RCMP lays criminal charges for torture against Syrian official in Maher Arar case: A historic breakthrough for justice and accountability
Amnesty International welcomes the news that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have laid criminal charges today against a Syrian official for the torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar almost 13 years ago. It represents a tremendous advance in Mr. Arar’s longstanding quest for justice, truth and reparation for the grave human rights violations he experienced in 2002 and 2003. It also sets a ground-breaking precedent – nationally and internationally – in the critical campaign to end the impunity that has long shielded torturers around the world.
“Torture continues at such alarming rates worldwide because those responsible are rarely held to account for their heinous crimes,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English branch. “No matter where it occurs or who carries it out, all governments are obliged to ensure that those suspected of criminal responsibility for torture face justice. But few ever do. Canada is taking a historic step in meeting that responsibility by seeking the arrest of a foreign official accused of committing torture in another country.”
Charges have been laid against Colonel George Salloum, a Syrian military intelligence officer who is accused of carrying out and overseeing the torture Mr. Arar experienced while imprisoned in Syria between October 2002 and October 2003.
The investigation was launched in July 2005 when Maher Arar asked the RCMP to lay charges against foreign officials responsible for his torture. His complaint called for investigations with respect to both Syrian and US officials. That exhaustive investigation has been ongoing throughout the past 10 years, conducted by a dedicated team within the RCMP who have broken new ground in this complicated case.
“The fact that the complaint is of torture, which occurs in secret; is against a government official; relates to a crime in another country; has no Canadian precedent; and involves a country that has been wracked by civil war for over four years, have all made this a sensitive and time-consuming case,” said Alex Neve.
Amnesty International calls on other governments to cooperate fully with the RCMP in locating George Salloum so that the arrest warrant can be carried out and he can be extradited to stand trial in Canada.
The organization urges the RCMP and other Canadian police agencies now to build on this tremendously significant development through ongoing investigations and further charges in Mr. Arar’s and other similar cases. That includes the importance of ensuring there is justice, truth and reparation for having been subject to rendition by US officials.
“Following up on this historic precedent, investigations should continue in Maher Arar’s case, to determine whether further charges should be laid against other Syrian, US and even Canadian officials. Investigations should also go forward with respect to other cases in which Canadian or foreign nationals have made credible allegations that they have been tortured in other countries,” said Béatrice Vaugrante, Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone Branch.
“And very importantly the government should now withdraw its opposition to the court case brought by Canadian citizens Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin who were tortured in Syria around the same time as Maher Arar, almost certainly with the involvement of the same Syrian officials. Those three men are also seeking an apology and compensation from the federal government. A judicial inquiry headed by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci confirmed in 2008 that the men were tortured and that the actions of Canadian officials contributed to the torture and other violations they experienced,” continued Alex Neve. “They too deserve and have a right to justice, truth and reparation.”
“Maher Arar’s case has always been a stark reminder of the human toll of torture and other human rights violations committed in the name of national security,” said Béatrice Vaugrante. “The charges laid today bring that full circle. Committing torture is not a legitimate, lawful or effective way to uphold national security. It is a crime under international law, plain and simple; and anyone who commits torture for any reason must be brought to justice in a fair trial before an ordinary civilian court.”
Torture is an offence under section 269.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Charges can be laid against an individual who commits torture outside of Canada in a variety of circumstances, including when the person who has been tortured is a Canadian citizen. These provisions were added to Canadian law in 1985 after Canada ratified the UN Convention against Torture and other forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
This is the first time that charges have been laid with respect to torture outside of Canada since these legal provisions were enacted 30 years ago. It is also the first time that a government official has been charged under the Criminal Code torture provisions. The significance extends beyond Canada as this is one of the very few times that criminal charges have been laid by any state with respect to torture carried out by a government official in another country.
Maher Arar was sent to Jordan and then immediately on to Syria by way of rendition at the hands of US officials who had arrested him in New York City in September 2002 while he was returning to Canada from a family holiday in Tunisia. US officials sent him to Syria on the basis of assurances provided by Syrian officials that he would not be tortured. He was unlawfully imprisoned in Syria without charge or trial for one year and was subjected to severe torture during the early stage of his imprisonment. He was held in harsh and inhuman prison conditions.
After he was released a Commission of Inquiry was established by the federal government to look into the role played by Canadian officials in his case. The Commission, headed by then Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Dennis O’Connor, reported in 2006 after two years of in camera and public hearings. Justice O’Connor concluded that there was no basis to allegations that Mr. Arar had any links to terrorist organizations and documented many ways in which Canadian officials essentially set Mr. Arar up for the human rights violations he experienced at the hands of US, Jordanian and Syrian officials.
In 2007 the federal government issued a formal apology and provided Mr. Arar and his family with compensation for the role played by Canadian officials in the torture and other human rights violations he had experienced.
Maher Arar has sought justice and accountability in the United States of America for being unlawfully arrested and detained and then subject to rendition to Syria. His lawsuit was dismissed by the courts, up to the level of the United States Supreme Court, on national security grounds. No criminal investigations have been opened in the USA.
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