Maher Arar asked for the impossible: "I wish I could buy my life back."
Yesterday he received an official apology from the Prime Minister and an $11.5-million compensation package from the federal government -- the largest legal settlement of its kind in Canadian history.
But he says he'll never again know the life he led before 2002 -- as a successful young Canadian computer engineer with a bright future for himself and his family, free to travel to the United States on business, and free of the horrible memories of 10 months in a tiny, wet and rat-infested prison cell in Syria.
In dark moments, Mr. Arar sometimes Googles his own name to see how many hits he gets that also include the label "suspected terrorist." The anger returns.
If a reference describes him as "computer engineer" he feels pangs of nostalgia for those days when his life really was so uncomplicated.
But he knows that that life ended more than four years ago when U.S. authorities shipped him off in the middle of the night to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Canadian government, formally apologized yesterday to Mr. Arar for the role the Mounties and other federal officials played in his ordeal.
A judicial commission of inquiry last September found that the RCMP passed along false and inflammatory intelligence reports about the Canadian man to U.S. agencies, describing him as a Muslim extremist. This information was "very likely" used by the Americans to deport Mr. Arar to Syria, where he was imprisoned for almost a year and tortured, the inquiry said.
The torment continued, even after Mr. Arar's release, with "leaks" of misinformation to Canadian news media smearing Mr. Arar's reputation, Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor found.
The entire Arar family has suffered unjustly, Mr. Arar told reporters, at times choking back tears.
He said his parents, his five brothers and his sister, his wife, Monia Mazigh, and their two young children all have had their lives disrupted by the injustice that the Canadian government is formally acknowledging with the apology and the $11.5-million compensation payment, which includes $1-million for legal fees.
He doesn't know exactly how he will use the settlement to try to build a new life. He wants to spend more time with his children. "My kids have suffered silently. I owe them a lot. I feel now I can devote more time to being a good father to them and to being a good husband to my wife."
His son believes that every time Mr. Arar leaves the house, he's going to a judicial inquiry. "He thinks that's my job."
The government's apology and compensation "acknowledges my innocence. This means the world to me," he said.
He thanked the previous Liberal government for convening the commission of inquiry, and the Harper Conservative government for standing up to the United States with diplomatic efforts at the highest levels to get his name removed from a U.S. border watch list.
"I want to pay tribute to the Canadian people. Without the support of the Canadian people I might not ever have been able to come home, stay strong and push for the truth," Mr. Arar said. "I feel proud as a Canadian. And I feel proud of what we have achieved collectively."
The Arar family moved last year from Ottawa to Kamloops, B.C., where Ms. Mazigh is now a university professor.
Mr. Arar is working on a PhD in computer sciences. He's also been speaking to meetings of Amnesty International and other human-rights groups in Western Canada.
He said the compensation package may enable him to do some additional work on behalf of human rights. "This struggle was never just about me. This was a struggle for everyone."
The compensation package makes it possible to "contribute to Canadian society in other ways," he said, suggesting he will continue to be active on human-rights issues.
He will be watching with keen interest a new commission of inquiry, announced in December, to look into the cases of three other Canadian Muslim men who were also detained in Syria and tortured. All say they were interrogated on the basis of information that must have come from Canada.
Julian Falconer, one of Mr. Arar's lawyers, said that Mr. Arar can never be fully compensated for the loss of his good name.
"What is most striking about the nature of the slander in this case -- for example: 'Islamic extremist with suspected links to al-Qaeda' -- is that kind of slander, that kind of stigma, you can't remove it with a DNA test," Mr. Falconer said.
"There will always be those who figure where there's smoke, there's fire. And that's the danger of this kind of stigma. It is simply almost irremediable."
Letter of apology
The text of a letter released yesterday from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Maher Arar, above, offering an apology for his wrongful deportation and torture in a Syrian jail:
Dear Mr. Arar:
On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you, Monia Mazigh and your family for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003.
Although the events occurred under the last government, please rest assured that this government will do everything in its power to ensure that the issues raised by Commissioner [Dennis]O'Connor are addressed.
I trust that, having arrived at a negotiated settlement, we have ensured that fair compensation will be paid to you and your family. I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives.