Please Read This

I’m ashamed to be an Amer­i­can today.

Maher Arar: statement
CBC News Online | Novem­ber 4, 2003

The fol­low­ing state­ment was read by Maher Arar in Ottawa on Novem­ber 4, 2003, less than one month after being released from prison in Syria:

Maher Arar
I am here today to tell the peo­ple of Cana­da what has hap­pened to me.

There have been many alle­ga­tions made about me in the media, all of them by peo­ple who refuse to be named or come for­ward. So before I tell you who I am and what hap­pened to me, I will tell you who I am not.

I am not a ter­ror­ist. I am not a mem­ber of al-Qae­da and I do not know any one who belongs to this group. All I know about al-Qae­da is what I have seen in the media. I have nev­er been to Afghanistan. I have nev­er been any­where near Afghanistan and I do not have any desire to ever go to Afghanistan.

Now, let me tell you who I am.

I am a Syr­i­an-born Cana­di­an. I moved here with my par­ents when I was 17 years old. I went to uni­ver­si­ty and stud­ied hard, and even­tu­al­ly obtained a Mas­ters degree in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. I met my wife, Monia at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. We fell in love and even­tu­al­ly mar­ried in 1994. I knew then that she was spe­cial, but I had no idea how spe­cial she would turn out to be.

If it were not for her I believe I would still be in prison.

We had our first child, a daugh­ter named Barâa, in Feb­ru­ary, 1997. She is six years old now. In Decem­ber, 1997, we moved to Ottawa from Mon­tre­al. I took a job with a high tech firm, called The Math­Works, in Boston in 1999, and my job involved a lot of trav­el with­in the U.S.

Then in 2001 I decid­ed to come back to Ottawa to start my own con­sult­ing com­pa­ny. We had our sec­ond child, Houd, in Feb­ru­ary, 2002. He is 20 months old now.

So this is who I am. I am a father and a hus­band. I am a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions engi­neer and entre­pre­neur. I have nev­er had trou­ble with the police, and have always been a good cit­i­zen. So I still can­not believe what has hap­pened to me, and how my life and career have been destroyed.

Maher Arar with his wife Monia Mazigh
In Sep­tem­ber 2002, I was with my wife and chil­dren, and her fam­i­ly, vaca­tion­ing in Tunis. I got an e‑mail from the Math­Works say­ing that they might need me soon to assess a poten­tial con­sult­ing work for one of their cus­tomers. I said good­bye to my wife and fam­i­ly, and head­ed back home to pre­pare for work.

I was using my air miles to trav­el, and the best flight I could get went from Tunis, to Zurich, to New York, to Mon­tre­al. My flight arrived in New York at 2:00 p.m. on Sep­tem­ber 26th, 2002. I had a few hours to wait until my con­nect­ing flight to Montreal.

This is when my night­mare began. I was pulled aside at immi­gra­tion and tak­en to anoth­er area. Two hours lat­er some offi­cials came and told me this was reg­u­lar pro­ce­dure. They took my fin­ger­prints and photographs.

Then some police came and searched my bags and copied my Cana­di­an pass­port. I was get­ting wor­ried, and I asked what was going on, and they would not answer. I asked to make a phone call, and they would not let me.

Then a team of peo­ple came and told me they want­ed to ask me some ques­tions. One man was from the FBI, and anoth­er was from the New York Police Depart­ment. I was scared and did not know what was going on. I told them I want­ed a lawyer. They told me I had no right to a lawyer, because I was not an Amer­i­can citizen.

They asked me where I worked and how much mon­ey I made. They swore at me, and insult­ed me. It was very humil­i­at­ing. They want­ed me to answer every ques­tion quick­ly. They were con­sult­ing a report while they were ques­tion­ing me, and the infor­ma­tion they had was so pri­vate I thought this must be from Canada.

I told them every­thing I knew. They asked me about my trav­el in the Unit­ed States. I told them about my work per­mits, and my busi­ness there. They asked about infor­ma­tion on my com­put­er and whether I was will­ing to share it. I wel­comed the idea, but I don’t know if they did.

They asked me about dif­fer­ent peo­ple, some I know, and most I do not. They asked me about Abdul­lah Almal­ki, and I told them I worked with his broth­er at high-tech firms in Ottawa, and that the Almal­ki fam­i­ly had come from Syr­ia about the same time as mine. I told them I did not know Abdul­lah well, but had seen him a few times and I described the times I could remem­ber. I told them I had a casu­al rela­tion­ship with him.

