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Context of 'October 9, 2002: Canadian Detainee Maher Arar Transferred from Jordan to Syria'

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The US Senate ratifies the international Convention Against Torture, originally proposed by the United Nations in 1985. The treaty bans any officials from signatory nations from inflicting “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” on prisoners in order to gain information. It also establishes the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT). The ban is absolute and cannot be waived: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 12/10/1984; Savage 2007, pp. 155) The treaty also forbids signatory nations from sending detainees to other countries if there is a reasonable expectation that they may be tortured. (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 12/10/1984; Human Rights Web 1/25/1997)

FBI agent Robert Fuller interrogates Canadian citizen Omar Khadr at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Fuller is an FBI agent who failed to locate the 9/11 hijackers in the US before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001, September 4-5, 2001, and September 4-5, 2001), while Khadr is a minor accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed a US soldier in Afghanistan. The interrogation lasts from October 7 to October 22. On the first day, Fuller shows Khadr a black-and-white photograph provided by the FBI in Massachusetts of Maher Arar, a Canadian terror suspect the US has been holding in New York (see September 26, 2002). Fuller will later say that Khadr identifies Arar as someone he has seen in a safe house run by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and that he also “may have” seen Arar at a terror training camp near Kabul. However, at the time Khadr says he saw Arar in Afghanistan—September and October 2001—Arar was first in the US and then in Canada under surveillance by the local authorities, according to Walter Ruiz, a lawyer who will later represent Khadr. Ruiz will also point out that it takes Khadr several minutes to identify Arar. Another of Khadr’s lawyers, Lieutenant Commander Bill Kuebler, will say that Khadr repeatedly lies to his interrogators to avoid being abused. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson decides that Arar will be deported to Syria on this day (see October 7, 2002), and the deportation is soon carried out (see October 8, 2002). However, it is unclear whether Thompson’s decision is motivated by Fuller’s interrogation of Khadr or other factors. (CBC News 1/20/2009; Edwards 1/20/2009) Fuller will testify about the identification at a Guantanamo hearing (see January 19, 2009), but facts calling it into question will emerge under cross-examination (see January 20, 2009).

At 3 o’clock in the morning, Maher Arar is woken up in his cell in New York and taken to another room where he is stripped, searched, shackled, and chained. Two officials read him a decision by the director of the INS, saying that he will be deported to Syria and, as Arar recalls it, “that INS was not the body that deals with Geneva Convention regarding torture.” There is no such convention, but this is probably a reference to the Convention Against Torture (CAT—see October 21, 1994). However, Article 3 of the CAT states: “No State Party shall expel… a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” In addition, the US immigration law cited to justify Arar’s deportation prohibits sending individuals to a country where “it is more likely than not that they will be tortured.” A Justice Department spokesman nevertheless maintains that “the removal of Mr. Arar was accomplished after interagency consultation and in full compliance with the law and with all relevant international treaties and conventions.” (Priest 11/19/2003) On that early morning of October 8, Arar is put on a small jet. After a landing in Washington, a “special removal unit,” a term Arar overheard, boards the plane and is at this point in custody of the CIA. (Brown 11/12/2003; Priest and Stephens 5/11/2004) “They said Syria was refusing to take me directly,” Arar will later recall, “and I would have to fly to Jordan.” Torture is again his prime thought. “At that time I was thinking of what would happen once I arrived in Syria and how am I to avoid torture.” Via Portland, Maine, and Rome, the jet lands in Amman, Jordan, where six or seven Jordanians are waiting for him. Without a word being spoken Arar is handed over. Blindfolded and chained, he is put in a van, and “right away,… they started beating me,” Arar recalls. Half an hour later inside a building, he is subjected to more questioning. (CBC News 11/26/2004)

