On an October evening five years ago, a Gulfstream III executive jet appeared in the sky above Rome and requested a landing at Ciampino Airport, a small military and tourist-flight destination on the ancient Via Appia. On board the 14-seat plane were two pilots, a steward, five CIA agents and a tall, elegant Canadian wearing a green sweater, a pair of jeans and metal shackles.
The Gulfstream, registered to a CIA-connected firm known as Presidential Aviation, was on European soil for exactly 37 minutes. When it had finished refuelling, it left Ciampino at 8:59 p.m. and headed to Amman, Jordan. There, Maher Arar was carried off the plane, beaten, and loaded into a van headed to Damascus, where he would face 10 months and 10 days of horrendous torture.
Those 37 minutes are now coming back to haunt Europe.
Mr. Arar's ordeal, and the wealth of investigations and recriminations that have followed in Canada, has provoked a deep sense of alarm in European politics this week. This Syrian-Canadian's case, the abject apology he received from Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month and the bewildering lack of acknowledgment from Washington, has made a half-dozen governments realize that they may soon face similar public self-examinations.
The possibility, revealed in a European Union report last week, that as many as 20 more Arar-like cases may be emerging within Europe, is souring relations between Europe and the U.S. in anti-terrorism operations, and between European governments and their own people in electoral politics.
Major court cases are under way in Germany and Italy against domestic and U.S. agents for kidnapping citizens and sending them to Muslim countries to be tortured — cases that could implicate senior government officials and tarnish national leaders, as they have in Canada.
It is fair to say that Mr. Arar's spectre claimed its first major victim on Wednesday in Rome, when a parliamentary conflict over co-operation with the U.S. "war on terrorism," tainted by the use of Italian airports to transport Mr. Arar and others to sites of torture, led to the collapse of Italy's government.
Those 37 minutes that Mr. Arar spent on the tarmac in Rome, apparently with the consent of Italian authorities under anti-terrorism agreements with the U.S., have now become part of the controversy. An Italian magistrate, Salvatore Vitello, will travel to Canada later this winter as part of his investigation to determine whether Italians and Americans were guilty of kidnapping.
Across Europe, prosecutors such as Mr. Vitello have shifted their energies from charging potential al-Qaeda terrorists to investigating officials who may have overstepped the bounds of law in their pursuit of antiterrorism.
"We are investigating Mr. Arar's transit through Rome, which is itself a crime if behind it there was an actual crime — that is, if in the U.S. he was illegally kidnapped. If that is the case, if he was kidnapped, then Rome was part of it," Mr. Vitello told The Globe and Mail. "The fact that he was in Rome for those 37 minutes — somebody must have given permission for that."
A year ago, his investigation would have been another colourful sideshow in the flamboyant world of European jurisprudence. But Mr. Arar's precedent has changed that.
In Canada, the Arar case has led to the resignation of RCMP chief Giuliano Zaccardelli, to an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the payment of $11.5-million in damages to Mr. Arar, and to tensions between a Conservative government and a U.S. Republican administration. Foreign minister Stockwell Day has engaged in a heated showdown with his U.S. counterparts over his demand that Mr. Arar be removed from an American no-fly list. And the Liberal Party, in a forthcoming election, will be confronted with its indifference and possible collusion in the Arar case.
The issue of "extraordinary rendition" — the U.S. practice of seizing suspected terrorists, placing them on unmarked airplanes, and sending them without charge or trial to countries that practice torture — has festered for years in the background of European politics. But it has been an issue that has mainly concerned political parties and activists on the far left, groups that are predictably anti-American. In mainstream politics, it has simply been part of the War on Terrorism's background noise.