“It’s a little presumptuous of him to say who the United States can and cannot allow into our country,” the ambassador said after meeting with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach in Edmonton.
“Canadian officials would rightly never tolerate any American official dictating to them who they may or may not allow into their country.”
U.S. officials reason that they have information to back up their decision, but Day said this week that he’d seen it and that there was nothing incriminating in the file.
“It simply does not alter our opinion that Mr. Arar is not a threat, nor is his family,” the minister said. “We are continuing to let our position be known on that.”
University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman says the settlement doesn’t bring the Arar affair to an end.
“I don’t think the government had much choice in terms of an apology or compensation in light of the legal findings of a Canadian judge. Having said that, I think the real story here hasn’t come out yet, and that’s the culpability of the media and those in the government that leaked false information to the media,” he said. ” The media still haven’t revealed who those people are; nor is it apparent that those people have in any way been disciplined or named.”
Arar has sued U.S. officials over their role in the matter. That suit is pending.
To see unedited video of Arar’s statement, click here.
To see unedited video of Harper’s apology, click here.
Maher Arar Statement
“Good afternoon. I cannot begin to tell you how important it is, how important it is today that Prime Minister Harper and his government have moved forward on the work of Justice O’Connor by apologizing to me and my family and awarding compensation.
In doing so, the government of Canada and the prime minister have acknowledged my innocence. This means the world to me, to Monia to, my kids, to my mother, and father, to my five brothers and sister.
I thank the prime minister and his government for taking this step. My suffering and the suffering of my family did not end when I was released. The struggle to clear my name has been long and hard. My kids have suffered silently. And I feel that I owe them a lot.
I feel now that I can devote more time to being a good father to them. And to being a good husband. And to rebuilding my life.
This struggle has taught me about how important it is to stand up for everyone’s human rights. Monia and I also realize that this compensation makes it possible for us to contribute in other ways to Canadian society.
As I have stated many times before, this struggle was never just about me. This was a struggle for everyone. And I will continue to do all I can to add my voice to those working to make sure that all of Justice O’Connor’s recommendations … are fully implemented.
The fact that the previous government called a public inquiry into my case must be acknowledged. So too must the efforts of the current government to implement Justice O’Connor’s recommendations.
Finally I want to pay tribute to the Canadian people. Without the support of the Canadian people, I may never have come home, and I would not have been able to stay strong and push for the truth.
I feel proud as a Canadian and I feel proud of what we have been able to achieve collectively. Above all, I must thank my wife Monia for the strength, the courage, and the determination she has shown all along the struggle. To Monia, to my daughter, and to my son, I say I owe you a lot.
The following is the text of the letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Maher Arar:
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 the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003.
Although these events occurred under the last government, please rest assured that this government will do everything in its power to ensure that the issues raised by Commissioner O’Connor are addressed.
I trust that, having arrived at a negotiated settlement, we have ensured that fair compensation will be paid to you and your family. 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 lives.
“I’ve never wanted to become a public figure, but the circumstances forced me to. You know sometimes I sit down and write my name on Google and see how many hits I have. So the minute I feel it’s going, I will come back again and talk to you.”
Arar on his unwanted and undeserved infamy.
“What they’re doing now by making political certain selected items of information, is not the way to proceed. [Not] if the United States considers itself to be a democratic country.”
Arar on his continued exclusion from the U.S.
“I believe that the most important question is that if somebody is put on this no-fly list, how can that name be withdrawn from the list. Are you on that list for life? For example in my case. When they sent me to Syria, they gave me a document in which it was said I couldn’t come to the United States for five years. Now in September of this year, does that mean that they will take my name off the list? That I do not know.”
Arar on how long the ban will last
“We went to Brussels back in March, the plane actually entered the U.S. airspace for about 10-15 minutes, and I was watching us on the map and it actually flew over Bangor [Maine] … where the private jet refuelled before it went to Rome. So I was not comfortable at all during those 10-15 minutes. Time will tell only whether this will change.”
Arar on his travel problems
“I ask you to consider what he now faces, him and his family. Severely restricted from practicing their faith and returning or conducting a pilgrimage to Mecca. They can’t travel to over one-third of the world’s countries according to experts, not simply because of their own fears but because acting reasonably while on the U.S. watch list and for the rest of the foreseeable future, he would be a fool to take such a risk.”