The day following Maher Arar’s handover by the CIA to Jordanian authorities (see October 8, 2002), the overland journey to Syria resumes in various cars and again Arar is beaten. In the evening, Arar arrives at the so-called “Palestinian branch” of Syrian military intelligence. Interrogation begins. “I was very, very scared,” Arar will later recall. There is a metal chair in the corner, and each time Arar does not answer quickly enough, a Syrian colonel points at the chair and asks, “Do you want me to use this?” Arar later learns it is used for torture. Four hours later, he is taken to a cell in the basement. “It was like a grave,” Arar says. “It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high.… There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this. There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes, and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light. I spent ten months and ten days inside that grave.” (CBC News 11/26/2004)

A day after his arrival at the “Palestinian Branch” prison in Syria (see October 9, 2002), Maher Arar’s captors begin torturing him. He will later claim, “The beating started… and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst. I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms.” Only on this day, two days after his removal, is Canada officially informed of Arar’s deportation from the US. (CBC News 11/26/2004) A few days later, Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, relays her concerns about his fate. “I don’t know even if he’s dead, alive, tortured, punished, anything,” she says. (CBC News 10/16/2002) The next two days, his torturers use a two-inch thick black electrical cable to beat him all over his body, but mostly on his hands and wrists. They also threaten him with “the chair,” electric shocks and, while constrained inside a tire, with beatings on the sole of his feet. Another tactic is to scare him by putting him in a waiting room where he is forced to listen to the screams of other prisoners being tortured. On the third day, the interrogation round lasts about 18 hours. “They kept beating me so I had to falsely confess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture. They wanted me to say I went to a training camp. I was so scared I urinated on myself twice. The beating was less severe each of the following days. At the end of each day, they would always say, ‘Tomorrow will be harder for you.’ So each night, I could not sleep—I did not sleep for the first four days, and slept no more than two hours a day for about two months.” Interrogations and torture end around October 20, three days before Arar receives a visit from the Canadian consulate. With the colonel and three other Syrian officials present, Arar does not dare talk about his experiences. After the visit, he is required to sign a document, the contents of which are unknown to him, and on another document he is forced to write that he has been to Afghanistan. All in all, Arar receives seven consular visits and one from members of the Canadian parliament. He is never in the position, however, to tell his visitors about the torture and his grave-like cell. For six months he does not see any sunlight, except for during the interrogations and visits. He loses 40 pounds. “I had moments I wanted to kill myself. I was like a dead person.” (Brown 11/12/2003)

In the Syrian “Palestine Branch” prison, Maher Arar is instructed by an interrogator to write a statement admitting that he went to a training camp in Afghanistan and sign it. He does so only after being kicked. After more than 10 months in solitary confinement (see October 9, 2002), Arar is let out of his grave-like cell. He is then transferred, first to the “Investigation Branch,” and then to Sednaya prison. “I was very lucky,” he says, “that I was not tortured when I arrived there. All the other prisoners were tortured when they arrived.” (CBC News 11/26/2004)

Abdullah Almalki.Abdullah Almalki. [Source: Tom Hanson / Canadian Press]A month after his transfer to the Sednaya prison in Syria (see August 19, 2003), Maher Arar meets another prisoner he recognizes as Abdullah Almalki, the man he was questioned about a year before (see September 26, 2002) in New York. “His head was shaved, and he was very, very thin and pale. He was very weak.” Almalki is in far worse shape than Arar. “He told me he had also been at the Palestine Branch, and that he had also been in a grave like I had been except he had been in it longer. He told me he had been severely tortured with the tire, and the cable. He was also hanged upside down. He was tortured much worse than me. He had also been tortured when he was brought to Sednaya, so that was only two weeks before.” (CBC News 11/26/2004)

Former CIA manager Michael Scheuer, who ran the agency’s “rendition” program that sent suspected terrorists to foreign nations to be interrogated for information in the late 1990s (see Summer 1995 and 1997), says during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the assurances of Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria that a suspect will not be tortured are not “worth a bucket of warm spit.” Scheuer tells the assembled lawmakers that he knows of at least three mistakes that the CIA has made in its overseas rendition program, including the capture and subsequent torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002 and October 10, 2002-October 20, 2002). (Savage 2007, pp. 149-150; US Congress 4/17/2007 pdf file)


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