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Opinion Charges in Arar case a historic step toward ending torture

Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada

The news that the RCMP have laid criminal charges against Colonel George Salloum, a military-intelligence officer accused of torturing Canadian citizen Maher Arar in a Syrian jail cell 13 years ago, is a historic human-rights breakthrough.

Mr. Arar was a victim of rendition by U.S. officials back in 2002, sent illegally to Jordan and then Syria. He languished in a Syrian jail for one year. He was brutally tortured.

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After his return to Canada, a commission of inquiry was conducted by Justice Dennis O'Connor. And the truth emerged. U.S. officials had acted on the basis of inflammatory and false allegations from Canadian sources that Mr. Arar was linked to terrorist groups. The federal government apologized and compensated Mr. Arar for the role Canadian officials played in his torture and other violations.

But a Canadian judge could not deliver accountability in the United States or Syria. So Mr. Arar turned to the RCMP in 2005 and asked that a criminal investigation be launched into foreign officials responsible for his torture. After 10 years of exhaustive investigations, that is what has happened.

Torture is absolutely prohibited in international and national law, yet it haunts every corner of our world, including harrowing jail cells in Syria. While it may seem obvious the RCMP should go after someone who has tortured a Canadian citizen in another country, it has never happened. Canadian law was amended to allow it back in 1985. But 30 years later, charges have never been laid. Until now.

It is the first time a foreign official has been charged for torture under Canadian law. It is the first time charges have been laid for torture outside Canada. It is one of the very few times such charges have been laid anywhere in the world.

But this is not the end of the story. The focus shifts to finding Col. Salloum so that he stands trial in Canada. Beyond Col. Salloum, there should be further investigations leading to charges against other Syrian, U.S. and possibly even Canadian officials who are criminally responsible for what happened to Mr. Arar.

Cases of other Canadians who have been tortured abroad should be investigated; as should individuals present in Canada who stand accused of having committed torture elsewhere.

Three Canadians – Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin – were tortured in Syria around the same time as Mr. Arar, likely by the same officials. A judicial inquiry headed by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci confirmed they were tortured and that Canadian officials played a role.

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Rather than provide redress, the government has forced these men into a protracted lawsuit. That contrasts sharply with the charge against Col. Salloum. It is time for Canada to deliver justice to these three men.

Canada gives a nod to torture in various national-security contexts, such as deportations and intelligence-sharing. The RCMP's charges are a stark reminder that torture is a crime, end of story. It is time to banish any trace of it in Canadian law, policy or practice.

Finally, Canada can go further in lifting the secrecy around torture. In 2002, while Mr. Arar was imprisoned in Syria, the United Nations adopted a new treaty, an Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, instituting prison inspections to detect torture. But neither Syria nor Canada has signed on.

Criminal charges today. Optional Protocol tomorrow? That would be real progress toward ending torture.

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