They were so rude with me, yelling at me that I had a selec­tive mem­o­ry. Then they pulled out a copy of my rental lease from 1997. I could not believe they had this. I was com­plete­ly shocked. They point­ed out that Abdul­lah had signed the lease as a wit­ness. I had com­plete­ly for­got­ten that he had signed it for me when we moved to Ottawa in 1997, we need­ed some­one to wit­ness our lease, and I phoned Abdul­lah’s broth­er, and he could not come, so he sent Abdullah.

But they thought I was hid­ing this. I told them the truth. I had noth­ing to hide. I had nev­er had prob­lems in the Unit­ed States before, and I could not believe what was hap­pen­ing to me. This inter­ro­ga­tion con­tin­ued until mid­night. I was very, very wor­ried, and asked for a lawyer again and again. They just ignored me. Then they put me in chains, on my wrists and ankles, and took me in a van to a place where many peo­ple were being held in anoth­er build­ing by the air­port. They would not tell me what was hap­pen­ing. At 1:00 in the morn­ing they put me in a room with met­al bench­es in it. I could not sleep. I was very, very scared and dis­ori­ent­ed. The next morn­ing they start­ed ques­tion­ing me again. They asked me about what I think about bin Laden, Pales­tine, Iraq. They also asked me about the mosques I pray in, my bank accounts, my e‑mail address­es, my rel­a­tives, about everything.

This con­tin­ued on and off for eight hours. Then a man from the INS came in and told me they want­ed me to vol­un­teer to go to Syr­ia. I said no way. I said I want­ed to go home to Cana­da or sent back to Switzer­land. He said to me “you are a spe­cial inter­est.” They asked me to sign a form. They would not let me read it, but I just signed it. I was exhaust­ed and con­fused and dis­ori­ent­ed. I had not slept or eat­en since I was in the plane. At about 6:00 in the evening they brought me some cold McDon­alds meal to eat. This was the first food I had eat­en since the last meal I had on the plane.

At about 8:00 they put all the shack­les and chains back on, and put me in a van, and drove me to a prison. I lat­er learned this was the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Deten­tion Cen­ter. They would not tell me what was hap­pen­ing, or where I was going. They strip searched me. It was humil­i­at­ing. They put me in an orange suit, and took me to a doc­tor, where they made me sign forms, and gave me a vac­ci­na­tion. I asked what it was, and they would not tell me. My arm was red for almost two weeks from that.

They took me to a cell. I had nev­er seen a prison before in my life, and I was ter­ri­fied. I asked again for a phone call, and a lawyer. They just ignored me. They treat­ed me dif­fer­ent­ly than the oth­er pris­on­ers. They would not give me a tooth­brush or tooth­paste, or read­ing mate­r­i­al. I did get a copy of the Qur’an about two days later.

After five days, they let me make a phone call. I called Moni­a’s moth­er, who was here in Ottawa, and told her I was scared they might send me to Syr­ia, and asked her to help find me a lawyer. They would only let me talk for two minutes.

On the sev­enth or eighth day they brought me a doc­u­ment, say­ing they had decid­ed to deport me, and I had a choice of where to be deport­ed. I wrote that I want­ed to go to Cana­da. It asked if I had con­cerns about going to Cana­da. I wrote no, and signed it. The Cana­di­an con­sul came on Octo­ber 4, and I told her I was scared of being deport­ed to Syr­ia. She told me that would not hap­pen. She told me that a lawyer was being arranged. I was very upset, and scared. I could bare­ly talk.

The next day, a lawyer came. She told me not to sign any doc­u­ment unless she was present. We could only talk for 30 min­utes. She said she would try to help me. That was a Sat­ur­day. On Sun­day night at about 9:00 p.m., the guards came to my cell and told me my lawyer was there to see me. I thought it was a strange time, and they took me into a room with sev­en or eight peo­ple in it. I asked where my lawyer was. They told me he had refused to come and start­ed ques­tion­ing me again. They said they want­ed to know why I did not want to go back to Syr­ia. I told them I would be tor­tured there. I told them I had not done my mil­i­tary ser­vice; I am a Sun­ni Mus­lim; my moth­er’s cousin had been accused of being a mem­ber of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and was put in prison for nine years.

