I don't think there's any subject that I've written about as often in the last year as the Maher Arar story. I've wondered at times if I was belabouring the point so I feel somewhat vindicated to find that Time Canada has named Arar as the Canadian Newsmaker of the Year.
... if Arar is a terrorist, he is unlike any other. In contrast to other suspects dispatched to harsh justice, Arar did not vanish into oblivion in his Middle East cell. Nor, after his release, did he recoil from public view. Instead, Arar, who has a modest home in Ottawa, has stepped into the spotlight as a vocal proponent of human rights in Canada, a symbol of how fear and injustice have permeated life in the West since 9/11. To this day, it has not been revealed why Arar was detained. And no one has pushed harder to shed light on his case than Arar. ?I have nothing to hide,? he said in late 2003. ?I want a public inquiry.?
Arar got his wish. His perseverance?not to mention the absence of evidence against him?helped prod Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan in January 2004 to create a commission to investigate the matter. There is more at stake than just learning the truth. The commission may come up with a new plan for overseeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is accused of botching its end of the case. Arar has launched two gutsy lawsuits in 2004 targeting some of the most powerful people on the continent, including U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien and R.C.M.P. Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli.
Whatever the outcome, Arar has forced Canada to rethink how it balances human rights and security concerns.
While I join Time Canada
in applauding Arar's drive to have the truth revealed, I'm not sure that last sentence is exactly correct. While many Canadians may be rethinking the subject, I'm not sure the government is on the same page. Justice Dennis O'Connor, who's presiding over the inquiry, has prepared for release to the public a summary of the in camera
testimony that has occupied much of the inquiry since it convened. It was turned over to the government for review according to procedure. When the government hadn't responded
at the end of the 10 day comment period Justice O'Connor had to petition for permission to release the information. Only then did the government express its concern with making much of the summary's contents public and announce that it was seeking a second opinion
from a Federal judge.
Even though the government does not accept Judge O'Connor's opinion, Mr. Martin said, "There is no doubt we have complete confidence in Justice O'Connor."
Right. The inquiry commission isn't impressed
The lead lawyer for the public inquiry examining the deportation of Maher Arar suggested Monday that the government is using national security as an excuse to stop the release of embarrassing information.
The government delayed then censored a summary of in-camera testimony before the inquiry. Paul Cavalluzzo, counsel for the commission, said that the decision to hold back part of the summary will be fought in court.
?We are very surprised and disappointed in the government's position on what the public is entitled to know,? he told a press conference in Ottawa.
Mr. Cavalluzzo said that the government had a chance to oppose the release of some parts of the summary and had not done so. It was only when the inquiry made clear its intention to release the information that the government raised its national-security objections.
He noted that the information related to the ?crucial time? between Mr. Arar's detention and deportation had been almost entirely censored at the government's insistence. He showed reporters a few pages of documents with nearly every word blacked out.
If you follow the second to last link, you'll find that PM the PM thinks this is all ?normal.?
Mr. Martin said yesterday that his government's legal dispute with Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor "is a normal part of the give and take in terms of what kind of documentation should be kept in confidence."
I'm not sure that anything about this whole case is normal. It's true that in our legal system a trial is normally an adversarial process. But this isn't a trial, it's a public inquiry called specifically to shed light on the details surrounding Arar's imprisonment and to bring more transparency and accountability into the way our intelligence agencies, in particular the RCMP, operate. Remember transparency and accountability? They're supposed to be two of our Prime Minister's favorite words. But the government and its agencies have dug their heels in and stonewalled the inquiry every step of the way. Now the commission is being forced to fight a court battle for the right to do its job: make the information coming out of a public inquiry available to the public.
If the small amount of information that was actually released is any indication it may explain what's going on and support Mr. Cavalluzzo's contention that the government is trying to avoid embarrassment.
A heavily censored summary of in camera testimony was released Monday, with one of the readable parts showing that CSIS concern about Mr. Arar was pragmatic rather than humanitarian.
The spy agency insisted that it co-operates only cautiously with countries that have poor human-rights records and that, amid fears of a long prison term or death sentence for Mr. Arar, it supported a Canadian government push to have him released.
?CSIS was concerned that, if Mr. Arar was tortured or mistreated in Syria, this would make it difficult to deport other individuals to Syria,? the summary reads.
Never mind Arar's welfare, if anything happens to him while this story is getting media attention it may, um, limit our options. One of the concerns Arar has had all along is that Canadian authorities were contracting out the questioning of suspects to jurisdictions where methods would be used that were unacceptable here at home. In my mind at least, that suspicion just became more serious. Previously I'd given CSIS a bit more credit than the RCMP but it seems that was a mistake.
While we await a court battle to see what we're allowed to know about what's gone on behind closed doors for much of the last five months, the inquiry resumes in January and again it will be in camera. So perhaps we can look forward to a second fight in court over how much of that testimony will be released.
The Time Canada piece summarizes the whole story and provides some personal background on Arar. It also summarizes the revelations from the inquiry to date including the fact that Arar was only a ?peripheral figure? in an investigation to begin with, and that the RCMP actually tried to dissuade the government from pressuring Syria for his release. There's a suggestion of much more to come.
One of Arar?s lawyers, Lorne Waldman, says these revelations are just the tip of a bomb that will explode after more extensive disclosures are made. ?It?s quite a story, and the final chapter hasn?t yet been written,? he says.
And I thought the things we'd already learned were pretty scandalous.
But we're also left to wonder if we'll ever to get to read that final chapter.
But the outcome is far from certain. To avoid embarrassment and perhaps to avoid jeopardizing ongoing cases, powerful forces on both sides of the border will fight hard to keep secret much of the information that could explain why Arar ended up in a Syrian jail. If they succeed, we may never know much more about Maher Arar.
But Arar will have achieved one important goal. He will have given the country reason to care about the outcome ? and perhaps even the desire to ensure that what happened to him can never happen to anyone else.
All the public sympathy for Arar in the world may not accomplish much if the full story never sees the light of day. It's hard to avoid the feeling that problems we don't get to hear about will never be addressed. So alongside Arar, full marks to the commission for taking the fight to the government for the release of that information. I guess we'll see what the new year brings. The wheel grinds slowly, when it grinds at all.
If it can happen to Maher Arar, it can happen to any of us. Certainly his religion and ethnic background made him a more likely target, but if the treatment he received remains even remotely acceptable, if it's seen as even remotely ?normal?, it increases the odds that it can happen to me. Or you. That's why this story is so important.