`We knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he’d be tortured,’ senator tells Gonzales
January 19, 2007
WASHINGTONâ€“U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales stoically endured a dressing-down from a Vermont senator yesterday over the case of Maher Arar Maher Arar Case , the Canadian tortured in Syria after being sent there by American authorities.
It was a sign of the changed atmosphere in Washington, where Democrats now rule Congress and have vowed tough oversight of what they consider the erosion of American liberties under the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror.
In an extraordinary scene at a Senate judiciary committee hearing, the bilateral Canada-U.S. issue exploded as the committee’s Democratic chair, Patrick Leahy, issued the clearest challenge yet to the Bush policy of rendition, essentially the contracting out of torture to third countries.
Leahy said the policy was “a black mark” on the United States.
“Canadians have been our closest allies, (we have) the longest unguarded frontier in the world,” Leahy said.
“They’re justifiably upset. They’re wondering what’s happened to us.”
Leahy also sparked laughter by mocking Gonzales’ statement that former Attorney-General John Ashcroft had received assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured.
“It is easy for us to sit here comfortably in this room knowing that we’re not going to be sent off to another country to be tortured, to treat it as though, well, Attorney General Ashcroft says we’ve got assurances,” Leahy said.
“Assurances from a country that we also say, now, we can’t talk to them because we can’t take their word for anything?”
Leahy and Gonzales sparred the same morning Public Security Minister Stockwell Day raised the Arar matter with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Day told reporters his officials had recently seen “all the U.S. information” on Arar.
“And that does not change our position,” he said. “We are still maintaining that he should not be on that (no) fly list.”
Day said he was pleased to hear Gonzales promise to release more information.
Chertoff sought to turn the Arar case into a “hypothetical” issue, even after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay before Christmas that she’d have the homeland security chief review the case.
He said the issue only becomes relevant if someone presents themselves for entry to the U.S.
“Otherwise, it’s kind of a hypothetical issue,” Chertoff said.
Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was returning to Ottawa from a family vacation in 2002 when he was detained by American officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport â€“ based on erroneous information provided by the RCMP, according to Justice Dennis O’Connor’s inquiry report â€“ then “rendered” to Syria, where he was held for 10 months and tortured.
American authorities did not tell Canadian officials they had sent Arar to Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, confirmed late last year that despite the findings of the Canadian probe, Arar remains on a U.S. watch list.
Leahy asked Gonzales why that was. The attorney general replied that he had “some very definite views” on the case, beyond that it is still in litigation.
Arar is appealing a New York court’s decision to deny him compensation for his treatment at the hands of the Americans.
But Gonzales would not expand on that, only telling Leahy he couldn’t answer the questions at the hearing, but would by next week.
“We knew damn well, if he went to Canada, he wouldn’t be tortured,” Leahy said. “He’d be held. He’d be investigated.
“We also knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he’d be tortured.
“And it’s beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured.”
Gonzales told Leahy he understood his government’s legal obligations when someone is extradited or rendered to another country and understood its obligations under the Conventions Against Torture.
It marked the first time Gonzales had used the word “rendered” in relation to Arar.
Until yesterday, he’d always characterized the case as a deportation.
Lorne Waldman, Arar’s Toronto lawyer, said he was heartened by Day’s comments indicating that Ottawa had seen the file and could see no terror links.
“It looks like we’re making some progress here,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see the file, but it should tell us there was never any basis to keep him on the no-fly list.”
Gonzales appeared one day after the Bush administration announced it was ending a controversial domestic wiretapping program that bypassed court supervision, reversing itself and subjecting wiretaps to the courts.
The program had faced prolonged opposition, but Bush asserted his right to circumvent the court, until the Democrats took control of Congress.
“It is a little hard to see why it took so long,” said Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who headed the panel until his party lost power in November.
“There hasn’t been a sufficient sense of urgency” to change the policy, he said.