Kidnapped, tortured Canadian engineer rendered through Bangor

Maher Arar l Photo: (by Bill Grimshaw) via The Rendition Project

Maher Arar l Photo: (by Bill Grimshaw) via The Rendition Project

Imagine you’re an engineer with a degree from McGill University in Montreal.

You’re on your way home from a family trip abroad and you stop at JFK Airport in New York. Suddenly your life changes.

You’re seized by the CIA and shuttled about, eventually ending up in in Syria where you are tortured and “imprisoned for nearly a year in an underground cell the size of a grave.”

In a powerful piece worth reading, journalist Marie Tessier, a Bangor resident, notes that the plane carrying Arar came through Bangor International Airport.

The plane with the tail number N829MG was a corporate-style jet with leather seats and a screen read-out to illustrate the plane’s location as it hopped its way from Bangor to Rome, then the Middle East. It carried federal agents who had boarded at Dulles Airport near Washington, and Mr. Arar, a prisoner of the U.S. government.

Though he is a Canadian citizen who worked for years in the United States without incident, and the only evidence against him was that he has Canadian friends from Syria, he was a prisoner, without right of counsel or hearing. . . His wife, Monia, tending his 5-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son, knew only that he disappeared en route to Canada. [source]

After being rendered through Bangor, Arar eventually ended up in Syria, where he was held for over ten months.

This is how this completely innocent man described his initial treatment in Syria:

The beating started that day 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.

One tactic they use is to question prisoners for two hours, and then put them in a waiting room, so they can hear the others screaming, and then bring them back to continue the interrogation.

The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body. They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks. . .

They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face. Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.

Like many people who are tortured, Arar gave a false confession.

Arar had moved to Canada from Syria with his family in 1987 when he was 17. In 1991, at age 21, he became a Canadian citizen. Arar earned bachelors and masters degrees in Canada. He was a telecommunications engineer when this rendition happened.

Eventually he got out of this horrible situation due to the efforts of a Canadian consular official.

When I wrote about the interrogation report earlier this week, in a piece that noted that a substantial number of those tortured were innocent (one of whom died due to his treatment), some commenters said the program was necessary.

The Senate report and many others, such as Sen. John McCain, say that torture does not yield useful information. People, whether innocent or guilty, make false confessions.

Those waste intelligence agencies’ time — like the “wild-goose chase for black Muslim Al Qaeda operatives in Montana” mentioned in reporter Jane Mayer’s devastating piece on CIA failures.

One thing that’s unquestionable is that torturing innocent people does not keep anyone safe.

Without safeguards to ensure people are those one wants to interrogate (and, if this is legal, that means without torturing them), innocent people will suffer.

Defenders of torture and rendition disdain those legal safeguards, which have long been part of our traditions and which we tout to other nations. Yet those protect us from government taking people’s freedom and inflicting punishment without some sort of due process.

As you can see below, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally apologized to Mr. Arar. The Canadian government also gave him $10 million in compensation.

The U.S. government has neither apologized to or compensated Arar for this nightmare. We can only hope that some day President Obama will follow Harper’s example. It took decades for the U.S. government to provide some justice to the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

Addendum: Another item worth reading is this paper’s 2006 editorial about Arar’s experience, which called for the state barring renditions through Maine.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.