Cases of Detained Muslims Tarnish Canadian Mounties' Noble Image

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 15, 2006

TORONTO -- Canada's top law enforcement agency has been shaken by the aftershocks of its role in the abduction of a Canadian Muslim in 2002, when U.S. agents transported the man from New York for interrogation under torture in Syria.

Last week, the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned, even though he had already apologized publicly to the victim, Maher Arar. On Tuesday, the government announced new inquiries into the cases of three other Canadian Muslims who had been imprisoned in Syria, and a judicial commission recommended broad new oversight of the RCMP's intelligence arm.

These are unprecedented blows for the Mounties, national icons who cherish their squeaky-clean reputation.

On Wednesday, opposition Parliament members also demanded a further probe into what they said were stopovers in Canada by CIA-operated airplanes, similar to those that have been used in "extraordinary renditions" of terrorism suspects to other countries for questioning.

"Twenty different planes for the CIA have arrived in Canada over the last four years," said Serge Ménard, a member of Parliament from Quebec. "Italy is prosecuting people from the CIA" allegedly involved in renditions. "Why doesn't the prime minister do likewise?"

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded in the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying that an investigation into the CIA plane landings revealed "no indication there were any illegal activities."

The spotlight on the RCMP resulted from a two-year judicial inquiry into the case of Arar, now 36, who was stopped while changing flights at an airport in New York City in 2002. The Canadian citizen was bound, blindfolded and spirited to his native Syria by U.S. agents for questioning about terrorism.

Arar was kept for 10 months, much of it in a coffin-like dungeon, and tortured before being released without charges to return to Canada. In September, the extensive inquiry concluded that Arar was an innocent computer programmer who was named as an "Islamic extremist" because of fabrications and incompetence by an overzealous Mountie intelligence operation.

This week, the government's public safety minister announced that a former Supreme Court justice had been asked to lead a new inquiry into the cases of three other Muslim Canadians who were imprisoned while traveling in Syria and who also say they were tortured. There was no apparent U.S. involvement in their cases.

The inquiry will examine whether "the detention of these three individuals in Syria or Egypt resulted from the actions of Canadian officials, particularly in relation to the sharing of information with foreign countries," the minister, Stockwell Day, said in Ottawa on Tuesday.

The three men, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad Abou El-Maati, have returned to Canada and have not been charged. They contend that the Mounties fed Syria false information that led to their detention and that the Canadian government did little to protect its citizens from torture.

Almalki was detained while visiting relatives in Syria in May 2002; he was released in March 2004 and cleared of any terrorist links. Maati was picked up by Syrian officials on a trip to get married in 2001, transferred to Egypt and released nearly two years later. Nureddin, a former member of the Iraqi military who came to Canada as a refugee, was arrested on the Syrian border after visiting relatives in Iraq in December 2003 and released a month later.

Day's announcement of the new probe came on the same day the commission looking into the Arar case issued its final report. The report recommended the creation of several powerful bodies to oversee the intelligence and counterterrorism activities of the RCMP and other security agencies.

"There is some good guidance there," Day said after the report was delivered.

The head of the RCMP, Giuliano Zaccardelli, resigned last week after he tried to change his testimony to a parliamentary committee about when he knew his officers had given the United States false information about Arar. Arar apparently came to the notice of investigators when he had a conversation with other Canadian Muslims under surveillance after Sept. 11, 2001. Arar maintained he knew the men only casually.

The United States has never responded to the findings or justified their rendition of the Canadian citizen to a country that practices torture.

Arar told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday that the consequences of the inquiry -- sparked by remarks he made at an impassioned news conference in 2003 -- were justified.

"Some of what happened to me might even have been prevented" if the RCMP had proper oversight, he said.

"If the truth is hard on some people, that's the nature of the truth," he said. "We can't allow ourselves to become a police state, and that was really my objective."

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