They asked me to sign a doc­u­ment and I refused. I told them they could not send me to Syr­ia or I would be tor­tured. I asked again for a lawyer. At three in the morn­ing they took me back to my cell. At 3:00 in the morn­ing on Tues­day, Octo­ber 8th, a prison guard woke me up and told me I was leav­ing. They took me to anoth­er room and stripped and searched me again. Then they again chained and shack­led me. Then two offi­cials took me inside a room and read me what they said was a deci­sion by the INS Director.

They told me that based on clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion that they could not reveal to me, I would be deport­ed to Syr­ia. I said again that I would be tor­tured there. Then they read part of the doc­u­ment where it explained that INS was not the body that deals with Gene­va Con­ven­tions regard­ing torture.

Then they took me out­side into a car and drove me to an air­port in New Jer­sey. Then they put me on a small pri­vate jet. I was the only per­son on the plane with them. I was still chained and shack­led. We flew first to Wash­ing­ton. A new team of peo­ple got on the plane and the oth­ers left. I over­heard them talk­ing on the phone, say­ing that Syr­ia was refus­ing to take me direct­ly, but Jor­dan would take me.

Then we flew to Port­land, to Rome, and then to Amman, Jor­dan. All the time I was on the plane I was think­ing how to avoid being tor­tured. I was very scared. We land­ed in Amman at 3:00 in the morn­ing local time on Octo­ber 9th.

They took me out of plane and there were six or sev­en Jor­dan­ian men wait­ing for us. They blind­fold­ed and chained me, and put me in a van. They made me bend my head down in the back seat. Then, these men start­ed beat­ing me. Every time I tried to talk they beat me. For the first few min­utes it was very intense.

Thir­ty min­utes lat­er we arrived at a build­ing where they took off my blind­fold and asked rou­tine ques­tions, before tak­ing me to a cell. It was around 4:30 in the morn­ing on Octo­ber 9. Lat­er that day, they took my fin­ger­prints, and blind­fold­ed me and put me in a van. I asked where I was going, and they told me I was going back to Montreal.

About 45 min­utes lat­er, I was put into a dif­fer­ent car. These men start­ed beat­ing me again. They made me keep my head down, and it was very uncom­fort­able, but every time I moved, they beat me again. Over an hour lat­er we arrived at what I think was the bor­der with Syr­ia. I was put in anoth­er car and we drove for anoth­er three hours. I was tak­en into a build­ing, where some guards went through my bags and took some choco­lates I bought in Zurich.

I asked one of the peo­ple where I was and he told me I was in the Pales­tine branch of the Syr­i­an mil­i­tary intel­li­gence. It was now about 6:00 in the evening on Octo­ber 9. Three men came and took me into a room. I was very, very scared. They put me on a chair, and one of the men start­ed ask­ing me ques­tions. I lat­er learned this man was a colonel. He asked me about my broth­ers, and why we had left Syr­ia. I answered all the questions.

If I did not answer quick­ly enough, he would point to a met­al chair in the cor­ner and ask “Do you want me to use this?” I did not know then what that chair was for. I learned lat­er it was used to tor­ture peo­ple. I asked him what he want­ed to hear. I was ter­ri­fied, and I did not want to be tor­tured. I would say any­thing to avoid tor­ture. This last­ed for four hours. There was no vio­lence, only threats this day. At about 1:00 in the morn­ing, the guards came to take me to my cell downstairs.

We went into the base­ment, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep.

It was sev­en feet high. It had a met­al door, with a small open­ing in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of met­al on the out­side for slid­ing things into the cell.

There was a small open­ing in the ceil­ing, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was anoth­er ceil­ing, so only a lit­tle light came through this. There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the open­ing into the cell. There were two blan­kets, two dish­es and two bot­tles. One bot­tle was for water and the oth­er one was used for uri­nat­ing dur­ing the night. Noth­ing else. No light.

I spent 10 months, and 10 days inside that grave.

The next day I was tak­en upstairs again. The beat­ing start­ed that day and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for anoth­er week. That sec­ond and the third days were the worst. I could hear oth­er pris­on­ers being tor­tured, and scream­ing and screaming.

Inter­ro­ga­tions are car­ried out in dif­fer­ent rooms. One tac­tic they use is to ques­tion pris­on­ers for two hours, and then put them in a wait­ing room, so they can hear the oth­ers scream­ing, and then bring them back to con­tin­ue the interrogation.

