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Canadian Citizen Imprisoned By U.S. Speaks Out

Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship, was detained during a stop-over in JFK Airport in 2002 and deported to a Syrian prison, where he was locked up and beaten for almost a year.

41:54

Other segments from the episode on September 18, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 18, 2008: Interview with Jane Mayer; Interview with Maher Arar and Maria Lahood.

Transcript

DATE September 18, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jane Mayer, author of "The Dark Side," on extraordinary
rendition
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The story you're about to hear is considered by many people to be a classic
example of a grave mistake in the war on terror. In September 26th, 2002, my
guest Maher Arar was detained at JFK Airport while in transit on his way home
to Canada from vacationing in Tunisia. He was interrogated about alleged
links to terrorists. Twelve days later he was deported by US authorities to
Syria, where he was put in a tomb-like cell for more than 10 months, beaten,
and interrogated. Arar was born in Syria and moved to Canada with his family
at age 17. He's held dual citizenship since 1991.

He was released from Syria and returned to Canada in October 2003. The
Canadian government eventually opened an inquiry into his case. In 2006 a
Canadian commission cleared Arar of all terrorism allegations. He received an
apology from the prime minister for the Canadian government's role in his
apprehension and was awarded over $10 million in damages.

Arar's deportation by American authorities was part of the secret policy known
as extraordinary rendition. Before we meet him we're going to talk about
rendition with Jane Mayer, a reporter for The New Yorker. She writes about
extraordinary rendition and Maher's case in her best-seller about the war on
terror, "The Dark Side."

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let me start by just asking you to
explain extraordinary rendition.

Ms. JANE MAYER: Well, extraordinary rendition is a tool that's been used in
the war on terror. It's a means of basically kidnapping someone against whom
there are outstanding legal charges and rendering them to justice. At least,
that was the old fashioned version of what it was. In the Reagan years, the
idea was to pick up suspects against whom there were already sort of major rap
sheets for crimes already committed, and what happened in post-9/11 periods
was that, instead, suspects started being picked up who just seemed to be sort
of suspicious characters, but not necessarily against whom there were real rap
sheets or kind of criminal records. And it was part of the preventive model
that the Bush administration had put in place where they wanted to be able to
pick up suspicious characters before they committed crimes.

GROSS: Why was Maher Arar's name on the terror watch list in the first place?

Ms. MAYER: Well, he had the misfortune of placing on a rental lease for an
apartment he rented in Canada the name of a man who was the brother of a
terror suspect, and later, when the suspect himself and another man were being
questioned, brutally and in very coercive kind of way, about any possible
other terrorists they knew, these suspects were asked specifically about Arar
because of the name on the lease, and at that point the suspects gave false
confessions implicating him, saying, `Oh sure, he's a terrorist, too.'

GROSS: So how did the Immigration and Naturalization Service determine that
Maher Arar should actually be deported and sent to Syria for interrogation?

Ms. MAYER: Well, you know, much of this still remains mysterious because the
public officials in the United States have not answered all the questions
here. Unlike Canada, they have not had a major internal investigation to try
to get to the bottom of it. In fact, they have pushed away all efforts to
investigation this, so much is unknown. But you can see that there were
rendition papers--they described it actually as an immigration action, signed
by the number two at the Justice Department, Larry Thompson, who authorized
that Arar should be picked up and sent to Syria. Arar had dual citizenship at
the time. He was both a citizen of Canada and a citizen of Syria, which was
where he had been born. But he hadn't been in Syria since he'd been a
teenager and his family was in Canada, and Arar protested immediately that he
didn't want to go back to Syria. Everything he'd ever heard about it from his
parents was that the law enforcement process there was unjust and brutal and
he didn't want to be subjected to torture. Immediately, that's what he
thought of, and so he protested. But they didn't listen to him.

