Civil rights groups on both sides of the border are expressing their disgust after the man who played a key role in sending Maher Arar to a year of torture in Syria was made a law professor at the University of Georgia.
Larry Thompson was deputy attorney general in the U.S. when he signed a 2002 memo refusing Arar’s request to be deported to Canada, consequently paving the way for the Canadian software engineer to be sent to Syria, where he was born.
An internal U.S. report later revealed Thompson feared Canada’s “porous” border would allow Arar to easily return to the States. His decision was made even as officials concluded that Arar was entitled to protection from torture and that returning him to Syria would “more likely than not result in his torture.”
In 2004, Thompson became senior vice-president and general counsel of PepsiCo, a post he is now leaving to teach courses in corporate law and white collar crime.
The University did not respond to criticisms of Thompson’s appointment, but did release a statement welcoming him to their faculty.
“Larry has been a visiting professor and guest speaker at our law school several times in the last decade, and we are thrilled that he will now be joining us on a permanent basis,” said Georgia Law Dean Rebecca White.
“To have someone with his experience and status on our faculty will benefit not only our students, but the law school and the university as a whole.”
The university’s enthusiasm for Thompson is being lambasted by civil rights groups.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights — which represented Arar in his legal efforts against U.S. justice officials — is calling on the school to investigate and reconsider its appointment.
“It’s really sickening,” said Maria LaHood, the centre’s senior staff attorney and Arar’s counsel.
“On the one hand, you have Maher, who received no justice … and on the other you have the University of Georgia law school announcing it’s hiring, with pride, one of the people who conspired to have Maher tortured.”
LaHood added that if Thompson’s appointment stood, her organization had plans to continue a push to raise awareness of his role in the Arar case.
Amnesty International has also weighed in, saying the appointment sent all the wrong messages.
“Here we have an individual who clearly was centrally involved in the decisions that were made, who instead is moving on to what sounds like quite an illustrious advancement in his career,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
“This is just another troubling reminder of the complete failure of U.S. authorities to make any effort to ensure that there will be justice and accountability for the human rights violations that Maher Arar endured.”
Neve added that the appointment should also remind the Canadian government that Arar has still not received the answers and compensation he deserves south of the border.
“This is still an issue that they need to be raising at senior levels with the U.S. government,” he said, adding that Arar remains on a U.S. no fly list.
Arar has been told about the appointment but hasn’t made a public statement.
His case generated a massive public outcry after he was labelled a member of al-Qaida while switching planes at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 2002 en route to Canada. He spent nearly a year in a Syrian prison where he said he was kept in a grave-like cell and repeatedly tortured.
A Canadian judicial inquiry cleared him of any terrorist links in 2007 after concluding that faulty information passed by the RCMP to American officials likely led to his deportation.
Ottawa formally apologized to Arar and awarded him $10.5 million in compensation.
The U.S., however, didn’t go as far. Then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice admitted American officials mishandled the case — but she cited only the lack of communication with Canada before Arar was deported.
Arar is the best known example of the U.S. government’s policy of extraordinary rendition, where terror suspects were moved to another country to be interrogated without public legal proceedings.
His legal efforts against U.S. justice officials have been dismissed and the Supreme Court has refused to review his case. There is however an ongoing public campaign for Americans to call on President Barack Obama to formally apologize to Arar.
One expert on human rights law compared Thompson’s appointment with that of another controversial U.S. legal figure who was later installed as a professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
John Yoo was a former official in the U.S. Justice department who became known as the author of the Torture Memos submitted to the Bush administration, which detailed enhanced interrogation techniques, including the use of waterboarding.
“There was an outcry then, many asked for him to be dismissed from Berkeley. That didn’t happen,” said Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
“The big issue is how much leeway do you give to academic freedom and freedom of expression. And how much leeway do you give to the fact that these guys were directly responsible for people being tortured.”
Mendes said Thompson’s record should have been factored into the university’s hiring decision. He said the appointment could fuel a current movement stateside to justify the use of torture as claims circulate that extensive interrogation practices helped the U.S. track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Mendes added that Arar’s case remains extremely relevant because it highlights the needs to hold countries accountable when it comes to human rights.
“It’s not just the moral and ethical authority of the university which hired him which is at stake,” he said. “It’s the moral and ethical authority of the United States.”