The cable is a black elec­tri­cal cable, about two inch­es thick. They hit me with it every­where on my body. They most­ly aimed for my palms, but some­times missed and hit my wrists. They were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and low­er back. Inter­roga­tors con­stant­ly threat­ened me with the met­al chair, tire and elec­tric shocks.

The tire is used to restrain pris­on­ers while they tor­ture them with beat­ing on the sole of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat. I was not beat­en while in tire. They used the cable on the sec­ond and third day, and after that most­ly beat me with their hands, hit­ting me in the stom­ach and on the back of my neck, and slap­ping me on the face. Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleed­ing. At the end of the day they told me tomor­row would be worse. So I could not sleep.

Then on the third day, the inter­ro­ga­tion last­ed about 18 hours. They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the wait­ing room for one to two hours before resum­ing the inter­ro­ga­tion. While in the wait­ing room I heard a lot of peo­ple scream­ing. They want­ed me to say I went to Afghanistan. This was a sur­prise to me. They had not asked about this in the Unit­ed States.

They kept beat­ing me so I had to false­ly con­fess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to con­fess to any­thing if it would stop the tor­ture. They want­ed me to say I went to a train­ing camp. I was so scared I uri­nat­ed on myself twice. The beat­ing was less severe each of the fol­low­ing days.

At the end of each day, they would always say, “Tomor­row will be hard­er for you.” So each night, I could not sleep. I did not sleep for the first four days, and slept no more than two hours a day for about two months. Most of time I was not tak­en back to my cell, but to the wait­ing room where I could hear all the pris­on­ers being tor­tured and screaming.

One time, I heard them bang­ing a man’s head repeat­ed­ly on a desk real­ly hard. Around Octo­ber 17th, the beat­ings sub­sided. Their next tac­tic was to take me in a room, blind­fold­ed, and peo­ple would talk about me. I could hear them say­ing, “He knows lots of peo­ple who are ter­ror­ists; we will get their num­bers; he is a liar; he has been out of the coun­try for long.”

Then they would say, “let’s be frank, let’s be friends, tell us the truth,” and come around the desk, and slap me on the face. They played lots of mind games. The inter­ro­ga­tion and beat­ing end­ed three days before I had my first con­sular vis­it, on Octo­ber 23.

I was tak­en from my cell and my beard was shaved. I was tak­en to anoth­er build­ing, and there was the colonel in the hall­way with some oth­er men and they all seemed very ner­vous and agitated.

I did not know what was hap­pen­ing and they would not tell me. They nev­er say what is hap­pen­ing. You nev­er know what will hap­pen next. I was told not to tell any­thing about the beat­ing, then I was tak­en into a room for a ten minute meet­ing with the con­sul. The colonel was there, and three oth­er Syr­i­an offi­cials includ­ing an inter­preter. I cried a lot at that meet­ing. I could not say any­thing about the tor­ture. I thought if I did, I would not get any more vis­its, or I might be beat­en again.

After that vis­it, about a month after I arrived, they called me up to sign and place my thumb print on a doc­u­ment about sev­en pages long. They would not let me read it, but I had to put my thumb print and sig­na­ture on the bot­tom of each page. It was handwritten.

Anoth­er doc­u­ment was about three pages long, with ques­tions: Who are your friends? How long have you been out of the coun­try? Last ques­tion was emp­ty lines. They answered the ques­tions with their own hand­writ­ing except for the last one where I was forced to write that I had been to Afghanistan.

The con­sular vis­its were my life­line, but I also found them very frus­trat­ing. There were sev­en con­sular vis­its, and one vis­it from mem­bers of par­lia­ment. After the vis­its I would bang my head and my fist on the wall in frus­tra­tion. I need­ed the vis­its, but I could not say any­thing there.

I got new clothes after the Decem­ber 10th con­sular vis­it. Until then, I had been wear­ing the same clothes since being on the jet from the Unit­ed States.

On three dif­fer­ent occa­sions in Decem­ber I had a very hard time. Mem­o­ries crowd­ed my mind and I thought I was going to lose con­trol, and I just screamed and screamed. I could not breathe well after, and felt very dizzy.

