Maher Arar

The Maher Arar Case

What is the Maher Arar Case about?

Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen and father of two, was travelling home to Canada after visiting his wife’s family in Tunisia in 2002. While changing planes at New York City’s JFK airport, he was detained and held for 12 days by US authorities. He was then transferred secretly, via Jordan, to Syria, where he was held in degrading and inhumane conditions, interrogated, and tortured for a year.

Maher Arar and his wife Monia Mazigh on January 14, 2004 in Ottawa | Photo by Bill Grimshaw/Getty Images

Mr. Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, contacted Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary General Alex Neve when he was detained in New York. When Amnesty International learned that a Canadian citizen had been deported to Syria, we issued the first of a series of Urgent Actions on the case, raising concerns about Mr. Arar’s disappearance. Wfe continued to issue Urgent Actions and urge Canadian authorities to intervene with Syrian and the US government officials over the course of the following year.



Work on Arar’s case has been one of Amnesty International Canada’s most intensive campaigns for justice spanning well over a decade. Here are some of the highlights.

Maher Arar released

Mr. Arar was released without charge and allowed to return home to Canada on 5 October 2003.  Following his return, Amnesty International joined Mr. Arar and Ms. Mazigh, along with other organizations, in launching a national campaign for a Public Inquiry into the role Canadian officials played in Mr. Arar’s mistreatment. We also called on the US Attorney General to fully investigate Mr. Arar’s case.

On 5 February 2004, the Canadian government established the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar. The government appointed Justice Dennis O’Connor as Commissioner for the Inquiry. Commissioner O’Connor was mandated to investigate and report on the actions of Canadian officials in relation to Mr. Arar’s rendition to torture in Syria. He was also tasked with making recommendations concerning a new review and oversight mechanism for Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in relation to their national security activities.

A federal lawsuit in the United States

On 22 January 2004, Maher Arar also filed a federal lawsuit in the United States challenging the actions of American authorities in his detention in New York for two weeks and rendition to torture in Syria. At first instance, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed Mr. Arar’s case, finding that “national security” and “foreign policy” considerations prevented the court from holding US government officials liable. The Second Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the lower court decision, and Mr. Arar appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Amnesty International’s interventions in the Maher Arar Case

Amnesty International was granted intervener status at the Inquiry. We also intervened as amicus curiae before the United States Supreme Court.

Maher Arar Inquiry

Amnesty International intervened at several stages of the Inquiry, including providing submissions on standards to be applied in determining disclosure of information over which the government claims national security confidentiality, on the factual investigation into Arar’s mistreatment and any involvement of Canadian authorities in that mistreatment; and on policy, recommendations to improve review and oversight of Canada’s national security agencies.

Throughout the Inquiry, Amnesty International stressed that Commissioner O’Connor should assess the evidence and formulate recommendations in a manner that firmly recognizes that Canada’s counter-terrorism laws, policies, and practices must be wholly consistent with international human rights standards. In a changing international security paradigm since the devastating attacks of September 2011, Mr. Arar’s case dramatically illustrated a very real and very heavy potential human cost when governments disregard international human rights protections and the rule of law in the interests of security and the fight against terrorism.

Amnesty International urged the Commission to investigate Mr. Arar’s case to establish truth, justice, and accountability for his mistreatment. This included a detailed investigation into Canada’s intelligence-sharing, consular, and diplomatic practices to determine whether Canadian officials were responsible for having caused or contributed to Mr. Arar’s torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention without trial or charge. We argued that claims of national security confidentiality should only be allowed to the extent they are consistent with international human rights standards, and the maximum amount of information possible should be disclosed to the public. Information should not be withheld to protect another government from embarrassment, inconvenience, or criticism. We advised the Commission to recommend that those responsible for Mr. Arar’s mistreatment be held accountable through relevant disciplinary, criminal, and civil procedures. 

Maher Arar was never charged with any crimes

Given that Canadian citizen Maher Arar was never charged with any crimes, we urged the Commission to call on the Canadian government to issue a public statement indicating that there was no evidence linking Mr. Arar to any offences. We stressed that the Canadian government publicly acknowledge responsibility, apologize, and award appropriate compensation to Mr. Arar and his family. We also urged the Commissioner to investigate or call another appropriate inquiry into similar and related cases of Messrs. Muayyed Nureddin, Ahmad Abou El-Maati, and Abdullah Almalki.

Amnesty International also made policy recommendations for a review and oversight mechanism for RCMP national security activities; incorporating human rights standards and protocols into Canada’s national security agencies; developing strategies for more effective governmental interventions when Canadian citizens are detained abroad; and further reforms in Canadian law. We stressed the vital importance that Commissioner O’Connor reminds the Canadian government of its binding obligations to prohibit torture.