GROSS: The United States doesn't exactly have a relationship of cooperation
with Syria. In fact, shortly before Maher Arar's rendition, President Bush
added Syria to the list of outlaw states that he describes as the "axis of
evil." So how did the United States work out this cooperative relationship
with Syria in which the US would send somebody like Maher Arar for
interrogation, and Syria would cooperate and report back the results?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's an amazing situation, because obviously we don't
regard Syria as a close ally in any way. What actually happened was they
sent--the US flew Arar in very sleek Gulfstream jet, not directly to Syria but
first to Jordan, which worked very closely with the United States in the war
on terror, and then Jordan was commanded by the US to hand him over to Syria.
So there was a kind of a cut-out in the process. But in the war on terror all
kinds of convenient alliances crop up. I mean, the United States has worked
with many brutal regimes, such as Uzbekistan and Syria, too.

GROSS: How was Maher Arar finally released from Syria after months of
interrogation?

Ms. MAYER: Well, his wife just took up the issue and wouldn't let it drop.
And so she continually protested inside Canada and pushed and pushed, and
finally got enough of a kind of a protest going that the ambassador then had
to check in on him. And at first Arar was too frightened to tell about how
brutally he'd been treated, but anyway, eventually Canada realized what a
mistake this had been and they finally worked to let him out. I mean, the
Syrians, who are not known for coddling terrorists, after interrogating Arar
under really brutal circumstances, came to the conclusion he was not a
terrorist and that this was a mistake.

GROSS: So if his wife hadn't worked that hard, or if Maher Arar wasn't
married, who knows if he'd still be alive or where he would be?

Ms. MAYER: Very much so. I think, you know, I mean, I think that he might
still be wasting away there.

GROSS: Canada has apologized to Maher Arar and awarded him over $10 million
in damages. What's his status in the United States' legal system now?

Ms. MAYER: It's quite amazing. He is still considered by the United States
to be worthy of being on the terror watch list. The reasons for this have not
been shared with the public so I don't know exactly why. At some point the
Justice Department had a private meeting with some members of the Senate to
try to convince them that Arar belonged there, and those senators said they
still were unconvinced that he should be on the terror watch list. But this
means he can't set food in the United States without being arrested.

GROSS: Do we know if the extraordinary rendition program is still going on?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's still very much on the books. I mean, the Bush
administration describes it as one of its most useful tools, and they've
certainly never apologized for it, and they continue to argue that it's legal.
The sticky spot, legally, for the program, though, is that under the
convention against torture, the United States is not allowed to transfer
someone to a country where they will be--where there's a great than not chance
that they'll be tortured. Yet, under the extraordinary rendition program,
suspect after suspect, hundreds of them, apparently, have been transferred to
countries where torture is routine, and so it's very hard to see how they've
gotten around the convention against torture in structuring this program.

GROSS: You write about Maher Arar's story of extraordinary rendition in your
book "The Dark Side." What do you consider to be the importance of his case
and his story?

Ms. MAYER: Well, one of the most important things is that, in the view of
Canada, and in the view of Syria, two countries that probably agree on very
little, they agree that Arar is not a terrorist. He was a mistake. He was an
innocent person, who because of this extralegal process, which took place
outside of the public view and outside of checks and balances and all the
kinds of reviews that are usually put in place to avoid mistakes, an innocent
man was locked up in the equivalent of a grave for almost a year and beaten;
and might still be there if not for the protests of his wife. So it's just a
harrowing story.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you very much for talking with us again.

Ms. MAYER: Thanks. I'm so glad to be with you.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is the author of the best-seller "The Dark Side," and a
reporter for The New Yorker. We'll talk with Maher Arar about his deportation
and imprisonment in Syria after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Maher Arar and his lawyer Maria Lahood on Arar's
false imprisonment and extraordinary rendition
TERRY GROSS, host:

When we left off, journalist Jane Mayer was explaining the secret American
policy of extraordinary rendition, which allows for terrorism suspects to be
deported to countries where they are imprisoned, interrogated and, in some
cases, tortured. And she told us the story of my guest, Maher Arar. He's a
citizen of Canada and Syria who was deported by American authorities to Syria,
where he was beaten, interrogated and kept in a tomb-like cell for over 10
months.

