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.
There has now been a palpable change. The carte blanche given after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to U.S. authorities to conduct anti-terror operations on European soil has become a menacing liability, and the subject of potentially destructive investigations, in several European countries. Governments are also reducing military co-operation with the U.S: This week saw Britain and Denmark announcing plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, with others expected to follow.
And when the European Parliament last week released a report condemning the 1,245 CIA flights made in Europe and the 20 European citizens subjected to "rendition," the responses no longer fell along predictable left-right lines.
European leaders are now looking nervously to Canada. Mr. Arar's "rendition" in 2002 was probably the first major use of the practice to come to light, and Canada is the first country to have been scorched politically by the explosive discovery that innocent people were tortured as a result of the practice.
Senior Canadian government officials and European Union diplomats have told The Globe and Mail that they believe the U.S. is avoiding any apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing in the Arar case because it could open a Pandora's box of recriminations from Europe, where two cases almost identical to Mr. Arar's are being tried in Germany and Italy and at least 18 more could be pending.
American intelligence officials are facing criminal charges in European courts, and an admission that mistakes have been made could transform transatlantic relations into an enormous forensic investigation, they say.
Europe is now feeling the pain that Canada has undergone, in part as a result of information unearthed in the half-dozen inquiries into Mr. Arar's treatment. In Italy, the fallout has centred on the case of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a Milan cleric also known as Abu Omar, who was seized by CIA agents in 2003 and flown to Cairo, where he was tortured and sexually abused in prison. He was released this week.
Last Friday, Italy had its Arar moment. Milan magistrate Armando Spataro indicted 26 U.S. citizens, including Italian CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, and five Italians in the rendition of Abu Omar. All of them face charges of kidnapping. The Italian officials include the head of intelligence, Nicolo Pollari, who like the RCMP chief was forced to resign over the case, which is known in Italy as the Imam Rapito ("kidnapped imam") affair.
The U.S. has refused to acknowledge the Italian prosecution or to admit that the rendition occurred. It has also refused the magistrate's request to extradite the defendants (the Italian government has also decided not to press the extradition request at the highest levels). But Italian law allows people to be tried, convicted and sentenced in absentia, so the case will continue, likely revealing embarrassing information about high-level support for the renditions in Italian governments.
In Germany, a case strikingly similar to Mr. Arar's has led to arrest warrants against 13 CIA officers and damning revelations about German complicity in kidnapping. That case involves Khaled el-Masri, who was seized while on vacation in 2003 and sent to Afghanistan for five months (similarly, Mr. Arar, a computer programmer, had been returning from a family vacation). As with Mr. Arar, it appears that Mr. el-Masri has no relationship with terrorism and that his rendition was founded on completely false evidence.
Both Sweden and Portugal are also facing major investigations which accuse their governments of allowing citizens to be seized and sent to Egypt and other countries for torture, without any criminal charges.
Significantly, the case against the U.S. is now being made by judges and officials who have traditionally held pro-American, terror-fighting positions.
Mr. Spataro, the Milan magistrate, is as far from an anti-American firebrand as you can get in Italy: He has spent much of the past 30 years prosecuting terrorist and Mafia groups in Italy, and is not known for a hostility to U.S. interests.
"The job is the same — I have led many investigations against internal terrorism since the early 1970s. Many of my colleagues were killed by terrorist organizations," Mr. Spataro said this week from a Milan office filled with Americana — the wall behind his desk is dominated by a Norman Rockwell print chronicling the integration of southern U.S. schools.
"But we were absolutely sure that it is impossible to fight terrorism without respect for the laws. And with this investigation I hope that we can confirm that it is impossible to win over Islamic terrorism without the respect for law."
The Arar and Abu Omar cases were different in this respect: Along with his indictments of intelligence officials last week, Mr. Spataro laid criminal charges against Abu Omar himself, charging him with membership in a criminal organization (a crime in Italy). Mr. Spataro said that he strongly believes that Abu Omar could have been prosecuted for terrorism far more efficiently if the U.S. practice of rendition had not been followed. But now, he says, the terror-fighters are just as guilty as the alleged terrorist.
"I want to make clear that according to Italian law there is no difference between prosecuting terrorism and prosecuting those who fight terrorism," he said.
That seems to be the bridge that was crossed in Europe this week: It is now the people who were the most stalwart anti-terrorist fighters, the most loyal supporters of George W. Bush's approach to al-Qaeda, who are speaking out against the abuses of that system. With an eye on Canada, the moderates and centre-rightists of Europe are realizing that the U.S. is not prepared to offer a reasonable explanation for those abuses.
That was the case this week with Gijs de Vries, the EU's head of anti-terrrorism, who announced that he will step down in March because he has lost faith in his U.S. partners. He previously had embraced the American approach to counterterrorism, and harshly criticized the European parliament for its rendition-system investigation, with which he refused to co-operate. But on Wednesday, he said that the lack of U.S. explanation for its actions had made it impossible for him to do his job properly.
"The CIA renditions, together with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the military commissions act, unfortunately have tarnished the image of the United States in the fight against terrorism, among Muslims and non-Muslims," he told reporters. "I hope the United States, now that there is a new political dynamic in the U.S. Congress, can return to a mainstream interpretation of international human rights."
It was this sort of realization, on a larger scale, that led to the collapse of the Italian government on Wednesday. The expansion of a U.S. military base and the presence of Italian troops in Afghanistan were bound to be divisive in Italy, where Communists and other parties of the extreme left always have built a strong base on anti-Americanism. Those parties make up part of the left-wing coalition government of Romano Prodi, which took power from Silvio Berlusconi in last spring's elections.
But the U.S. base became a rallying point for more than just the far left. A public sense that Italian airports and bases have been used for immoral or questionable activities has led the wider Italian public to take part in protests against the expansion, drawing tens of thousands of people.
It created an environment where even the parties of Mr. Berlusconi's right could vote against the pro-American measures without upsetting their constituencies. On Wednesday, it was mainly right-wing politicians who voted against the military-base expansion and the Afghanistan measure, bringing down the government.
Sergio Romano, a former Italian senior diplomat and leading voice of the country's centre-right, told The Globe and Mail that he now believes that the U.S. should not have bases on Italian soil, because it has abused its friendly relationship with its European allies to the point that it can no longer be trusted.
"I believe that the very same people who have been most aware that terrorism is a threat are now the people who are critical in this case of kidnapping," he said from his Milan office. "I think that calling it a 'war on terrorism' has caused a number of mistakes on our part."
It is bizarre to find the likes of Mr. Romano, an ardently pro-American voice, calling for restrictions on U.S. rights in Europe. But with an eye to Mr. Harper's government, European leaders are realizing that it is perilous to support the Bush administration at this awkward political moment.
"I think there is a body of opinion which feels that this kind of thing should be looked at with new eyes," Mr. Romano said "We know very well that the Americans used their bases in Djibouti to attack al-Qaeda in Ethiopia this year . . . If they decide to attack Hezbollah, God forbid, they'll be using Italian bases to do it.
"And we won't be told beforehand. We'll learn the next day. And you become complicit in such things. We do not want that any more."
Doug Saunders is a London-based member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau. His Focus column, Reckoning, will return next week.