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Court Refuses to Hold U.S. Officials Accountable for Complicity in Torture Abroad
November 2, 2009, New York – Today, a federal Court of Appeals dismissed Canadian citizen Maher Arar’s case against U.S. officials for their role in sending him to Syria to be tortured and interrogated for a year. Arar is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The court concluded that Arar’s case raised too many sensitive foreign policy and secrecy issues to permit relief. It leaves the federal officials involved free of any legal accountability for what they did.
Maher Arar is not available to comment in person, but is issuing the following statement: “After seven years of pain and hard struggle it was my hope that the court system would listen to my plea and act as an independent body from the executive branch. Unfortunately, this recent decision and decisions taken on other similar cases, prove that the court system in the United States has become more or less a tool that the executive branch can easily manipulate through unfounded allegations and fear mongering. If anything, this decision is a loss to all Americans and to the rule of law.”
Said Georgetown law professor and CCR cooperating attorney David Cole, who argued the case, “This decision says that U.S. officials can intentionally send a man to be tortured abroad, bar him from any access to the courts while doing so, and then avoid any legal accountability thereafter. It effectively places executive officials above the law, even when accused of a conscious conspiracy to torture. If the rule of law means anything, it must mean that courts can hear the claim of an innocent man subjected to torture that violates our most basic constitutional commitments.”
CCR Senior Staff Attorney Maria LaHood said, “With this decision, we have lost much more than Maher Arar’s case against torture – we have lost the rule of law, the moral high ground, our independent judiciary, and our commitment to the Constitution of the United States.”
The case was re-heard before twelve Second Circuit judges after a rare decision in August 2008 to rehear the case sua sponte, that is, of their own accord before Arar had even sought rehearing.
Mr. Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained at JFK Airport in September 2002 while changing planes on his way home to Canada. The Bush administration labeled him a member of Al Qaeda and sent him not to Canada, his home and country of citizenship, but against his will to Syrian intelligence authorities renowned for torture. He was tortured, interrogated and detained in a tiny underground cell for nearly a year before the Syrian government released him, stating they had found no connection to any criminal or terrorist organization or activity.
In January 2004, just three months after he returned home to Canada from his ordeal, CCR filed a suit on Mr. Arar’s behalf against John Ashcroft and other U.S. officials, the first to challenge the government’s policy of “extraordinary rendition,” also known as “outsourcing torture.”
The Canadian government, after an exhaustive public inquiry, found that Mr. Arar had no connection to terrorism and, in January 2007, apologized to Mr. Arar for Canada’s role in his rendition and awarded him a multi-million-dollar settlement. The contrast between the two governments’ responses to their mistakes could not be more stark, say Mr. Arar’s attorneys. Both the Executive and Judicial branches of the United States government have barred inquiry and refused to hold anyone accountable for ruining the life of an innocent man.
Two Congressional hearings in October 2007 dealt with his case. On October 18, 2007 Mr. Arar testified via video at a House Joint Committee Hearing convened to discuss his rendition by the U.S. to Syria for interrogation under torture. During that hearing – the first time Mr. Arar testified before any U.S. governmental body – individual members of Congress publicly apologized to him, though the government still has not issued a formal apology. The next week, on October 24, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted during a House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing that the U.S. government mishandled his case.
In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Guido Calabresi wrote, “I believe that when the history of this distinguished court is written, today’s majority decision will be viewed with dismay.”
Joshua Sohn of DLA Piper US LLP, Katherine Gallagher of CCR, and Jules Lobel, professor at University of Pittsburgh Law School and CCR cooperating attorney, are co-counsel in Mr. Arar’s case.
The Center for Constitutional Rights represents other victims of the Bush administration’s programs, from Iraqis tortured and abused at Abu Ghraib prison to Muslim and Arab men rounded up and abused in immigration sweeps in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, to Guantanamo detainees in the recent Supreme Court case.
For more on Mr. Arar’s case, including a timeline, court papers and other documents, see our Arar v. Ashcroft case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.