OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the RCMP apologized to him. A judicial inquiry concluded he was not a terrorist. The government awarded him $10.5 million for its role in his year of torture in Syrian jails.
But Syria’s top diplomat in Canada offers another view of Maher Arar: he calls the Canadian citizen a terrorist and a liar.
Bashar Akbik, Syria’s charge d’affairs, also questions why Arar is allowed to even live in Canada.
“He got from the Canadian taxpayer $10 million for his lies, why not?” Akbik told The Canadian Press.
“Maher Arar was one of the members of al-Qaida, sir. And he went to Pakistan and he went to Afghanistan, and he was treated in Afghanistan for doing terrorist operations. This is the man now who the Canadians want to know if he was tortured or not.
“I really find it strange how they keep him – keep the people like Maher Arar on Canadian territory.”
Akbik’s comments appear to be the first by the Syrian embassy on the cases of Arar and three other Canadian citizens of Syrian descent who were tortured in their homeland.
Akbik made clear he has no time for the findings of two respected Canadian jurists – Justice Dennis O’Connor, the associate chief justice of Ontario, and ex-Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci – both of whom concluded in separate inquiries that the four men were tortured by their Syrian jailers.
The remarks came during a lengthy interview with The Canadian Press during which Akbik defended President Bashar Assad, who stands accused by United Nations officials of committing atrocities against his own people in the bloody 11-month crackdown on dissent in Syria that has left thousands dead.
Arar declined comment because he didn’t want to give the envoy’s remarks any weight.
O’Connor concluded in September 2006 that the RCMP gave misleading information to the U.S., which may have resulted in Arar’s rendition to Syria. He also found Arar had no terrorist links.
In 2002, Arar was detained by U.S. authorities during a stopover in New York en route to Canada from a Tunisian vacation. The U.S. suspected Arar was a member of al-Qaida, which successfully launched hijacked suicide airliners at the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon near Washington the previous year.
The U.S. held Arar, without access to a lawyer, before deporting him to his country of birth, Syria, despite his Canadian citizenship. He was imprisoned without charge and tortured for almost a year before finally being allowed to return to Canada.
While the government chose to compensate Arar, it has not done so in the cases of three other men despite a similar finding by the Iacobucci inquiry that concluded in 2008 that Canadian officials were likely partly to blame for their torture.
Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin were abused by Syrian captors, while El Maati was tortured in Egypt as well. All three deny they are terrorists.
The Harper government passed a copy of the Iacobucci report to the Syrian embassy for its consideration.
Asked about that during this week’s interview, Akbik said that was news to him.
“I’m not given any copy. I never heard about this report,” Akbik said, who arrived in Ottawa in July 2010.
Asked whether his predecessors had seen a copy of Iacobucci’s report, Akbik replied: “No.”
Almalki said he wasn’t truly surprised by Akbik’s comments given the torture he endured in Syria.
He also said the envoy’s remarks raise questions in his mind about whether the Canadian government has followed up adequately with Syria on Iacobucci’s report.
Almalki, El Maati and Nureddin are suing the federal government for complicity in their detention and torture in Syria and Egypt.
Almalki spent 22 months in a Syrian prison after he was arrested in May 2002 on a visit to Damascus to see his ailing grandmother.