The federal government drew the ire of human rights advocates yesterday for telling an inquiry that Canada was justified in working with countries accused of engaging in torture.
Justice Department lawyer Michael Peirce also told the internal inquiry yesterday that the United Nations Convention Against Torture is not a factor in deciding whether to send information to countries such as Syria and Egypt about Canadians detained there.
The comments are a rare public statement from Ottawa in relation to three Canadian men who were detained in the same Syrian jail as Maher Arar during the three years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The internal inquiry, led by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci, has spent most of the past year behind closed doors investigating whether Canada directly or indirectly caused the detentions of Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin - and any alleged mistreatment they received.
All three men say they were tortured inside Syria's Palestine Branch prison. Mr. El Maati was later transferred to an Egyptian prison, where he says he was tortured again.
The inquiry is an offshoot of the commission on the detention of Mr. Arar, who received $10-million in compensation from Canada for his detention in Syria's Palestine Branch.
Ottawa's presentation yesterday morning was repeatedly attacked throughout the day by the three men's lawyers and human rights groups.
Mr. Almalki's lawyer, Duncan Copeland, said Americans have shed light on the extreme actions of their government in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, such as CIA "black sites" and extraordinary renditions. He said Canadians are beginning to see that their government also went too far.
"Every Canadian should be hugely distressed at the position that the government is taking in regard to this inquiry and their justification for sending information to regimes like Syria and Egypt," he told reporters. "I find that a very frightening position and it is not a Canada I recognized."
Speaking on behalf of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and Foreign Affairs, Mr. Peirce told the inquiry that a country's human rights record is just one of many considerations for Canada in deciding whether to share intelligence with nations such as Syria and Egypt on national security.
"Unfortunately, we know that terrorism is often exported from countries with poor human rights records [and these countries are]an important source of information therefore. Canada cannot afford to be isolated in its information gathering from those important sources of information," he said. "The sharing of information always involves a weighing of the variety of considerations that are here, and there aren't, in my submission, specific circumstances that trump."
The public testimony yesterday and today operates on unusual terms. Although the inquiry was called specifically in relation to the foreign detentions of the three men, all public testimony must not make reference to their specific cases.
Mr. Iacobucci danced around this point, reminding Mr. Peirce that the inquiry has been asked to determine whether Canadian officials acted improperly in relation to the three men.
"Is it your submission that the answer to this question is given by what you've been submitting? That the [Convention Against Torture]doesn't deal with the sharing of information?" asked the commissioner.
"Yes," Mr. Peirce replied. "That is to say the [Convention Against Torture]does not create a standard, certainly not one that governed in 2001 to 2004, by which to judge sufficiency or deficiency of Canadian actions because it did not impose such a standard."
Human rights groups and representatives of the men argued yesterday that Canada sent information, including questions, to Syrian military intelligence knowing full well that the Canadians might be tortured during the subsequent interrogation.
"It looks like they want to legalize torture, but not directly - indirectly," Mr. Almalki, who was in the same Syrian prison at the same time as Mr. Arar, told reporters after Mr. Peirce's presentation.
The commissioner heard repeated testimony yesterday challenging Ottawa's position on the UN Convention Against Torture.
"The [convention]clearly applies to Canadian action outside Canada impacting on the rights of Canadian citizens abroad, including protection from torture," Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty Canada, told the commission.
On Tuesday, a lawyer for the federal Department of Justice, Michael Peirce, told the Iacobucci inquiry into the detention of three Canadians in Syria and Egypt that a country's non-compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture is not a decisive factor when Canada considers whether to send intelligence information to that country. A headline in a story in Wednesday's newspaper incorrectly said, "Ottawa defends role in renditions."