A Canadian citizen who was detained last year at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as a terrorism suspect said Tuesday that he was secretly deported to Syria and endured 10 months of torture in a Syrian prison.
Maher Arar, 33, who was released last month, said at a news conference in Ottawa that he pleaded with U.S. authorities to let him continue on to Canada, where he has lived for 15 years and has a family. But instead, he was flown under U.S. guard to Jordan and handed over to Syria, where he was born. Arar denied any connection to terrorism and said he would fight to clear his name.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that Arar was deported because he had been put on a terrorist watch list after information from several international intelligence agencies linked him to terrorist groups.
The Washington Post, quoting officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported that the Arar case fits the profile of a covert CIA "extraordinary rendition" _ the practice of turning over low-level terrorism suspects to foreign intelligence services, some of which are known to torture prisoners.
The newspaper quoted one unnamed senior intelligence official as saying Arar is still believed to have connections to al-Qaida.
Arar's case has brought repeated apologies from the Canadian government, which says it is investigating what information the Royal Canadian Mounted Police gave to U.S. authorities. Canada's foreign minister, Bill Graham, also said he would question the Syrian ambassador about Arar's statements about torture. In an interview on CBC Radio, Imad Moustafa, the Syrian charge d'affaires in Washington, denied that Arar had been tortured.
Arar said U.S. officials apparently based the terrorism accusation on his connection to Abdullah Almalki, another Syrian-born Canadian. Almalki is being detained by Syrian authorities, although no charges against him have been reported. Arar said he knew Almalki only casually before his detention but encountered him at the Syrian prison where both were tortured.
Arar, whose case has become a cause celebre in Canada, demanded a public inquiry. "I am not a terrorist," he said. "I am not a member of al-Qaida. I have never been to Afghanistan."
He said he was flying home to Montreal via New York on Sept. 26, 2002, from a family visit to Tunisia.
"This is when my nightmare began," he said. "I was pulled aside by immigration and taken (away)." He said an FBI agent and a New York City police officer questioned him. "I was so scared," he said. "They told me I had no right to a lawyer because I was not an American citizen."
Arar said he was shackled, placed on a small jet and flown to Washington, where "a new team of people got on the plane" and took him to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Arar said U.S. officials handed him over to Jordanian authorities, who "blindfolded and chained me and put me in a van."
"They made me bend my head down in the back seat," he said. "Then these men started beating me. Every time I tried to talk, they beat me."
Hours later, he said, he was taken to Syria and there he was forced to write that he had been to a training camp in Afghanistan. "They kept beating me, and I had to falsely confess," he said. "I was willing to confess to anything to stop the torture."