Arar was released in October 2003 and returned to Canada. Three years later a
Canadian commission cleared him of all terrorism charges. Arar's a wireless
engineer who's now studying for his doctorate.

Maher, let's start with your story. You were at JFK Airport on your way from
Tunis to Canada, and this was just an airport stopover. You'd been
vacationing with your family. How were you told that you were being detained?

Mr. MAHER ARAR: Well, I presented my passport at immigration. To my
surprise, I had to go through immigration. It was just transit, and I had
traveled extensively before to the States, and none of this had really
happened. They asked me to go into a waiting area, and eventually some
airport police and New York police and FBI people showed up and they asked me
whether I was willing to give them an interview, and I found that very
puzzling, as they did not really tell me ahead of time what it was about. And
my immediate reaction was to be able to make a phone call to call my family
and I also asked them to be able to have a lawyer present, and they told me
that I had no right to a lawyer because I was not an American citizen, and
that was a shock to me.

GROSS: What kinds of questions did they ask you?

Mr. ARAR: Well, as usual, the questions started, you know, with the routine
questions, but eventually they asked me about people I knew in Ottawa. We now
know that those people were--they were having some suspicions about some of
these people as a result of Canadian investigation. But from the nature of
the questioning and the information they had--in fact, they had a thick report
in their hands that they were consulting from time to time. The nature of the
questioning and the information had made it clear to me that they had private
information that could only come from Canada.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, in "The Dark Side," writes that, although you didn't know
it at the time, you were falsely implicated when two men were tortured in
Syria...

Mr. ARAR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and under torture just offered up your name.

Mr. ARAR: Mm-hmm. Today we have a lot more information than we had before
in the public record, and so we kind of know more about the story, but at that
time you have to remember I was in the dark...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ARAR: ...about what was going on. And do we really know the full story
yet? I don't think so. I think there's so many other pieces of the puzzle
that we still have to find. But you're quite right. Apparently those two
people they were asking me about, at that time they were both detained by the
Syrian military intelligence, apparently as a result of information sent from
both the Americans and the Canadian police. And under torture one of them had
confessed to a false plot against the US embassy in Ottawa. But it does not
seem that he implicated me, whether directly or indirectly in that plot, but
the Syrian military intelligence, who was at that time trying to prove to the
West, and especially United States, that they were doing their fair share of
the war on terror, they actually had to just find something so that they would
please the Americans. So they had to ask, you know, about other people, and
eventually, according to the public information we have, he confessed to have
seen me in Afghanistan, and I don't think I was alone. He probably named many
other people. So maybe that was in the hands of the Americans when they were
asking me. We really don't know the full--all the facts. But the O'Connor
inquiry clearly stated though without...

GROSS: This is the Canadian inquiry into your case?

Mr. ARAR: The Canadian inquiry. It's about, what, it took about two and a
half years of public investigation. I just want to clarify this because it's
an important point. The commissioner of the inquiry clearly stated in his
report that my problems all started with the Canadian police, which we call
here the RCMP, which is the equivalent of the FBI. They sent false
information to their counterparts, and that led to all my problems. Now,
whether the American had information from Syria or not, we don't know the
facts, but obviously the commissioner concluded that I was sent to Syria very
likely based on this false information sent by the RCMP to the FBI.

And just to give you an example of what this kind of information was, one
report described myself and my wife as Islamic extremists with possible links
to al-Qaeda, and during the inquiry the RCMP officers admitted that they had
no evidence whatsoever to use those labels, so. And they never corrected
their record with the Americans. So I just want to, you know, give a clear
picture about what kind of information the FBI had in their possession before
I was stopped there.

GROSS: Maher, you were held for 13 days in the United States, then you were
put on a plane, you were told you were being taken to Syria. What went
through your mind when you heard that you were being taken to Syria?

