Arar, a Sunni Muslim, was born in Syria on 15 September 1970. He came to Canada with his parents in 1987 without doing Syrian military service. He became a Canadian citizen in 1991 and went on to become a telecommunications software engineer. He married Monia Mazigh in 1994 in Montréal and the couple had two children. In December 1997, the family moved to Ottawa.
Arar became a “person of interest” to Canadian authorities by socializing with Abdullah Almalki, another Ottawa resident and someone authorities suspected had terrorist ties.
Interception and Rendition
Arar was returning from a vacation in Tunis, traveling to Montréal via Zurich on 26 Sept. 2002, when American agents detained him during a stopover at JFK international airport in New York. US authorities, apparently acting on information from the RCMP, suspected Arar of being a member of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, that carried out the 9/11 attacks on the US the previous year.
Arar was held all but incommunicado for two weeks while being subject to repeated interrogations about his ties to Almalki and terrorism. A Canadian consular official, Maureen Girvan, was allowed to visit him. She said she believed the Americans would send him to Canada.
Despite his repeated requests to return to Canada, the Americans instead secretly sent Arar via Jordan to Syria – in a process known as extraordinary rendition. Arar was still a citizen in Syria. Authorities there took him into custody.
Torture in Syria
Syrian military intelligence agents held Arar for 10 months in what he described as a “grave” – a dark, rat-infested one-by-two metre cell. Arar said that during his initial weeks in captivity he was whipped with electrical cable for hours at a stretch. The physical attacks were later replaced with psychological torture. He said his torturers wanted, among other things, for him to confess that he had been to an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. He would later say he was willing to do anything to stop the torture and said as much to his interrogators. “I asked [the torturer] what he wanted to hear," Arar later said. "I was terrified, and I did not want to be tortured. I would say anything to avoid torture.”
The questions the Syrians asked him, Arar said, were the same as those that US authorities in New York had posed. In September 2003, a haggard Almalki arrived at the Syrian prison where Arar was being held and said that he, too, had been tortured.
During his time in prison, senior Canadian intelligence agents opposed Canadian diplomatic efforts to get Arar freed. In the end, however, the Syrians declared Arar “completely innocent.” He was released on 5 Oct. 2003, and allowed to return to Canada, where he began a quest to clear his name and find out the reasons for his mistreatment.
Arar and the Media
On 4 November 2003, Arar recounted what he called his “nightmare” to the Canadian news media. “I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al-Qaeda and I do not know anyone who belongs to this group,” he said. “I have never been to Afghanistan. I have never been anywhere near Afghanistan.” Arar also thanked his wife for her tireless efforts at helping secure his release. The Arar case garnered extensive media interest.
Arar and his wife, however, were harshly critical of some journalists for printing information leaked from security sources that portrayed him as having ties to al-Qaeda. In one case, in January 2004, police raided the home and office of an Ottawa journalist, alleging she had violated provisions of the Security of Information Act, which makes it a crime to communicate, receive or possess leaked secret government documents. The case went nowhere.
In February 2004, the federal government set up a judicial inquiry under Dennis O’Connor, associate chief justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal. The inquiry heard from 85 witnesses – Arar was not among them – before wrapping up in September 2005. Ultimately, the inquiry exonerated Arar completely.
“I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence, or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada,” O’Connor said in his report that ran to more than 1,000 pages.
The commission faulted the RCMP for sharing suspicions and intelligence about Arar with the Americans, without any assurances as to how the information would be used, and without proper caveats about the possibility that the information could be wrong.
“The RCMP provided American authorities with information about Mr. Arar which was inaccurate, portrayed him in an unfair fashion, and overstated his importance to the investigation (involving Almalki),” O’Connor said.
In sum, the inquiry concluded that Canadian officials had played a pivotal role in what had happened to Arar. The inquiry also recommended much stricter oversight of the RCMP.
Fallout and Apology
In December 2006, RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, who had earlier apologized to Arar, resigned after admitting to giving false information about him to a House of Commons committee.
The federal government also set up an internal inquiry into the cases of three other men with similar stories to Arar: Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin. Former Supreme Court of Canada judge Frank Iacobucci, who conducted the internal inquiry, concluded the men were tortured in Syria and Egypt. He also found that Canadian officials had contributed to the human-rights violations inflicted on the three, and denounced the Canadian government conduct as “deficient” and as demonstrating “institutional deficiency.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Arar for Canada's role in what the prime minister described as his “terrible ordeal.” In January 2007, the federal government awarded Arar $10.5 million in compensation, and another $1 million to cover his legal costs.
“On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you, Monia Mazigh and your family for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003,” Harper said. “I trust that, having arrived at a negotiated settlement, we have ensured that fair compensation will be paid to you and your family. I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives.”
“The government of Canada and the prime minister have acknowledged my innocence,” Arar said in response. “This means the world to me.”
Supposed Omar Khadr Connection
Years after Arar's name had been cleared, it was mentioned during the “war crimes” trial of Canadian Omar Khadr at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay in 2009. An FBI special agent, Robert Fuller, testified that Khadr had told interrogators at Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2002 that he had spotted Arar at an al-Qaeda safehouse in Kabul, Afghanistan. Khadr also said he might have seen Arar at a terrorist training camp in the fall of 2001.
On 8 Oct. 2002, a day after that interrogation, American agents sent the detained Arar to Syria.
A former Arar lawyer, and another lawyer for the O’Connor inquiry, dismissed Fuller’s testimony as having zero credibility. They said any statement Khadr had made about Arar was likely the result of torture. Arar, who has never been in Afghanistan and had never met Khadr, said he was shocked and depressed that the Americans had again dragged his name up in connection with terrorism.
Since his return to Canada, Arar has been a prominent activist, awarded several human rights awards and honours as well as a doctorate in recent years. Time Magazine named him Canadian Newsmaker of the Year in 2004. His ordeal has inspired movies and books. He is also said to have developed severe post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
“My suffering and the suffering of my family did not end when I was released,” he has said.
Arar attempted without success to sue the US government, which still keeps him on a terrorist watch list. US authorities have consistently defended their actions on the grounds that Arar was a suspected terrorist and that they legally “deported” him to Syria under American immigration laws. Some American lawmakers, however, have apologized to him.
In April 2015, John Kiriakou, a former agent with the US Central Intelligence Agency, told The Canadian Press that several colleagues had warned against sending Arar to Syria on the grounds that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Kiriakou – who also blew the whistle on the waterboarding torture of terror suspects and went to jail for publicly identifying colleagues – said he was disgusted with America’s role in the Arar case and its failure to apologize to him.
In September 2015, the RCMP charged former Syrian military intelligence officer George Salloum in absentia with Arar’s torture.
In January 2016, the RCMP watchdog, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, said it would examine what the RCMP had learned from the Arar case.
As of 2016, Arar was CEO of the Ottawa-based business CauseSquare, which had developed a mobile platform aimed at connecting millennials with registered charities and non-profits. He is also active on social media and has been especially vocal about the devastating war in his Syrian homeland.