Ten years since Maher Arar the legacy of Canadian injustice continues
Remembrance tends to focus only on the casualties of war that we are proud of, not those that are an embarrassment to the whole enterprise of war. So we forget civilian deaths and collatoral damage, we forget those who die in workplace accidents in the military industry, and we forget those who are targeted by Islamophobia. Hopefully, some readers have heard something of Maher Arar. Others perhaps know nothing of the story, through no fault of their own.
An event on October 29 in Ottawa was organized to keep alive that memory. The “Arar + Ten” conference was organized by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and Amnesty International with the support of unions such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Maher Arar was a telecommunications engineer with dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship who has resided in Canada since 1987. He was detained during a US layover in September 2002 on his way home to Canada from a family vacation in Tunis. The US suspected him of being a member of Al Qaeda and deported him, not to Canada—his current home and the passport on which he was travelling—but to Syria, where he was detained and tortured for almost a year. Subsequently, a Canadian commission publicly cleared Arar of any links to terrorism, and the government of Canada settled out of court with Arar for $10.5 million.
But despite the publicity and outrage at the time of the Arar Inquiry in 2006, and the Iacobucci report of 2008 into the misconduct of Canadian officials in the treatment of three other Canadian Muslims, there has been a concerted campaign to bury Canadian complicity in deportation to torture over the last ten years. The recommendations that came out of these exceptional inquiries into systematic practices by Canadian authorities were ignored completely.
Those recommendations may not have been enough to fundamentally change a national security system that is stacked against justice and human rights. But they did propose greater oversight and more responsible information sharing by authorities. The active willingness by the RCMP to skirt accuracy and reliability of information is what contributed directly to the false accusations against Arar.
Ignoring recommendations, continuing attacks
The Inquiry report noted that although the RCMP has a policy of bias-free policing, many of the intervenors raised concerns about racial profiling. A number of the recommendations targeted ethnic or religious profiling.
But since then the Canadian state has continued to demonize and scapegoat Muslims in the interests of prosecuting war in the Middle East. There have been innumerable attempts to target Canadians or Canadian residents of Muslim origin—some resulting in deportation, some in plea bargains, and so many others in ongoing surveillance, intimidation and harassment.
The Tories' electioneering with the “anti-Barbarism” bill, and their posturing around the Ottawa shooting death of Corporal Cirillo, holds very little weight against their own track record on women’s rights, and the statement by Corporal Cirillo’s widow that the issue should of prevention should focus on accessible mental health.
At the conference, panel after panel of victims of actual and threatened deportation to torture, of community activists, journalists, lawyers, and even judges charged with the public inquiries involving Arar and others, deplored the deliberate ignorance of every recommendation coming out of those inquiries. From Security Certificates and the injustice they have done to the Secret Trial Five, to the recent extradition of Hassan Diab, the outrage to civil liberties continues.
And the conference took place on the very day that Security Minister Jason Kenny tweeted his derision for the Ottawa Citizen’s decision to publish an op-ed written from prison by Omar Khadr, the Canadian subjected to sleep deprivation and other torture in Guantanamo as a child prisoner and now imprisoned in Canada with severely curtailed access to the media and visitors. As Khadr wrote, "I was mired in a nightmare of injustice, insidiously linked to national security. I have not yet escaped from that nightmare."
But community protest can make a difference.
In 2009, Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Sudanese-born Canadian who was designated a supporter of al-Qaeda and a terrorist, and who was subsequently cleared in multiple investigations by the Sudanese government, CSIS, and the RCMP, received the support of hundreds of ordinary Canadians in his attempt to return home to Canada. A condition of doing so was to raise money for a return ticket, and the community rallied to raise that money.
In the words of lawyer Khalid Elgazzar, who spoke on the community panel of “Arar plus 10”: “In tandem with legal strategy, civil society can play a pivotal role, and the case of Abdelrazik is a prime example of that. An activist campaign that started in Montreal got people to donate (at risk of prosecuton) towards a ticket to fulfill the requirement for reentry to Canada. It is not just about legal strategy with these types of cases: the Canadian public shouldn’t write themselves off.”
Indeed, when courts make bad decisions as in the cases of Hassan Diab and Mohamed Harkat, political pressure is the only thing that can work to safeguard civil liberties and social justice.
For videos of the event go here.