Mr. ARAR: First of all, I was shocked that a country like the United States
that always prided itself with protecting human rights and condemning torture
and that, they would send me to there despite my fears, despite the fears that
I expressed to them that I would be tortured. That was my initial reaction.
And then when I realized I was actually going to go there, I--you see, I did
not want to believe I was being sent to Syria because of all the memories I
had from my childhood when my parents told me about how people are tortured
there, especially political detainees and people accused of being members of
Islamic groups. And then when I was on the plane, all the time I was very
worried about what was going to happen next. Basically I became convinced by
that time that the Americans sent me there to be tortured. There was no other
explanation for me. So during the entire trip I was preoccupied about how I
could avoid torture. That was my main, you know, worry. Once I'm in Syria,
how I avoid to be tortured.

GROSS: So when you got to Syria, you were taken to a prison that's apparently
very notorious that's nicknamed The Grave, and Jane Mayer describes it as the
heart of the Syrian intelligence services' dungeon-like interrogation center.
What was your cell like in this Syrian prison?

Mr. ARAR: My cell was about three feet wide, about six feet deep and about
seven feet high. Frankly, when they opened the door for me and they asked me
to go in, I naively thought that I would be put in there for a day or two just
to put pressure on me, but that cell ended up being my home for the next 10
months and 10 days. This cell, as filthy as it was, as dark as it was, as
small as it was, was a refuge for me from physical torture. But over time the
cell in itself became a torture, a psychological torture on its own. Just to
give you an idea about how desperate I was to get out of that cell, I was
ready to confess to anything if they just, you know, take me out of that
place. It was so horrible, and that's why I've always called it the grave,
because it's really like a grave. You were put in there. It's dark. You
don't know anything about the outside world. It's so small. It's filthy. So
at moments, you know, I really said to myself, you know, life is not worth
anything anymore and, you know, I lost hope, and it took 10 month and 10 days
before I was taken out from that cell. I was in very, very bad shape.

GROSS: The only times, I guess, you were taken out was to be tortured, so
when...

Mr. ARAR: Mm.

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. ARAR: The main interrogation really, you know, happened during the
first, I would say 10 days to two weeks. That's where the physical torture
took place, and eventually they took me upstairs, a couple of months later, to
ask me one or two or three questions. But really the main interrogation and
the harshest sessions were at the beginning. That's where they used the
physical torture.

GROSS: What did they want to know?

Mr. ARAR: Well, it was so obvious that the Syrians wanted to know more
information about, you know, my life in Canada, my life in the States.
Remember that I spent a year and a half, or about almost two years working for
a Boston firm, and so obviously their main questions centered about my life,
you know, my travels, the people I knew, what kind of work I was doing, you
know. But I could tell after a two-week period--they never told it to me
directly but I could see in the eyes of the Syrian interrogators that I, you
know, I was not the person that I was described to them by the Americans. You
have to remember the Americans sent me--dumped me in Syria, or in Jordan, then
eventually I was taken to Syria, accusing me of being a member of al-Qaeda.
And so the Syrians had to do their dirty work and beat me, and, you know, even
though you confess to false things, the Syrians know it's false, and at the
end of the day what they're looking for is information, sound information.
And I think really after, you know, a two-week period they convinced
themselves that there was nothing there.

GROSS: Maher Arar will be back. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Maher Arar. He was a
victim of the secret American program known as extraordinary rendition. This
allows for terrorism suspects to be deported to countries where they can be
imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. Arar was on a stopover at JFK on his
way home to Canada when he was detained by American authorities and later
deported to Syria, where he was beaten, interrogated and imprisoned. After
his return to Canada, a Canadian commission cleared him of all allegations of
terrorism.

Torture or extreme interrogation techniques have become so controversial in
the United States, and everybody has been asking, well, do they work. You
know, do these techniques actually get useable information? Give us your
experience of that. Tell us a little bit about what was done in terms of
torturing you and what that got you to say.

Mr. ARAR: Well, I think human beings have this--any human being--has this
tendency to be able to resist to pressure, but frankly, any human being, as
strong as he is or she is, they will just give up at the end. And that's what
I've tried to do. I've tried to resist the beatings, but the Syrians
eventually, after the first day and then--of interrogation, they realized I
had nothing. And the next day they wanted me to say I had been to
Afghanistan. After many sessions of beatings and being left in a room to hear
other people being tortured, I told them what they wanted to hear.

