Thrown to the Wolves

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 26, 2005

OTTAWA

If John Ashcroft was right, then I was staring into the malevolent, duplicitous eyes of pure evil, the eyes of a man with the mass murder of Americans on his mind. But all I could really see was a polite, unassuming, neatly dressed guy who looked like a suburban Little League coach.

If Mr. Ashcroft was right, then Maher Arar should have been in a U.S. prison, not talking to me in an office in downtown Ottawa. But there he was, a 34-year-old man who now wears a perpetually sad expression, talking about his recent experiences - a real-life story with the hideous aura of a hallucination. Mr. Arar's 3-year-old son, Houd, loudly crunched potato chips while his father was being interviewed.

"I still have nightmares about being in Syria, being beaten, being in jail," said Mr. Arar. "They feel very real. When I wake up, I feel very relieved to find myself in my room."

In the fall of 2002 Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen, suddenly found himself caught up in the cruel mockery of justice that the Bush administration has substituted for the rule of law in the post-Sept. 11 world. While attempting to change planes at Kennedy Airport on his way home to Canada from a family vacation in Tunisia, he was seized by American authorities, interrogated and thrown into jail. He was not charged with anything, and he never would be charged with anything, but his life would be ruined.

Mr. Arar was surreptitiously flown out of the United States to Jordan and then driven to Syria, where he was kept like a nocturnal animal in an unlit, underground, rat-infested cell that was the size of a grave. From time to time he was tortured.

He wept. He begged not to be beaten anymore. He signed whatever confessions he was told to sign. He prayed.

Among the worst moments, he said, were the times he could hear babies crying in a nearby cell where women were imprisoned. He recalled hearing one woman pleading with a guard for several days for milk for her child.

He could hear other prisoners screaming as they were tortured.

"I used to ask God to help them," he said.

The Justice Department has alleged, without disclosing any evidence whatsoever, that Mr. Arar is a member of, or somehow linked to, Al Qaeda. If that's so, how can the administration possibly allow him to roam free? The Syrians, who tortured him, have concluded that Mr. Arar is not linked in any way to terrorism.

And the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a sometimes-clownish outfit that seems to have helped set this entire fiasco in motion by forwarding bad information to American authorities, is being criticized heavily in Canada for failing to follow its own rules on the handling and dissemination of raw classified information.

Official documents in Canada suggest that Mr. Arar was never the target of a terror investigation there. One former Canadian official, commenting on the Arar case, was quoted in a local newspaper as saying "accidents will happen" in the war on terror.

Whatever may have happened in Canada, nothing can excuse the behavior of the United States in this episode. Mr. Arar was deliberately dispatched by U.S. officials to Syria, a country that - as they knew - practices torture. And if Canadian officials hadn't intervened, he most likely would not have been heard from again.

Mr. Arar is the most visible victim of the reprehensible U.S. policy known as extraordinary rendition, in which individuals are abducted by American authorities and transferred, without any legal rights whatever, to a regime skilled in the art of torture. The fact that some of the people swallowed up by this policy may in fact have been hard-core terrorists does not make it any less repugnant.

Mr. Arar, who is married and also has an 8-year-old daughter, said the pain from some of the beatings he endured lasted for six months.

"It was so scary," he said. "After a while I became like an animal."

A lawsuit on Mr. Arar's behalf has been filed against the United States by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer with the center, noted yesterday that the government is arguing that none of Mr. Arar's claims can even be adjudicated because they "would involve the revelation of state secrets."

This is a government that feels it is answerable to no one.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com