TORONTO – A Canadian citizen deported to Syria (search) last year by the United States spoke publicly about his ordeal for the first time Tuesday, detailing beatings he received in Syrian custody and calling for a public inquiry.
Maher Arar (search) of Ottawa, who spent a year in Syrian custody after being detained while traveling through New York's Kennedy airport in September 2002, choked up several times while describing the torture and solitary confinement.
He believes an overzealous pursuit of terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), attacks in the United States is partly to blame, but said only a full public inquiry in Canada can reveal what happened.
Arar's family and Canadian lawyers accuse Canadian security agencies, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, of providing information to U.S. authorities who eventually deported Arar. Media reports based on unidentified sources have accused Arar of being linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of Al Qaeda and I don't know anyone who belongs to this group," said Arar, who was born in Syria and moved to Canada with his family at age 17. "I cannot believe what has happened to me and how my life and career have been destroyed."
Shortly before Arar's release Oct. 5, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that there had been "sufficient information within the international intelligence community about this individual that we felt warranted his deportation."
The RCMP's complaints commission is reviewing the case, and lawyers in Canada and the United States are looking at possible lawsuits focusing on Arar's deportation. He was first flown to Jordan, then turned over to Syrian authorities shortly afterward.
Arar said Tuesday he was beaten with shredded cables and kept in a tiny, dark cell he called "a grave."
"At the end of each day, they would always say, `Tomorrow will be harder for you,'" said the bearded Arar, 33, at an Ottawa news conference with his wife, lawyer and a human rights activist at his side.
He said he falsely confessed to going to Afghanistan because of the torture, and described the agony of listening to torture administered to other prisoners.
"That was one of the worst parts of my imprisonment was just to hear all the people screaming," he said. "I remember my heart while I was hearing this just wanted to go out of my chest."
Arar was released by Syria without comment on Oct. 5. He returned to Canada the next day, accompanied by a Canadian consular official.
His release followed months of negotiations between Canadian and Syrian officials.
Arar's house was visited by two RCMP officers in January 2002, when he was out of the country on vacation, but he said he had no reason to suspect he was under surveillance or suspected of any wrongdoing. His wife, Monia Mazigh, said Muslims have been questioned routinely by police since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Arar noted that "Muslims in general are targeted — this is a reality." While he said he was "very, very worried for the future," he also said he believed Canada was "a country of justice, a country where human rights are respected."
Asked what he believed happened, Arar smiled and said: "This is the $1 million question."
"What I went through is just beyond human imagination," he said. "My priority now is to clear my name, get to the bottom of the case and make sure this never happens again to another Canadian."
Canadian authorities note that an independent inquiry in Canada would lack the authority to compel U.S. officials to testify or provide information.
In New York, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights said he was looking into the actions of U.S. authorities. As a signatory of the International Convention Against Torture, the United States is obligated to avoid deporting people to countries such as Syria that are known to practice torture, said the lawyer, Steven Macpherson Watt.
"If this is the case, it is not only a violation of both domestic and international law but it reveals the willingness of U.S. officials to trample on the most fundamental principles of due process and human rights in their scorched-earth approach to counterterrorism," Watt said.