February 1, 2010, New York – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) asked the United States Supreme Court to take up the case of Canadian citizen Maher Arar against U.S. officials for sending him to Syria to be interrogated under torture and arbitrarily detained for a year. Lower courts concluded that Mr. Arar’s suit could not proceed because it raised sensitive foreign policy and secrecy issues. If the Court of Appeals’ ruling is allowed to stand, the federal officials involved will effectively be immunized from any civil legal accountability for what they did to an innocent man.
Maher Arar is not available to comment in person, but is issuing the following statement: “With renewed hope I am asking the Supreme Court of the United States to hear my plight and eventually overturn lower courts’ rulings which essentially gave the government the green light to continue the abuse of its executive powers in matters related to National Security.”
CCR attorneys say the Supreme Court should hear the case because the Court of Appeals’ decision not only contradicts Supreme Court decisions but also raises issues of national importance by effectively immunizing federal officials who conspired to subject Arar to torture, and to block his access to a court that would almost certainly have barred the federal officials from carrying out their illegal plan.
Because the case was fully briefed and argued before President Obama took office, his administration has not yet had to take a position on Mr. Arar’s case, but is expected to do so in response to Mr. Arar’s petition.
Said Georgetown law professor and CCR cooperating attorney David Cole, who argued Arar’s case in the lower courts, “The courts below ruled that federal officials cannot be sued for sending an innocent man to Syria to be tortured because the case would be too sensitive – even though Congress has declared that courts are fully competent to assess claims that the United States is sending non-citizens to countries where they face a risk of torture. We hope the Supreme Court will reaffirm the role of checks and balances and afford Mr. Arar his day in court.”
Mr. Arar alleges that the U.S. officials named in the suit conspired with Syrian officials to have him tortured in Syria, delivered him to his torturers, provided them with a dossier on him and questions to ask him, and then obtained the answers tortured out of him. The legal arguments in the case revolve around whether U.S. officials can be sued for damages if that is the only remedy available to the victim, and whether Mr. Arar has a right to pursue his claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act, among others.
“Thus far the United States courts have let Maher Arar down,” said CCR Senior Attorney Maria LaHood. “Today we ask the justices of the Supreme Court to consider Maher’s case and show the world that the Judiciary in this country is not broken, and that it can and will declare that the men who delivered Maher to torture and prevented him from going to court to stop them do not get a free pass just because they worked for the U.S. government.”
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.
The Court of Appeals case was heard a second time in December 2008 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 Mr. Arar had even sought rehearing. On November 2, 2009, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals en banc affirmed the district court’s decision dismissing the 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.”
Read more on Mr. Arar’s case, including a timeline, links to videos, court papers and other documents.
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.