The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has filed charges against a Syrian colonel who tortured Canadian citizen Maher Arar.
Colonel George Salloum, a Syrian military intelligence officer, is accused of carrying out the torture Arar experienced while in prison in Syria from October 2002 to October 2003. Salloum is also accused of overseeing Arar’s torture.
“I welcome today’s announcement by the RCMP to lay criminal charges against Colonel George Salloum, who was directly responsible for my torture while I was detained at the Palestinian branch of the Syrian military intelligence,” Arar declared in a statement read by his wife Monia Mozigh.
“Since I launched my complaint in 2005, I gave the RCMP investigating team, during the many interviews I had with them, the information they needed to advance their investigation. This lengthy international investigation took the officers overseas to gather evidence. As a result, they were able to better understand the nature of interrogations in Syria detention centers.”
Arar added, “Upon their return, the investigators were able to pass on their knowledge to the other RCMP staff. I believe this is vital for the RCMP to grasp given the increased urge to share information even with regimes who do not respect our understanding of basic human rights.”
“It is important to emphasize that while this criminal charge is only with respect to my case, Colonel George Salloum was directly involved in the torture of other Canadian citizens,” Arar claimed.
He asserted, “This is by no means the end of the road. It is my hope that George Salloum will be found alive, arrested, and extradited to Canada to face Canadian justice.”
A report [PDF] from the Open Society Justice Initiative called “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition” described Arar’s case. He was detained at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on September 26, 2002, by U.S. authorities.
His detention was based on “inaccurate and unfairly prejudicial” intelligence from the RCMP. U.S. officials in New York detained and interrogated him for two weeks before the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service issued an order “finding Arar to be a member of al Qaida.” The INS directed his removal from the U.S., and on October 8, Arar was flown by the CIA to a prison in Amman, Jordan.
Jordanian guards blindfolded and beat him. He was then driven to Syria, where he was imprisoned in the Far Falestin detention center—a facility operated by Syrian military intelligence.
Arar was “detained for more than ten months in a tiny grave-like cell seven feet high, six feet long, and three feet wide, beaten with cables, and threatened with electric shocks, among other forms of torture,” according to the report.
On August 20, 2003, Arar was transferred to Sednaya prison and then released on October 5. He was returned to Canada.
The U.S. supposedly obtained “diplomatic assurances” from Syria that the regime would not torture Arar. Canadian consular officials saw him while he was imprisoned as well, but Arar did not inform the authorities that he was being tortured because Arar feared he would face retaliation. Only on the seventh visit by Canadian authorities did Arar find the courage to risk retaliation and speak about his torture.
Canada previously apologized to Arar, but the U.S. government has been unrepentant in the face of allegations of torture.
Arar filed a lawsuit in U.S. courts against officials responsible for his torture, but the government fought it on the grounds that “judicial intervention was inappropriate in a case that raised sensitive national security and foreign policy questions.” The U.S. won dismissal of the case.
With that in mind, Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program, reacted to the news that Salloum will face charges.
“Arar’s nightmare began at the hands of U.S. officials, yet the U.S. government has never apologized for his torture. Now, the Canadian government’s decision to bring criminal charges makes the U.S. government’s failure even more untenable,” Shah stated.
“The U.S. government is obligated by international law to ensure full accountability for human rights violations, including the crimes of torture and enforced disappearance,” Shah added. “In the case of Arar, as with many others, the government has failed to take responsibility for its actions, prosecute those responsible, and offer an apology and reparation.”
By 2005, the U.S. government had kidnapped or “extraordinarily rendered” anywhere from 100 to 150 detainees to foreign countries.
A number of people, according to the CIA’s own Inspector General, were victims of “erroneous renditions.” For example, there has never been an apology for the torture German citizen Khaled El-Masri experienced as a result of the CIA kidnapping him by mistake.
Yet, regardless of the U.S. government’s lack of interest in investigating and holding torturers accountable, Canada’s decision to charge a Syrian colonel is a huge development. Alex Neve of Amnesty pointed out it is the first time in Canada’s history that the country has charged an individual for torture in another country. It could potentially be a major milestone for Canada.