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Amnesty’s policy recommendations

Our recommendations included the following:

  • The new national security review and oversight body should be comprehensive of all Canadian officials undertaking national security activities;
  • The review body must be independent of the Canadian government and be composed of a diverse group of experts. It should have the power to launch reviews upon receipt of individual complaints independently and have unhindered access to information that may be classified and the ability to make recommendations. The review body’s decisions should be made public, and it should engage in public education to build awareness and develop trust among Canadians in national security agencies;
  • The Canadian government should develop and integrate Human Rights Protocols in all information-sharing agreements and arrangements with foreign governments;
  • Canada should amend the Criminal Code to make it an offence for Canadian officials to undertake actions that would likely expose someone to a risk of torture in Canada or abroad. The Criminal Code and Canada Evidence Act should be amended to prohibit the use of information derived from torture;
  • Canada should provide further and enhanced training to diplomatic staff and consular officials on human rights standards and how to respond when a Canadian citizen is detained and under serious risk of torture abroad. In all cases of detained Canadian citizens, consular officials should regularly press for private visits and for detainees to be afforded their full range of rights, including medical care and legal counsel. Concerns about torture and mistreatment should be immediately raised with detaining authorities;
  • Canadian citizens are tortured abroad should receive immediate and urgent expert medical and psychological treatment upon release;
  • Canada should amend the State Immunity Act to allow civil suits against foreign governments for compensation in situations of torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; and
  • Canada should ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.

Amnesty’s petition to the court

Amnesty International was granted joint amicus curiae status with a number of other Canadian and International Human Rights Organizations and Scholars in Mr. Arar’s case before the US Supreme Court. In our joint submissions, we argued that international law requires all states to provide the victims of torture with an effective remedy. This includes the right of anyone claiming to have been a victim to have meaningful access to a procedure capable of repairing the effects of the violation and the right actually to receive such reparation if the violation is established.

Where several states are responsible for violations of an individual’s human rights, each has an obligation to provide an effective remedy in relation to its own responsibility.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shake hands at a news conference after a bilateral meeting where they discussed Maher Arar on December 21, 2006, in Washington, DC (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Response of the United States

While Canada ordered a Commission of Inquiry, apologized, and compensated Maher Arar, the United States declined to cooperate or participate in the Inquiry and has not provided Mr. Arar with any remedy in relation to its own responsibility for the violation of his human rights.

In May 2010, the government of the United States, rather than settling the case, intervened arguing that the executive branch of the government should not be held accountable by the judiciary. The amici curiae – including Amnesty International – argued that the Supreme Court should overturn the lower courts’ judgments dismissing his claim, as a failure to do so would effectively deprive persons in Mr. Arar’s situation of their right to access a procedure capable of providing an effective remedy. This would be inconsistent with the international legal obligations of the United States.

Status of the Case

Commissioner O’Connor released his report on the Inquiry on 18 September 2006. The report found that Canadian officials contributed to Maher Arar’s rendition to and torture in Syria in a number of way. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) provided American authorities with information portraying Mr. Arar unfairly as an Islamic Extremist despite having no basis for describing him that way. It was very likely that these communications led to the US decision to detain Mr. Arar and rendition him to Syria.

Canadian officials leaked confidential and sometimes inaccurate information about the case to the media for the purpose of damaging Mr. Arar’s reputation or protecting their self-interests or government interests.

Commissioner Dennis R. O’Connor

Once in Syria, Commissioner O’Connor found that Canadian officials received information from and shared intelligence about Mr. Arar with Syrian authorities despite the fact the information was likely derived from torture. Following Mr. Arar’s return to Canada, Commissioner O’Connor also found that “Canadian officials leaked confidential and sometimes inaccurate information about the case to the media for the purpose of damaging Mr. Arar’s reputation or protecting their self-interests or government interests.”

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Commissioner O’Connor’s recommendations

In light of his findings, Commissioner O’Connor made 23 recommendations to improve the RCMP’s national security activities, and the information-sharing practices of other agencies, interactions with countries with questionable human rights records, and interventions on behalf of Canadian citizens detained abroad. Concerning Mr. Arar, Commissioner O’Connor recommended that Canada formally object to the United States and Syria’s mistreatment of Mr. Arar and assess Mr. Arar’s claim for compensation in light of the report.

On 12 December 2006, Commissioner O’Connor released a second report outlining his recommendations for a new review and oversight mechanism for RCMP national security activities. In this report, Commissioner O’Connor concluded that existing accountability mechanisms for RCMP national security activities were inadequate. He recommended that a new review body be established that has enhanced power to investigate and report on complaints, including having the authority to conduct a self-initiated review and the ability to subpoena documents and compel testimony from any government or private sector person or entity.

