Canadian federal officials have filed charges against a Syrian intelligence officer for torturing a Canadian citizen given up by the CIA.
It appears unlikely that the Syrian man — Col. George Salloum — will be arrested and extradited to Canada to face charges, given the ongoing civil war in his country and the fact that his whereabouts are unknown.
Yet the charges, which are the first of their kind, nonetheless send a major signal from Canada and serve to refute the CIA's practice of handing terrorism suspects to countries where they may have been tortured.
Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian man, claims to have been mistaken for a suspected terrorist in 2002 when he was changing planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
He was arrested and then after 12 days was sent by the CIA to Syria, via Jordan.
He claimed to have been held in Syria for a year, including months on end in a dark underground cell, during which time he was subjected to torture.
"This is a clear message to my husband — and to whoever denied that torture happened — that this is real and that you cannot commit torture [with] impunity,” Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, said on Tuesday, according to the CBC.
A Canadian inquiry led to a formal public apology for Arar in 2007, followed by a $10.5 million compensation payment from the government. The inquiry found that Canadian officials had given erroneous information to the U.S.
The charges from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are likely to be symbolic, given that Salloum’s whereabouts are unknown.
Still, human rights advocates claimed that they set a valuable precedent for countries to atone for the aggressive tactics during the war with al Qaeda.
“It is heartening to see Canada taking additional steps toward accountability for the unlawful rendition and torture of Maher Arar,” Jamil Dakwar, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said in a statement. “But we can’t forget that U.S. officials must also be held responsible for their responsibility in knowingly rendering Maher to torture in Syria.”
A lawsuit launched by Arar against the U.S. government was dismissed in 2009.
“If the United States does not do its part to bring to justice those who perpetrated torture in its name, it is sending the message that torture in the name of national security is acceptable and that it remains a policy option,” Naureen Shah, the head of the security and human rights program at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.