Canada says “Oops” to Maher Arar

PM Stephen Harper announced this morning that the Canadian government has agreed upon an official compensation package, as well as an official apology, delivered by the PM himself on Newsworld this morning. While many of the details remain confidential, reports say the $ amount is over $10 million, which may seem like a lot to the average person, until one tries to imagine the 10 months of horror Arar must have experienced in that Syrian prison when it becomes quickly clear that there is no monetary amount that would truly ‘compensate’ someone for being sent into such a situation.

In today’s press conference, Harper once again clearly reiterated Canada’s position that there is NO evidence to support the notion that Arar is any sort of danger, and he reiterated government support to the Justice O’Conner report and its 23 recommendations to ensure this never happens to another person. Harper made the obvious point that nothing the government does today will correct the wrongs committed against Arar, and that any action must be geared towards ensuring such things don’t happen in the future. Harper’s commitment to taking the Arar case to the US was admirable, but there were also some disturbing elements in his speech and answers.

While supporting Arar’s innocence, and pledging to continue to publicly force the Arar case on the Americans, when asked about specific RCMP information sharing procedures, the very procedures that led to false information about Arar being passed to the US in the first place, Harper expressed confidence in those procedures. That he did it with a straight face indicates he doesn’t even see the glaring contradiction inherent in the two notions that “there is no evidence supporting Arar as a terrorist” and “there is no need to review RCMP information sharing procedures” when it was that very information sharing procedure that led directly to the information that landed Arar in a Syrian prison. Given that FALSE information was passed from the RCMP to American officials, it seems ludicrous to defend procedures that can allow that to happen … it boggles the mind that on the one hand Harper can admit the government’s culpability in passin gthe information to the US, but in the next breath can argue that the procedures that led to that false information going to foreign officials have nothing wrong with them. It seems clear that in this case, Harper is guilty of believing two wholly contradictory things about the case.

I will say that I think the way Harper handled US criticism of Stockwell Day’s comments earlier in the week (Day is the minister responsible for the Arar affair, and earlier in the week he publicly chastised the US for refusing to remove Arar from their no-fly list). US Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins complained after Day’s comments that he thought it was innappropriate for Canadian officials to be discussing internal US security. He argued that since the US doesn’t dictate to Canada who it can let in, Canada should offer the same privilege to the US, and on the face of it, he has a point. But Harper’s response today was the correct one … Canadian government officials will take the case of Canadians improperly persecuted by foreign governments, and it will defend the rights of those Canadians. For Wilkins to suggest that Canada not attempt to defend the reputation of one of its innocent citizens is ludicrous, and such a reversed suggestion that the US ignore the persecution of one of its citizens by a foreign government would be loudly and soundly (and rightly ) rejected by Washington. So long as Canada feels Arar is innocent, its not just an option to defend him, it is the sacred responsibility of the government to defend him against foreign governments that would seek to persecute him by arrest, rendition, and imprisonment. Just as the US would rightly defend one of its citizens against a foreign government spreading lies against that citizen, so Canada must do the same for Arar. It was nice to see Harper so forcefully defend that principle.

Overall, I was fairly happy with the message delivered by the press conference today, and the government seems to be on the right track in everything except its own internal RCMP review. It WILL be interesting to watch south of the border over the next week or so … last week Patrick Leahy, Senator from Vermont and head of the Judiciary Committee, verbally pounded Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the Arar affair, and after today’s press conference, Leahy reiterated his commitment to getting answers from Gonzales. The general tone of the last public meeting indicates Leahy is on no mood for obfuscation … when Gonzales tried to argue the US received assurances from Syria that Arar wouldn’t be tortured, Leahy fairly laughed at him in public, asking directly about the value of the word of a country the US refuses to talk to, and was at the time publicly calling part of the Axis of Evil. Gonzales had no answer for that, but that the question is even being asked directly is a positive sign, and I’ll be looking forward to watching Gonzales and Leahy in the next public meetings on this next week. I’m going to include a quote of my favorite exchange between Leahy and Gonzales from last week.

“We knew damn well, if he went to Canada, he wouldn’t be tortured,” Leahy said loudly. “We also knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he’d be tortured. And it’s beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured.”
Patrick Leahy, From Ctv.ca’s “Maher Arar to stay on US No-Fly list”

Arar himself is scheduled to hold a press conference shortly discussing the settlement, but given the way Harper has already characterized it, I’d be surprised to hear much from Arar beyond support of the settlement and Harper’s commitment with the US. There are still more chapters to write in this tale of recompense, and it IS important to remember that no matter what anyone does at this point, the scars that Arar must live with will be lifelong, and there really isn’t anything anyone can do to soothe those scars. But I think Arar would agree that we will have gone a long to way towards soothing them if we can just prevent this from happening to another innocent Canadian. We can’t heal Maher’s scars, unfortunately … the best we can do is to ensure we never inflict those scars on anyone else.

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