GROSS: But you told them you were in Afghanistan? That you'd been in
Afghanistan?

Mr. ARAR: That's right. That's right. And...

GROSS: Did you tell them--they wanted to hear that you were a member of
al-Qaeda. Did you tell them that?

Mr. ARAR: I don't remember being asked about directly that question. You
know, you have to remember that what I'm telling you is only a portion of what
I remember. Believe me, you go in those sessions, it's like survival moment.
You just want to, you know, survive. Do you remember every question they ask
you? Do you remember every accusation they told you during that session? No.
And I only remember bits and pieces from some of those sessions, you know.
The most striking thing that I remember was about Afghanistan because that's
where, you know, they focused and the most extreme beating happened, you know.

GROSS: Could you give us an idea of what went on in your mind and the kind of
bargains you made with yourself about how far you'd be capable of holding out
before just telling them whatever they wanted to hear?

Mr. ARAR: Well, you resist, but, you see, the first day they didn't accuse
me of anything. They were just gathering information. The beating happened
the next day. The head of the interrogation team opens the door. I was just,
you know, in that room alone. Without, you know, uttering a word, he asked me
to stand up and to open my right palm, and he hits me with a cable and, you
know, it's very hard to describe that feeling, that pain, but to give you an
idea about extreme this pain was, I've always used this proverb in Arabic that
basically says, the pain that results out of this beatings is beyond
imagination to the point that where you will forget the milk that you have
been fed from your mother. So basically, it's so intense to the point where
you just beg them to stop. Obviously at the beginning, you know, you say,
`I'm not going to say what they want to hear.' But eventually you're ready to
do anything, you know, whatever they put in front of you, you'll just sign it.

GROSS: OK. So you comply with them finally. You just, you tell lies just in
the hopes that the torture will stop and in the hopes that they'll send you
home.

Mr. ARAR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you tell them what they want to hear, and then what? Does the
torture stop? Do they send you home?

Mr. ARAR: Well, in my case, the torture did not completely stop, but it
became a lot less intense. So, if I remember correctly, from that moment on,
they did not use the cable with me, or if they did it was occasional. They
mostly beat me with their fists, with their--punch me, you know, slap me on
the face and beat me on the back of my neck. They also played mind games with
me by taking me to a room blindfolded against the wall and a lot of people
would be talking about me. And, you know, out of nowhere someone would jump
and beat me on the back of my head. So I would say, after that, you know, it
became less intense. They wanted to know my relationships with other people
they were interested in. And, you know, what I did for a living and all of
that. But after that false confession, they were, you know, the beatings
became less severe.

GROSS: Did you feel that you told them anything that could be used against
people who you knew? Do you think anything you told them could be
misconstrued and be used against family or friends, colleague?

Mr. ARAR: I don't remember and I don't think so, but again--see, they're not
like normal sessions where the FBI is sitting around the table and asking
questions and maybe recording this and allowing your lawyer to record what you
say and what you don't say. There are sessions where beating is the norm and
fear is the norm. What you say or you don't say and what they write or don't,
it's not--but I can tell you, I don't think I have said things that would
implicate people in anything. Basically...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ARAR: Basically, I could tell that--like they were looking for something
that the Americans did not find. I mean, that was a strong feeling in me. I
mean, I could tell in their eyes and their, like--and once that false
confession took place, they were extremely happy with it then, you know. So
they just wanted to prove that they're better interrogators, maybe, than the
Americans.

GROSS: So after you'd be in an interrogation session and beaten and badly
wounded by that, then you'd be put into this tomb-like underground cell that
was basically like...

Mr. ARAR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...a little bigger than your body.

Mr. ARAR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How do you recover from wounds like that in a filthy tomb-like cell?

