By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 27, 2007
MONTREAL, Jan. 26 -- The prime minister of Canada apologized Friday to Maher Arar and agreed to give $9 million in compensation to the Canadian Arab, who was spirited by U.S. agents to Syria and tortured there after being falsely named as a terrorism suspect.
Arar, 36, a former computer engineer who was detained while changing planes at a New York airport in 2002 and imprisoned in a Syrian dungeon for 10 months, said after the announcement that he "feels proud as a Canadian."
"We cannot go back and fix the injustice that occurred to Mr. Arar," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in issuing the formal apology in Ottawa. "However, we can make changes to lessen the likelihood that something like this will ever happen again." The head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police resigned over the affair, and the government has pledged to increase oversight of its intelligence agencies.
Harper and Arar both criticized the United States for its refusal to accept the exhaustive Canadian inquiry that found Arar was an innocent man. Public resentment in Canada has swelled this week over U.S. officials' insistence that Arar should remain on its "watch list" of potential suspects, as well as the testy comments of U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins, who said Canada had no business questioning who was on the list.
The United States has never acknowledged it made a mistake in the Arar case, which has become one of the most public embarrassments in the U.S. practice of "extraordinary rendition" of suspects to other countries for interrogation and imprisonment. Last week, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) demanded an explanation for the administration's stance. He complained that American officials "knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured. It's beneath the dignity of this country to send somebody to another country to be tortured."
The financial compensation settles a claim Arar made against the government for having provided exaggerated and false information to the United States that identified him as a terrorist suspect. Harper said the amount "is within this government's realistic assessment of what Mr. Arar would have won in a lawsuit." His attorneys also were awarded about $870,000 in legal fees.
"The evidence is clear that Mr. Arar has been treated unjustly. He should not be on a watch list," Harper said.
Reacting at a separate news conference in Ottawa, Arar thanked Canadians for siding with him in the campaign, which he began with a news conference when he was finally returned from Syria uncharged.
"I cannot begin to tell you how important it is today that Prime Minister Harper and his government have followed through" on the recommendations of the inquiry commission, he said. "In doing so, the government of Canada and the prime minister have acknowledged my innocence. This means the world to me."
"The struggle to clear my name has been long and hard," he said. "My kids have suffered silently, and I think I owe them a lot. I feel now I can devote more time to them, more time for being a good father and to rebuild my life."
Special correspondent Natalia Alexandrova in Toronto contributed to this report.