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Syria

US lawmakers apologize in torture case

October 17, 2007
Associated Press

Members of Congress apologized Thursday to a Canadian engineer seized by US officials and taken to Syria, where he says he was tortured.

Maher Arar said he was ensnared in an "immoral" terrorism-fighting program known as extraordinary rendition.

The 37-year-old appeared before a joint hearing of House subcommittees by video from Ottawa, Canada. He remains on a U.S. government watch list.

"Let me personally give you what our government has not: an apology," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., as he opened the hearing. "Let me apologize to you and the Canadian people for our government's role in a mistake."

Arar said he was grateful for the apologies, but hoped the Bush administration would do so, too.

"Let me be clear: I am not a terrorist, I am not a member of al-Qaida or any terror group. I am a father, a husband, and an engineer. I am also a victim of the immoral practice of extraordinary rendition," he said.

Arar said he was thrown in a tiny cell and tortured into falsely confessing that he had trained at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan.

"Life in that cell was hell. I spent 10 months and 10 days in that grave," he said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also apologized, but said he would fight any efforts by Democrats to end the practice of extraordinary rendition.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush gave the CIA authority to conduct the operations. They involve grabbing suspected terrorists off street in one country and flying them to their home country or another where they are wanted for a crime or questioning.

"Yes, we should be ashamed" of what happened in the case, Rohrabacher said. "That is no excuse to end a program which has protected the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of American. ... We are at war. Mistakes happen. People die."

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained by U.S. immigration agents on Sept. 26, 2002, as he stopped over in New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on the way home from a vacation. Days later, he was sent by private jet to Syria where, according to Canadian officials, he was tortured.

After nearly a year in a Syrian prison, he was released without charges and returned to Canada. "This was a kidnapping," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

The Canadian government has apologized to Arar for its role in the case and agreed to pay him almost $10 million in compensation.

The administration has said little about the program, other than that it is an important tool in fighting terrorism.

A Canadian investigation found that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wrongly labeled Arar an Islamic fundamentalist and passed misleading and inaccurate information to U.S. authorities.

The inquiry determined Arar was tortured, and it cleared him of any terrorist links or suspicions.

Legal experts say the case shows the U.S. has violated a 1998 law specifically prohibiting the government from turning a suspect over to a foreign country when they think the suspect may be tortured. U.S. authorities say they get diplomatic assurances that suspects will not be tortured before turning them over.

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