Mr. ARAR: Well, let me tell you something that--it's very hard for
people--and you have to remember there are people who were tortured more than
I was, and believe me, sometimes when I heard their stories later, at a
different prison they sent me to, I mean, I couldn't believe they were still
living, you know. I think faith played a big role in this. You know, I'm a
believer, and belief in God helps you go through tough times. Now actually,
if you ask me how I survived those days, I can't tell you. I really don't
know. Again, as I say, the human beings have this ability to adapt; and does
not mean it was easy for me, but some of the pain I could tell you lasted for
about six month, and up until today I think back and I say, my God, how I was
able to survive all this?

GROSS: What about mentally? How do you mentally survive in a tomb-like
cell...

Mr. ARAR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...for 10 months?

Mr. ARAR: The mental pain I could tell you was the most severe, because, you
see, the physical pain, even though some of the pain lasted for a while, but,
you know, it's intense at one day or two day or three years, and eventually
get the pain to go away, within a month or two or three or four. But I could
tell you that the mental pain and the psychological pain live with me until
this day. And that I, you know, I've been struggling with it for since I came
back. It was at its peak during that 10-month period, and believe me, at the
end I couldn't take it anymore.

You know, I'll just give you an example. Being locked up in this cell in and
of itself, it's a type of torture. But also being incommunicado, like you
don't what's happening to your family, to your kids, you start thinking all
kind of things, you know. Are they also doing well? Have they been kidnapped
like you? What are my kids doing? How are they doing? Are they eating well?
Are they--what is my wife doing? You know, that alone is--and remember,
you're being put in there 24 hours a day except the few minutes they take you
out to the bathroom. I mean, that alone is mentally demanding, and that's why
I call this time a slow death process, basically. You're basically dying.

You know, at the beginning I was able, you know, to do some push-ups so that I
could keep in good physical health. But after a few months--you know, I
started with 20 push-ups, and then 10 push-ups, then five push-ups, then
eventually I wasn't able to do any push-ups at all. And I don't know. If
they kept me more in that cell, I would probably be dead by now.

GROSS: My guest is Maher Arar. We'll talk more about his case, and we'll
hear from his US lawyer, Maria Lahood, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Maher Arar. He was accused by American authorities of
having connections to terrorists. As part of the secret American policy of
extraordinary rendition, he was deported to Syria, where he was beaten,
interrogated and imprisoned.

So you're kept incommunicado in this cell. You don't know what's happened to
your family. How did your family and the outside world find out where you
were?

Mr. ARAR: My wife and my family started making some phone calls with the
Canadian authorities, and they did not know anything about me until a few days
later. They knew I was detained in the States. They didn't know what it was
about, and it took about a week before I was allowed to make a one-minute, or
two-minute phone call to my mother-in-law to tell her that I was at the
metropolitan detention center in New York. That was the first time where they
had a confirmation where I was, but basically for a few days, my wife and my
family did not know about whether I was dead, whether I was alive. They knew
nothing and...

GROSS: Did they know when you were taken to Syria?

Mr. ARAR: No, it was a surprise to everyone. No one knew about it until...

GROSS: So how did they find out that you were in a cell in Syria?

Mr. ARAR: It took about few days until the Canadian authorities found out
and they informed my wife about it. Where in Syria, in what condition, how?
No one knew. There were some rumors, too, that I was sent to Jordan, which is
a fact, but people were told that I was kept in Jordan for two weeks, and yet
I only stayed about 10 hours in Jordan.

GROSS: Jordan was just a stopover on the way to Syria?

Mr. ARAR: It was a stopover.

GROSS: Let me introduce your lawyer into the conversation.

Maria Lahood, welcome, and Maria Lahood is from the Center for Constitutional
Rights.

Maria, Maher Arar's...

Ms. MARIA LAHOOD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...still not allowed in the United States. How is that affecting your
ability to represent him?

Ms. LAHOOD: Well, it makes it difficult. I mean, it also makes it difficult
because we, you know, we expect probably that our communications are being
surveilled. You know, he can't come here for his hearing. He was at least
able to listen in by phone to the prior two hearings, but, you know, I need to
go up to Canada in order to meet with him.

