To say that Amir Attaran is no stranger to controversy is a bit of an understatement.
He's taken on the World Health Organization over malaria treatment, environmentalists over banning DDT and even Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) over drug patents.
Now, the 40-year-old University of Ottawa professor is in the middle of another maelstrom, the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan. And, this time, it's getting more than a bit personal.
Since Prof. Attaran asked that an investigation be held into the possibility that Canadian soldiers may have roughed up prisoners, he has been swamped with abusive messages.
"I have received a very great amount of hate mail, saying that I am not a real Canadian. Well, I am. And I have received quite a lot of other material attacking me -- and I won't use the real language because it's really vulgar -- as a damn Muslim. Use your imagination to substitute for damn."
Prof. Attaran, born in the United States to immigrant Iranians, is a naturalized Canadian. As an academic, he's dexterous, both a lawyer and immunologist. And he hews to no specific religious faith, calling himself an atheist.
"I'm not a Muslim, I never have been. I feel a profound attraction to all manner of religions. My partner, she was born Catholic. If we happen to be in the Latin American country where she's from, we may go into a cathedral to solemnly meditate."
In a 2006 profile in Nature Medicine, Prof. Attaran was described as having "the scientist's belief in the power of truth, the showman's flair for public spectacle and the lawyer's drive to argue down anyone who disputes the evidence."
But he said in an interview yesterday that he is embarrassed about the personal attention he is drawing over his call for an inquiry about information he uncovered that seems to suggest that three men held by Canadian soldiers may have been beaten.
"I don't want this to be a story about me. I want this to be a story about detainees, and not just the three men either," he said, referring to the treaty Canada signed under which it transfers prisoners to Afghan authorities without follow-up.
"In the long run, what's important is the reputation of our country to treat others with dignity and honour and that means we cannot subject them to conditions that likely end up in torture."
Prof. Attaran said his interest in human rights and the accountability of institutions grew out of his immigrant experience and a seminal trip through Africa before working on his doctorate at Oxford.
"There in Africa, in the middle of Angola, it was astonishing to me that young men and women of my age who were just fantastically mentally gifted . . . would never have the opportunity to go to Berkeley, to go to Oxford, UBC, be a faculty member at Harvard, Ottawa.
"They were opportunities I got and they didn't -- just by accident of birth. . . . So it is clear to me that there is something that I have to pay back. That is the foundation of my morality."
Prof. Attaran said his interest in the detainee issue began about a year ago when he was asked by the Law Society of Upper Canada to speak at a symposium on torture.
"I asked myself, 'What steps is Canada taking to make sure there will not be torture during our military intervention in Afghanistan?' " He said he ran into a brick wall when he tried to get a copy of the detainee-transfer agreement and that it would have remained secret if he had not persisted in asking questions.
"When I saw it I was very alarmed," he said. "What scandalizes me and what should scandalize this nation . . . [is that] today we are signatories to a treaty under which we do transfer prisoners to the Afghan National Police, self-confessed torturers."
Sitting on such information, and subsequent information unearthed through access-to-information requests, is not Prof. Attaran's style. First, he took his information to the Military Police Complaints Commission and, shortly afterward, to the media.
He makes no apologies for this somewhat unorthodox academic practice.
"I have not noticed it is improper to rely on one of the most, I think, essential institutions, of a free society -- and that is its press -- to make policy re-evaluation, and ultimately policy change, happen."