By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada
One of the most unexpected and consequential phone calls I ever answered was back in September 2002. A woman who introduced herself as Monia Mazigh was calling with a request for Amnesty International’s assistance. Her husband Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, had disappeared in US custody while changing planes at JFK Airport in New York City on his way home from a family vacation in Tunisia.
Monia said to me, I do not know what accusations they are making against him. All I demand is that they give him justice.
Neither of us would have imagined that it was the beginning of an epic, history-making struggle for exactly that, justice. And that the struggle would continue for so long such that almost thirteen years after that phone call, Maher and Monia’s quest for justice continues to make history.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
Today the RCMP did something that has never before been done by a police agency in Canada. In fact it has almost never been done anywhere in the world. Canada’s national police force laid criminal charges against Colonel George Salloum, a Syrian military intelligence officer who stands accused of carrying out and overseeing the torture of Maher Arar while he was illegally imprisoned in a Syrian jail cell between October 2002 and October 2003.
Canadian law has allowed for the possibility of foreign officials being charged for torture in Canadian courts since 1985 in a variety of contexts, including when the person who has been tortured is a Canadian citizen. However, thirty years later this is the first time that charges have been laid in Canada for torture happening outside the country. That lack of action is symptomatic of the secrecy and impunity that has long shielded torturers around the world. The groundbreaking decision to lay charges lifts that secrecy and pierces that impunity.
An exhaustive two year public inquiry headed by the respected Ontario judge Dennis O’Connor concluded in a 2006 report that there was no truth to allegations that Maher Arar had any connection to terrorism. The inquiry also found that those unfounded accusations, passed on to US officials from Canadian sources, led to him being sent off illegally to face torture in Syria.
The Canadian government did apologize and offered compensation. But there has been no progress towards justice in either the United States or Syria. Until now.
The RCMP doesn’t know where George Salloum is, or whether he is even still alive. However, through Interpol and other police channels, efforts will be made to find him so that he can be extradited to stand trial in Canada. This offers justice directly and very personally to Maher, Monia and their families. More widely it sends a strong message from Canada to torturers in other countries that what happens in torture chambers there may end up before the courts here.
VICTORIES AND NEXT STEPS
The charges come after an exhaustive, unprecedented ten year investigation. Amnesty International assisted the RCMP throughout and we welcome this tremendous development. After a decade it might feel as if this is a wrap. Far from it. We will watch closely now for the following important next steps.
First, obviously, George Salloum must be found. Amnesty International will press other governments to cooperate with Canadian officials towards that end.
Second, investigations in the Arar case should continue, leading to charges against other Syrian, US or even Canadian officials if appropriate and feasible. There has yet to be any accountability in the United States for subjecting Maher to rendition.
Third, there are other cases ripe for investigation under the same torture provisions in the Criminal Code. Other Canadians have been tortured abroad. Their torturers should be pursued. And there are foreign nationals in Canada who stand accused of having committed torture elsewhere before travelling to Canada. They too should be investigated.
Fourth, three Canadians whose cases are hauntingly similar to Maher Arar’s – tortured in Syria around the same time and almost certainly by some of the same officials – have been denied justice at every turn; and that must at long last give way. Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin’s cases were examined by a judicial inquiry conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci. His 2008 report confirmed they had been tortured and that the actions of Canadian officials had played a role. Rather than receive an apology and compensation they find themselves trapped in a protracted and contentious lawsuit. Given this ground-breaking decision to lay charges against George Salloum it is certainly time to deliver justice to these three men.
Fifth, the RCMP’s charges powerfully affirm that torture is a crime, plain and simple. It cannot be explained away by raising national security or any other excuse. Yet at the same time Canada tolerates or condones torture, including through deportations and our intelligence-sharing relationships. Reforms are needed to ensure that torture has no place in Canadian law, policy or practice.
And finally, these charges help lift the secrecy that is often a torturer’s greatest ally. George Salloum is no longer lurks in the shadows. His misdeeds will quickly become notorious. Governments around the world will be on the look-out for him. Canada can take one more important step towards ending the secrecy that fuels torture by ratifying an important UN treaty that sets up a system of inspecting prisons to look for the conditions that lead to torture, so that it can be prevented and ultimately ended.
Ironically that treaty, the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, was adopted by the United Nations in December 2002, while Maher Arar languished in a Syrian prison cell and George Salloum was free to torment him and countless other prisoners. Syria has not signed on to the Optional Protocol’s prison inspections. But neither has Canada. Canada cannot press Syria or any other country to get on board until we have done so ourselves.
Monia Mazigh’s phone call thirteen years ago unleashed a remarkable struggle for justice. Neither she nor Maher have wavered. Nor can the rest of us. Not until torture is a thing of the past.
Thank you to Amnesty International members who have worked tirelessly for more than a decade for justice for Maher!
For more information on Amnesty’s work to Stop Torture, click here.