Mr. ARAR: There's two separate cases that have been pressed. One is
in--there's a minimum of two, anyways. There's been a two track system, one
in Canada, where Maher Arar is a citizen, and one in the United States, where
he's not a citizen, but it was the United States that had the extraordinary
rendition program and sent him to Syria for interrogation. So tell us the
outcome of the Canadian case.

Ms. LAHOOD: Well, after the two and a half year public inquiry that Canada
launched which exonerated Maher and found that Canada had given the United
States false and inflammatory information, had not acted fast enough in
securing his release from Syria and had, you know, had false leaks against him
after his return, Canada settled Maher's Canadian lawsuit.

GROSS: And Canada awarded him, was it $10.2 million dollars in compensatory
damages, and offered an official apology for what happened?

Ms. LAHOOD: Yes.

GROSS: And so take it from here with the American case now.

Ms. LAHOOD: So the American case, which was brought in in January 2004,
shortly after Maher was released, was brought against, you know, then Attorney
General Ashcroft, the deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, the FBI director
Robert Mueller, the INS commissioner James Ziglar and then other immigration
officials. And you know, the case was brought basically because the US
government officials violated Maher's constitutional rights in sending him to
Syria to be tortured and arbitrarily detained, and in preventing him from, you
know, accessing his counsel in the courts while he was in the United States.
So the district judge in New York dismissed his case in 2006 essentially for
foreign relations and national security relations.

GROSS: I think the court said that the case would pose too much of a threat
to national security to be heard in court?

Ms. LAHOOD: Right. Right. So, you know, `I won't find whether there's a
constitutional violation. I just, I won't permit it to be adjudicated.'

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LAHOOD: So, you know, we appealed to the second circuit court of
Appeals, and recently in June got a two-to-one decision, and the majority
decided, partially along similar grounds, saying the same thing, which is
that, you know, `We won't adjudicate the case because of foreign relations and
national security reasons.' The other thing that the court did was say that
because Congress had provided foreign citizens with the ability to ask a court
to review their removal order, the court here wasn't going to provide a remedy
to Maher, even though, you know, what he alleges is that the officials
prevented him from going into court in order to stop his transfer to Syria.
And as far as the denial of access to counsel in the courts, the majority
decided that Maher, as a foreign citizen, who hadn't formally been admitted
into the United States, had no constitutional right, or any other right, to
access his own counsel and to have his own counsel present.

And the majority found that because, you know, even though Maher had alleged,
you know, repeatedly that he said he would be sent--he would be tortured if
sent to Syria and he had alleged that sending him to Syria violated the
convention against torture, which is a treaty that the United States has
ratified and which, you know, specifically prohibits sending someone to a
country where there are substantial grounds that they'll be tortured, that it
wasn't clear from his complaint that what he would have done, had he gotten
into court, is claim that he couldn't be sent there because of the convention
against torture and prohibition.

GROSS: So where does the case stand now in the United States?

Ms. LAHOOD: So we had--you know, after the appellate court came out with its
two-to-one decision, with, I should say, a very dissent by a Judge Sack, who
acknowledged that what the majority was saying was essentially giving license
to US federal officials to violate the Constitution with virtual impunity. We
were going to ask the full second circuit, you know, not just three judges but
the full 12 or 13 judges to re-hear, to reconsider Maher's case. So the day
before we were planning to do that, we found out that, on its own, the full
court, the second circuit en banc had decided to rehear Maher's case without
even being asked. Which is quite an extraordinary move, and, you know, we
think shows the importance of the case and the importance of the issues. So
right now we'll be re-briefing the issues before the full second circuit and
there'll be a rehearing on December 9th.

GROSS: What are you asking for? What do you hope to achieve from the case?

Ms. LAHOOD: Well, I mean, you know, there are many levels. I mean, you
know, one is justice for Maher and what was done to him. We want to hold the
US officials accountable, the ones, you know--those who were actually
responsible for sending him to Syria to be tortured and arbitrarily detained.
We hope to, you know, really establish that this country does respect the rule
of law, does respect human rights, that the Constitution and the law mean
something. You know, what the courts have done so far in this case is really
defer to the executive completely, and that's--you know, our Constitution is
based on separation of powers and the ability of the judiciary to review what
the executive does. And here that hasn't been upheld at all. You know, the
court needs to make clear that we are not a country who tortures, that we are
a country who enforces the rule of law and the executive branch is not above
that.

