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Torture Sours U.S.-Canadian Right-Wing Lovefest

Stephen Harper, Canada's conservative prime minister, campaigned on strengthening ties with the Bush administration. But the love affair has ended over the American "rendition" of a Canadian citizen to Syria.
 
 
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A U.S. Ambassador lashed out against a foreign official last week for standing up to the Bush administration -- and it wasn't against Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or any of the other usual suspects.

It was Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day -- a fundamentalist creationist, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights hawk who once spoke at a "Canadians for Bush" rally. At the onset of the Iraq war, he published a pro-Bush letter in the Wall Street Journal with Stephen Harper, who would become Canada's prime minister in 2006. Day and Harper blasted their own government's opposition to the U.S. invasion and lauded the Bush administration's "fundamental vision of civilization and human values."

That conservative lovefest is now over. Last week Day and U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins exchanged the most hostile tit-for-tat to date over the case of Maher Arar. In 2002, U.S. authorities detained Arar, a Canadian citizen, at JFK airport. After accusing him of having links to al Qaeda, they sent him to Syria, where he was tortured for nearly a year before being released without charge.

After an exhaustive inquiry, an independent Canadian commission cleared Arar of any terrorist ties last fall. On Jan. 26, the Ottawa government announced it would apologize for its role in the debacle and compensate Arar to the tune of about U.S. $8.5 million, plus legal fees.

But while the Canadian government has now admitted that Arar is indeed the innocent computer engineer and father of two he always said he was, the Bush administration continues to insist that Arar belongs on its "no-fly" list of terrorism suspects. This has meant that Arar, who spent 10 months in a gravelike underground cell, continues to live under a cloud of secret accusations.

Despite his ideological affinity for President Bush, Prime Minister Harper has not been oblivious to the fact the U.S. government is about as popular among Canadians today as it was when the Americans invaded in the War of 1812. In October, he was moved to ring up Bush and ask him to "come clean" about the Arar affair. He even went so far as to ask that Bush acknowledge "the deficiencies and inappropriate conduct that occurred in this case." That, of course, was as likely as the president admitting to shirking his National Guard duties during the Vietnam War.

The most U.S. Justice Department officials offered to do was brief the Canadians on the dirt they supposedly had gathered about Arar from their own sources. When this finally occurred last week, Stockwell Day, Canada's version of our Homeland Security chief, promptly declared it bogus.

"We've looked at all their information and there is nothing that materially changes our position," Day told reporters. "Mr. Arar is not a threat, nor is his family."

That provoked Ambassador Wilkins to spout that it was "presumptuous for him to say who the United States can and cannot allow into our country."

Day's direct contradiction of U.S. officials was indeed a bit of a shocker in the relatively calm history of U.S.-Canadian diplomacy. Yes, there was that flamboyant Pierre Trudeau who ticked off Nixon by chumming around with Castro, but he and the American Cold Warrior in chief were natural adversaries. When Bush can no longer count on alter egos like Day and Harper, you know something is seriously amiss.

It's funny, though, how a strong desire to cover one's legal behind can trump all other interests, be they ideological, economic or moral. And Maher Arar is suing the U.S. government for violating protections in our own laws against torture. The case was dismissed on national security grounds a year ago, but an ongoing appeal could get a boost if the Bush administration were to admit that Arar is not a threat.

Given the executive branch's self-interest in stonewalling, the best hope for Maher Arar lies in the U.S. Congress. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., now chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently lacerated Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, saying it was "beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured [ Video]" On the House side, Edward Markey, D-Mass., has introduced a bill that would ban altogether the practice of "extraordinary rendition," or sending detainees to countries known for routinely practicing torture, like Syria.

Now they should crank up the heat by thumbing their noses at the "no-fly" list and flying themselves to Canada to take testimony directly from Arar. They should also consult with Justice Dennis O'Connor, who headed the Canadian government's commission on the case, and other Canadian officials. This would be a powerful statement to the world that the Bush administration will not stand in the way of their efforts to seek the truth. It's too late to prevent the nightmare endured by Maher Arar and other victims of torture caused by the Bush administration. But it's not too late to prevent other young men from the same fate.

Sarah Anderson is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

 
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