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Harper apologizes to Arar for torture in Syria

Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized Friday to Maher Arar for the torture he suffered in a Syrian prison and said the government would pay him and his family $10.5-million, plus legal fees, to compensate them for the "terrible ordeal."

"On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you ... and your family for any role that Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002-2003," Mr. Harper said in a letter to Mr. Arar.

The Prime Minister promised to do everything possible to ensure that the issues raised in the report of a judicial inquiry into the Arar case are addressed.

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The government cannot change what is past, he told a news conference in Ottawa. Mr. Arar was detained in the United States in 2002 and flown to Syria where he was jailed and tortured after the RCMP wrongly labelled him an Islamic extremist.

"But we can make changes to ... [reduce the chances]that something like this will ever happen again."

The Prime Minister went on to take the U.S. to task for its refusal to remove Mr. Arar from its watch list.

"We will not drop this matter, just because there is a disagreement and they don't like our position," he told reporters.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins criticized Public Security Minister Stockwell Day earlier this week after Mr. Day urged Washington to remove Mr. Arar from the list, which bars him from entering the country or even flying over its territory.

Mr. Harper took issue today with Mr. Wilkins's comments.

"The government of Canada has every right to go to bat for one of its citizens when it believes a Canadian is being unfairly treated by another country," he said.

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U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who has been pressing the Bush administration on the Arar case, issued a statement Friday that said: "The Canadian Government now has taken several steps to accept responsibility for its role in sending Mr. Arar to Syria, where he was tortured.

"The question remains why, even if there were reasons to consider him suspicious, the U.S. government shipped him to Syria, where he was tortured, instead of to Canada for investigation or prosecution. I look forward to hearing the Justice Department's answer to that question next week."

Mr. Harper also defended the large settlement.

He acknowledged that many Canadians will find the amount high but said it corresponds to what government lawyers say the 36-year-old engineer would have been able to obtain if the $37-million lawsuit he filed against the government had gone to court.

The package, the highest in Canadian history and the first relating to the torture of a citizen overseas, recognizes the role the government and the security services played in his deportation to Syria in 2002. Mr. Arar had been seeking an apology and $37-million, down from his initial demand for $400-million.

Mr. Arar, who is studying for his PhD in a computer-related field, has been otherwise unable to work in his discipline since his ordeal.

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Mr. Arar was left shattered by his experience. He struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder while making a new life for himself and his family in British Columbia.

Although he was unavailable for comment Thursday, he told The Globe last month: "To be a public figure, a public personality, is something I never wanted. I have to live a stressful life every single minute. I'm tired. Every day, the cloud is still over me. I'm not like a normal family father any more. It's very hard for people to understand what I've been going through, unless they come and live with me, and see it all."

Giuliano Zaccardelli became the first RCMP commissioner to resign over scandal in the history of the federal police force after inadequacies were highlighted in the way the case was handled. His force spent $863,000 investigating Mr. Arar before wrongly concluding he was an extremist.

Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's inquiry that examined the Arar rendition cost $16-million, and a separate inquiry has been called into the case of three others, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muyyed Nurredin. Former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci is looking into their cases.

It was Judge O'Connor who raised the cases of these Canadian Arabs who were also targets of an RCMP investigation before ending up in Syrian jails.

"I did not conduct anything approaching a full review," Judge O'Connor wrote in his Arar findings, adding that this would be "an enormously time-consuming task" outside his mandate.

But he did say there was a "pattern of investigative practices" that included officials "accepting and relying upon information that might be the product of torture." And such practices, Judge O'Connor said, "show that Canadian officials' treatment of Mr. Arar was not unique. They are indicative of systemic problems that should be addressed by the relevant agencies."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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