Mr. ARAR: When we speak about human rights, we don't say Muslim human rights
or American human rights or Christian human rights. It's just human rights.
And we can't have, you know, many standards that apply to different people.
We have to separate the actual crime from the actual, you know, rights. Every
human being, no matter what kind of suspicions we have about them, no matter
what kind of crimes they have committed, they should be afforded rights. And
that's why the Constitution exists. It exists to protect people from abuses
by the government. And unfortunately this is not the policy that this current
administration has been following. And I really believe it's backfiring.
It's not doing any good to--whether to the American people themselves or
whether to their allies.

GROSS: My guests are Maher Arar and his American lawyer Maria Lahood from the
Center for Constitutional Rights. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: We've been talking with Maher Arar about how in 2002 American
authorities accused him of ties to terrorists and deported him to Syria, where
he was imprisoned, beaten and interrogated.

Maher, you are now studying for your doctorate in wireless engineering at the
University of Ottawa. The Canadian government has apologized to you. It has
awarded you over $10 million in compensatory damages, so in Canada, like, your
name has been cleared. Nevertheless, do some people still think, `Oh, maybe
he really was a terrorist'? Do you feel like there's still suspicion around
you that you'll never be able to fully clear?

Mr. ARAR: Well, I think, even if I clear my name in the States, there will
always be those people who will say, where there's smoke there's fire, and I
can do nothing to those people. What I know is there has been an inquiry in
Canada--a full-blown inquiring that clearly told the public that I'm in no way
a threat to Canadian security. But I just have to do what I have to do. I
have to keep up the struggle to be able to fight my name. And, you know, I'm
doing this for my kids so that when they grow up they're proud of their
father, and I have already achieved the first part of my objective here in
Canada, and there remains the second part in the States.

GROSS: Well, where do you feel you are now in terms of your physical and
psychological recovery from your imprisonment and torture in Syria?

Mr. ARAR: My physical scars have, you know, faded away except a little bit
in my hip, you know. But to my surprise, the psychological ones, some of them
have faded quite a bit, but some others are still with me on a daily basis.
Basically I'm not able to function as the same person that I was. For those
who know me from before, they know someone who was, you know, if I tell you
overconfident, I won't be overstating that--someone who's got energy, someone
who's got, you know, ambitions about his career. Now, you know, I'm a
different person. I'm very fragile. I'm, you know, I have this fear always
of traveling. I always, you know, worry of the unknown and so just, if you
take the confidence part alone is very--make me so dysfunctional, because in
my field of study, in my field of profession, you really have to be extremely
confident in what you do.

And I also want you to know that this cloud that, you know, that keeps hanging
above me, whether we like it or not, you know, even I was cleared people still
keep calling me sometimes in the media "former terror suspect," and all those
names. That reminds people about what kind of allegation there was, and that
alone is a form of torture basically, and it's with me on a daily basis. The
bright side, though, is, you know, a lot of people shake my hand and support
me. But am I able to live the same life that I lived before?

Just to give you an example about what I mean is, if before I applied for a
job, let's say I put my resume on monster.com, and I would probably get,
specially in my field of study--it's very specialized, it's in big demand--I
would probably get five or six phone calls within a week. Now if I put it up,
even with my PhD with my all qualifications, rarely I think that I'll get a
call from anyone. In fact, just recently I tried to find a job again with my
US-based employer...(unintelligible)...doing some work remotely or in Europe
here and there, but unfortunately there was no interest at all.

GROSS: Well, Maher Arar, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
I really...

Mr. ARAR: Thank you.

GROSS: ...appreciate it a lot.

And Maria Lahood, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. LAHOOD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Maher Arar's US lawsuit goes before the full second court of appeals
in December. His layer, Maria Lahood, is with the Center for Constitutional
Rights.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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