Julian Falconer, Arar’s lawyer
“I have tried to find a job before in my field. I have never been able to. Remember in the old days it, took me like a week to find a job so at least now I have this hope how to rebuild it, how to do it.”
Arar on his future employment as a computer engineer
“Part of this process was an apology in writing, and I want you to know why. Monia Mazigh (Arar’s wife) told me that she wanted an apology in writing from the prime minister so when her children are old enough they have written proof from the prime minister of Maher’s innocence. That is wrong. No one should have to prove their good name to their children. That is simply abominable.”
Falconer on the future of Arar’s family
“I really wish I can buy with this money my life back,”
Arar on what he’d really like to do with the $10.5 million
“Today innocence has triumphed.”
Key dates in the Maher Arar ordeal, courtesy Canadian Press:
Sept. 26, 2002: Arar arrives at JFK Airport in New York City, on flight from Zurich, headed for Montreal. Detained by U.S. authorities, questioned, told he is inadmissible to the United States and asked where he would like to go. He says Canada.
Oct. 4, 2002: Arar visited by Maureen Girvan, Canadian consular officer in New York. She later says she never thought the Americans would send him anywhere except home to Canada.
Oct. 8, 2002: Arar taken from his cell at 3 a.m., told by American officials he is being deported to Syria on suspicion of terrorist activity. Bundled aboard private jet.
Oct. 9, 2002: Plane lands in Jordan, Arar quickly transferred by car to Damascus where he is to be jailed by Syrian military intelligence.
Oct. 10, 2002: Arar gets first look at cell he describes as size of a grave. Spends most of next 10 months there.
Oct. 11, 2002: Arar tortured for first time, beaten on palms, wrists, lower back and hips with electrical cable. Confesses — falsely, he says — to terrorist training in Afghanistan.
Oct. 23, 2002: Arar meets Canadian consul Leo Martel for first time. Beatings have lessened since he was first jailed, and Martel later says he couldn’t detect any signs of physical torture. Several more consular visits in subsequent months but none are private; Syrian officials insist on being present.
Early April, 2003: Arar briefly allowed some time in outdoor courtyard. First time he has seen sun in six months.
April 23, 2003: Arar meets Canadian ambassador Franco Pillarella and two visiting Canadian MPs, Marlene Catterall and Sarkis Assadourian. Again Syrians insist on being present and he can’t speak frankly.
Aug. 14, 2003: Routine consular visits resume after long interruption. Arar describes living conditions and later says he told consul he had been tortured. Consul says he knew living conditions were bad, but Arar never spoke of torture.
Aug. 23, 2003: Arar blindfolded, put in car and driven to new prison. Treatment improves and there is no further torture. No longer held in solitary confinement, can mix with other prisoners.
Sept. 19, 2003: Arar teaching English to fellow prisoners when he hears another Canadian has arrived at prison. It’s Abdullah Almalki, an acquaintance from Ottawa who has also been tortured.
Oct. 4, 2003: After days expecting further interrogation, Arar told instead he will be going home to Canada. He doesn’t believe it.
Oct. 5, 2003: Arar taken to meet prosecutor who reads out confession of his supposed terrorist past and tells him to sign it without giving him chance to read it. Then taken to meet head of Syrian military intelligence, who has been joined by Canadian officials for occasion. Arar freed and put on plane to Canada.
Sept. 18, 2006: Inquiry report blames RCMP for supplying inaccurate and unfair to Americans about Arar’s alleged terrorist leanings, likely basis for the U.S. decision to detain and deport. Says Arar has committed no crime and is no threat to Canadian security.
Sept. 28, 2006: RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli apologizes to Arar, but says he will not resign. Receives support from government and some opposition parties.
Dec. 6, 2006: Zaccardelli resigns after acknowledging he provided erroneous information about the Arar case to a Commons committee.
Dec. 12, 2006: Second part of Arar inquiry report released, recommending much tougher oversight of RCMP and other security agencies.
Jan. 26, 2007: Canadian government announces settlement with Arar.
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