Columnist: 'When did we become like Syria?'
Jason Rhyne
Published: Saturday November 17, 2007
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The secretive US policy of transferring suspected terrorists abroad for severe interrogations is akin to something the Syrian government would do, according to a Syrian-American columnist and lawyer.

"When visiting my grandmother's house in Damascus a few years ago, I never could have imagined sitting one day in a U.S. court, listening to the U.S. government defend its covert transfer of a Canadian citizen to Syria to be tortured," writes Salon columnist Alia Malek. "Yet, that's precisely what happened..."

Malek's column is entitled "When did we become like Syria?"

The columnist was present in court last week for the appeal of Maher Arar (above right, with daughter), a Canadian born in Syria who was arrested by US officials in 2002, purportedly for his suspected links to Al Qaeda. "He was denied access to counsel and access to a court. Twelve days later he was sent in chains and shackles to Syria," writes Malek. "There he was tortured for nearly a year and coerced into making a false confession, before being released after the tireless campaigning of his wife."

Arar's case against the US government, originally thrown out by a lower court, is the first legal challenge to the policy of rendition, the transfer of American-held detainees to foreign countries known to employ torture measures.

"The interrogation lasted about seven or eight hours, and then they came, and shackled me and chained me," Arar told 60 Minutes II in 2004 about his experience in US custody. "I said, 'What's happening here?' And they would not tell me. They said, ‘You are gonna know tomorrow.'...What they accused me of being is very serious. Being a member of al Qaeda."

Two weeks later, Arar was deported to Syria, according to CBS. "They read me the document. They say, 'The INS director decided to deport you to Syria,'"Arar said in the interview. "And of course, the first thing I did was I started crying, because everyone knows that Syria practices torture." Arar was later released -- a year and a half after his arrest -- following a protracted campaign from his wife, Monia, who lobbied the Canadian government to look into the matter.

Early this year, the innocent Arar was awarded $9 million and an apology from Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

"The story is already disturbing, surreal, Kafkaesque," continues Malek. "It also left me with this realization: The sharp line I had drawn as a child -- between what could happen to a person under a dictatorship like Syria's and what could never happen to a person under a constitutional democracy like that of the U.S. -- seemed to be disappearing."

Excerpts from the column:


"It was this contrast that had defined me as a Syrian- American. Not merely because it meant I had a passport my relatives in Syria could only covet, but also because I was confident that I had rights. I believed that meant I would never disappear off the street into oblivion -- with no access to a lawyer or judge, and without anyone even being able to know my whereabouts, let alone help me...

So as I sat in the New York courtroom on Friday, a room with a rich mahogany interior, I was perplexed and saddened. Being Syrian-American, I had always borne the stigma and burden of the strained relationship between the U.S. and Syria, of having grandparents and roots (very proud roots) from an "evil" country. Now, Syria and the U.S. were in cahoots, finally getting along -- at least when it came to torture.

Arar's counsel argued that although the torture may have happened in Syria, the conspiracy by U.S. officials that allowed it to happen occurred here. Their actions, counsel argued, violated U.S. laws and the Constitution."

Read the full column in Salon.