WASHINGTON — My organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, gave its annual human rights award this fall to Maher Arar, an innocent man the Bush administration falsely accused of being linked to Al Qaeda. His chilling case represents an opportunity for the new Democratic leadership in Congress to show the world that America has not entirely forgotten its proud history on human rights.
The general outline of Mr. Arar's story has been widely publicized. He is the joint Canadian-Syrian citizen who was detained at New York's JFK Airport in 2002 and "rendered" to Syria, a country the United States State Department accuses of routinely using torture. Syrian intelligence agents brutally tortured Arar – a fact confirmed by a Canadian inquiry – before releasing him nearly a year later without charging him.
Arar protested to the Canadian government and it conducted an in-depth inquiry into his case. When it declared him innocent of all terrorist ties in September, the Canadian House of Commons swiftly passed a unanimous motion apologizing to Arar. The head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which provided misleading evidence against Arar to US agents that led to his arrest, also apologized to him and his family.
The Bush administration refused to cooperate with that Canadian inquiry and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales continues to deny any wrongdoing. I sent Mr. Gonzales a letter in early October requesting that, at a minimum, he clear Arar's name and lift the ban on his entry to the United States so that he could attend the awards ceremony in Washington.
I never received a response, and Arar had to send a videotaped acceptance speech. The personal details in his account reduced many of the 500 people gathered at the ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington to tears: His description of the first time he saw his cell, a grave-sized hole, where he spent 10 months of his life. In his words, his first beating was "painful to the point that I forgot every moment I had ever enjoyed in my life."
The loudest gasp from the audience came when Arar recounted how a US immigration official in New York defended the decision to render him to Syria by explaining that the INS (now known as US Citizenship and Immigration Services) was not the agency that had signed the Geneva Convention against torture.
"For me, what that really meant is we will send you to torture and we don't care," Arar told the crowd.
I have been haunted by his story. The notion that my country, the nation that helped draft the Geneva Conventions, that spearheaded creation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, could be responsible for deliberately sending an innocent man to be tortured – well, it has been enough to keep me up at night.
What's worse is that I know Arar is only one of many victims, known and unknown, of this abhorrent policy of "extraordinary rendition," the post-9/11 practice of transferring detainees into the custody of foreign governments known for routinely practicing torture.
The Bush administration does not acknowledge that it knows the suspects are tortured. "We seek to satisfy ourselves that they will not be tortured," Gonzales said this year.
Because I believe that there is humanity in everyone, I believe that Bush administration officials involved in this tragedy will eventually be deeply affected by Arar's story, too.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently sent a letter to her Canadian counterpart about the Arar case. She refused to apologize to Arar, offering only to share information with her northern neighbor the next time the US considers sending a Canadian citizen to a third country. Does that decision ever keep Ms. Rice up at night?
A recently released transcript of a House Judiciary Committee hearing held in April of this year is revealing. In the transcript, which clearly refers to the Arar case, although he isn't mentioned by name, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York asked the attorney general if the treatment of Arar was legal. Gonzales replied: "I don't know, but I would be happy to get back to you on that." As far as we know, he never did get back to anyone. Does that approach ever keep Gonzales up at night?
The new congressional leaders should take immediate action to right these wrongs. They should start by issuing a formal apology to Arar and his family. And then they should invite him to testify in hearings that could lead to a ban on extraordinary rendition.
It's too late to prevent the nightmare endured by this young man and his family. And yet even Arar, a man the US government sent to a Syrian dungeon, has not given up hope in the American people.
In accepting his award, he said it meant a tremendous amount to him because "it means that there are still Americans out there who value our struggle for justice. It means that there are Americans out there who are truly concerned about the future of America."
Leaders in Congress should keep that hope alive by refusing to stand by while the Bush administration continues a practice of outsourcing torture.
• John Cavanagh directs the Institute for Policy Studies.