I was not exposed to sun­light for six months. The only times I left the grave was for inter­ro­ga­tion, and for the vis­its. Dai­ly life in that place was hell. When I was detained in New York I weighed about 180 pounds. I think I lost about 40 pounds while I was at the Pales­tine Branch.

On August 19 I was tak­en upstairs to see the inves­ti­ga­tor, and I was giv­en a paper and asked to write what he dic­tat­ed. If I protest­ed, he kicked me. I was forced to write that I went to a train­ing camp in Afghanistan. They made me sign and put my thumbprint on the last page.

The same day I was trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent place, which I learnt lat­er was the Inves­ti­ga­tion Branch. I was placed there in a 12 feet by 20 feet col­lec­tive cell. We were about 50 peo­ple in that place. The next day I was tak­en to the Sed­naya prison. I was very lucky that I was not tor­tured when I arrived there. All the oth­er pris­on­ers were tor­tured when they arrived.

Sed­naya prison was like heav­en for me. I could move around, and talk with oth­er pris­on­ers. I could buy food to eat and I gained a lot of weight there. I was only beat­en once there.

On around Sep­tem­ber 19 or 20, I heard the oth­er pris­on­ers say­ing that anoth­er Cana­di­an had arrived there. I looked up, and saw a man, but I did not rec­og­nize him. His head was shaved, and he was very, very thin and pale. He was very weak. When I looked clos­er, I rec­og­nized him. It was Abdul­lah Almal­ki. He told me he had also been at the Pales­tine Branch, and that he had also been in a grave like I had been except he had been in it longer.

He told me he had been severe­ly tor­tured with the tire, and the cable. He was also hanged upside down. He was tor­tured much worse than me. He had also been tor­tured when he was brought to Sed­naya, so that was only two weeks before.

I do not know why they have Abdul­lah there. What I can say for sure is that no human deserves to be treat­ed the way he was, and I hope that Cana­da does all they can to help him.

On Sep­tem­ber 28 I was tak­en out and blind­fold­ed and put in what felt like a bus and tak­en back to the Pales­tine Branch. They would not tell me what was hap­pen­ing, and I was scared I was going back to the grave. Instead, I was put in one of the wait­ing rooms where they tor­ture peo­ple. I could hear the pris­on­ers being tor­tured, and scream­ing, again.

The same day I was called in to an office to answer more ques­tions, about what I would say if I came back to Cana­da. They did not tell me I would be released.

I was put back in the wait­ing room, and I was kept there for one week, lis­ten­ing to all the pris­on­ers scream­ing. It was awful.

On Sun­day, Octo­ber 5th I was tak­en out and into a car and dri­ven to a court. I was put in a room with a pros­e­cu­tor. I asked for a lawyer and he said I did not need one. I asked what was going on and he read from my con­fes­sion. I tried to argue I was beat­en and did not go to Afghanistan, but he did not lis­ten. He did not tell me what I was charged with, but told me to stamp my fin­ger­print and sign on a doc­u­ment he would not let me see.

Then he said I would be released.

Then I was tak­en back to the Pales­tine Branch where I met the head of the Syr­i­an Mil­i­tary Intel­li­gence and offi­cials from the Cana­di­an embassy. And then I was released. I want to con­clude by thank­ing all of the peo­ple who worked for my release, espe­cial­ly my wife Monia, and human rights groups, and all the peo­ple who wrote let­ters, and all the mem­bers of par­lia­ment who stood up for justice.

Of course I thank all of the jour­nal­ists for cov­er­ing my story.

The past year has been a night­mare, and I have spent the past few weeks at home try­ing to learn how to live with what hap­pened to me. I know that the only way I will ever be able to move on in my life and have a future is if I can find out why this hap­pened to me.

I want to know why this hap­pened to me. I believe the only way I can ever know why this hap­pened is to have all the truth come out in a pub­lic inquiry.

My pri­or­i­ty right now is to clear my name, get to the bot­tom of the case and make sure this does not hap­pen to any oth­er Cana­di­an cit­i­zens in the future. I believe the best way to go about achiev­ing this goal is to put pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment to call for a pub­lic inquiry.

What is at stake here is the future of our coun­try, the inter­ests of Cana­di­an cit­i­zens, and most impor­tant­ly Canada’s inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion for being a leader in human rights where cit­i­zens from dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups are treat­ed no dif­fer­ent than oth­er Canadians.

Thank you for your patience.

Cyn is a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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