Justice O’Connor recommended that there be a single review body for all activities of the RCMP, not just its national security activities. He also stressed that the national security activities of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Transport Canada, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada also be subjected to integrated, independent review. Commissioner O’Connor also recommended that the Canadian government appoint an independent person to review whether the government has implemented its recommendations and how the proposed review structure is functioning.

Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar plays with his children Baraa Arar, 7, and Houd Arar, 2, in his home 14 January 2004 in Ottawa (Photo by Bill Grimshaw/Getty Images)

A formal apology from the Canadian government

On 26 January 2007, Prime Minister Harper issued a formal public apology on behalf of the Canadian government. Mr. Arar received 11.5 million dollars in compensation for Canadian officials’ direct and indirect role in his rendition to and torture in Syria.

Maher Arar v. Attorney General Jon Ashcroft (US Supreme Court)

The US Supreme Court denied Maher Arar’s petition. It did not provide reasons for dismissing the case. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision to deny Arar’s petition, he stated: “Today’s decision eliminates my last bit of hope in the judicial system of the United States. When it comes to ‘national security’ matters, the judicial system has willingly abandoned its sacred role of ensuring that no one is above the law. My case and other cases brought by human beings who were tortured have been thrown out by U.S. courts based on dubious government claims. Unless the American people stand up for justice they will soon see their hard-won civil liberties taken away from them as well.”

Today’s decision eliminates my last bit of hope in the judicial system of the United States. When it comes to ‘national security’ matters, the judicial system has willingly abandoned its sacred role of ensuring that no one is above the law.

Canadian Citizen, Maher Arar

Latest updates on the Case

On 25 November 2008, Amnesty International wrote to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development to take up as an urgent priority the Arar and Iacobucci Inquiry reports (more information about Amnesty International’s work in the Iacobucci Inquiry). We stressed the need to review Canada’s progress in implementing the Inquiry recommendations and make appropriate changes to Canada’s foreign policy agenda to take a more assertive stand against torture.

On 10 February 2010, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, concerned about the “serious deficiencies uncovered by [the Arar and Iacobucci Inquiries] and the risks of not addressing them by fully implementing all the resulting recommendations,” decided to review the Canadian government’s progress in responding to the two Inquiry reports. Amnesty International provided oral submissions to the Committee during its review, stressing the need for improved oversight and review of national security activities, implementing the findings of the two Inquiry reports, and ensuring accountability for the human rights violations that occurred, including providing redress to the men affected.

In its report, the Committee urged the government to implement the recommendations of the Inquiry report immediately; to immediately issue regular public reports on the progress made in implementing the findings and recommendations of the two Inquiry reports, provide an official apology and compensation to Messrs. Almalki, Elmaati, and Nureddin; issue a clear ministerial directive against torture and the use of information obtained from torture; and to introduce a mechanism for review and oversight of the actions of national security agencies. Amnesty International sent a letter to Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan urging him to comply with the Committee’s recommendations.

Related reading

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Introduction of Bill C-51

Over a decade has passed since Commissioner O’Connor released his reports, and the government of Canada has yet to implement his recommendations fully. Instead, in 2014, the government of Canada passed Bill C-51, a drastic overhaul to Canada’s national security legislation which increased the powers of Canada’s national security agencies without any human rights safeguards or increase in review or oversight of these agencies’ activities.

Learn more about Amnesty International Canada’s work on Public Safety and National Security Bill C-51.

This disregard for the lessons of Canada’s past and the important findings and recommendations of the Inquiry were highlighted at the Arar +10 conference co-hosted by Amnesty International on 29 October 2014.

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Former CIA officer’s revelations

In April 2015, former CIA officer John Kiriakou revealed in an interview that American officials knew that Mr. Arar was innocent yet detained him anyway. Amnesty International continues to advocate for Mr. Arar to receive an apology and effective remedies for the contributions of American, Jordanian, and Syrian authorities to his mistreatment.

On 1 September 2015, the RCMP laid criminal charges against Colonel George Salloum, a Syrian military intelligence officer accused of carrying out and overseeing the torture of Mr. Arar while he was imprisoned in Syria. This is the first time that charges have been laid in Canada for torture that occurred outside the country. The RCMP does not know where George Salloum is or whether he is still alive. However, through Interpol and other police channels, efforts will be made to find him so that he can be extradited to stand trial in Canada. This offers justice to Mr. Arar and his family and sends a strong message from Canada to torturers in other countries that what happens in torture chambers there may end up before the courts here.

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Arar Inquiry

Arar v. Ashcroft (US Supreme Court)

Second Circuit Court of Appeal

US Supreme Court

For a detailed timeline and documentation of Mr. Arar’s case in the United States, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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Media Coverage of Maher Arar