WASHINGTON - Syrian torturers could find nothing to implicate Canadian Maher Arar in al-Qaida or any other terrorist ties. An official Canadian government report agreed with that finding and recommended that Arar be compensated for his 10 months in a Syrian prison.
Still, Arar remains on the U.S. government terror watch list. And the United States has not admitted fault for holding him incommunicado for a week, and then, five days after his first telephone call, putting him on a private jet and flying him to the Syrian prison.
Arar and his American lawyer, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, were invited to Washington on Wednesday to receive human rights awards from the Institute for Policy Studies. Ratner came from his New York headquarters to accept for the center, a longtime campaigner against torture and other abuses.
Because the watch list will not let Arar enter the United States, he had to stay in Canada and participate by telephone in a discussion of his case and of the U.S. law signed Tuesday by President Bush on treatment and prosecution of detainees. At the awards presentation, he delivered a videotaped message of thanks in which he described his ordeal, which began on Sept. 26, 2002, at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and ended with his arrival in Canada in early October 2003.
The award "means that there are still Americans out there who value our struggle for justice," he said. "We now know that my story is not a unique one. Over the past two years, we have heard from many other people who were, who have been kidnapped, unlawfully detained, tortured and eventually released without being charged with any crime in any country."
John Cavanagh, the institute's director, told Arar he asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to clear Arar's name and let him come. Gonzales did not reply, Cavanagh said. At the Justice Department, a spokesman said he was unaware of the letter and could not comment.
Gonzales has said Arar was deported to the country where he was born. A representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Service was there when he was put on the plane, Arar said in his videotaped talk, and he said he told her the Syrians would torture him.
"She said something like: 'The INS is not the body or the agency that signed the Geneva Convention against torture.' For me, what that really meant is, 'We will send you to torture, and we don't care.' "
Cavanagh told Arar by phone that he was selected for the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award "partly for your courage in helping to catalyze the global movement against torture and this term of 'rendition': deportation for torture."
Last week, Canadian Justice Dennis O'Connor issued a report on the Arar case that made 23 recommendations for policy changes and reparations to Arar, a software engineer.
The official U.S. line on Arar, as related Sept. 29 by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, is "the people who made the decisions at the time ... determined a couple of things: One, that this individual posed a threat to the United States based on the information that they had; and two, that they were able to assure themselves they had the reasonable expectation that this individual was not going to be maltreated."