Horrors of Extraordinary Rendition
Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was a victim
of the U.S. policy known as “extraordinary rendition.”
He was detained by U.S. officials in 2002, accused of terrorist
links, and handed over to Syrian authorities, who tortured him.
Arar is working with the Center for Constitutional Rights to
appeal a case against the U.S. government that was dismissed
on national security grounds. Below is a transcript of his acceptance speech for the Letelier-Moffitt
International Human Rights Award on Oct. 18, 2006 in Washington DC, given in a pre-recorded videotape since he is banned from entering the US. Arar describes the horror he endured at the hands of “extraordinary rendition”.
Hello my name is Maher Arar. Sorry I
could not join you for today’s ceremony.
All Center for Constitutional
Rights Staff and I are humbled to have been chosen this year’s
recipient for the Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights
Award. This award means a tremendous amount to us. It means that
there are still Americans out there who value our struggle for
It means that there are Americans
out there who are truly concerned about the future of America.
We now know that my story is not a unique one. Over the past
two years we have heard from many other people who were, who
have been kidnapped, unlawfully detained, tortured and eventually
released without being charged with any crime in any country.
My nightmare began on September
26, 2002. I was transiting through New York airport, JFK Airport,
when they asked me to wait in a waiting area. I found that to
be strange. Shortly after, some FBI officials came to see me
and they asked me whether, I was willing to be interviewed.
My first immediate reaction
was to ask for a lawyer and I was surprised when they told me
that I had no right to a lawyer because I was not an American
Then I asked for a phone call,
I wanted to call my family to let them know what was going on.
And they just ignored my request.
Then they told me, we only
have couple of questions for you and we’ll let you go. So I agreed.
I had nothing to hide. And the interrogation started. Soon after,
you know, they asked me about people I knew. It was deeper, until
the interrogation was going deeper and deeper and deeper.
During this time, they played
mind games with me. They would sometimes insult me; say to me
something like you’re smart. Other times they would accuse me
of being dumb.
And, I repeatedly ask for a
lawyer, to make a phone call. They always ignored my question.
The interrogation that day
lasted about four hours with the FBI officials and another four
hours with immigration. At the end of that day, instead of sending
me back to Canada, they shackled and chained me and sent me to
another, another terminal in the airport where I stayed overnight
and in that place, in that room they kept me in, the lights were,
were always on. There was no bed in that room and I could not
sleep that night.
The next day another set of
interrogations started. This time it was about, they asked me
about political opinions–I answered openly, I didn’t try to
hide my political opinions. The asked me about Iraq. They asked
me about Palestine and so many other issues. And they also, if
I remember correctly, asked me about my emails and some other
And they told me that day we
are about to decide about your fate. At the end of that day,
surprisingly, one of the immigration officers came and asked
me to volunteer to go to Syria. I said to them: why do you want
me to go to Syria, I’ve never been there for 17 years. And they
say, “You are special interest.” Of course, back then
I did not know what this expression meant. But it was clear that
the Americans, the officer did not want me to go to Canada.
When he insisted, I said, let
me go back to Switzerland. That was my point of departure before
I arrived at JFK and he refused. Eventually they took me into
the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison, where they
kept me for about 12 days. During this time I was interviewed
for six hours by INS. It was a very exhaustive interview from
9PM to like around 3AM in the morning. When I asked them to,
during this interview to go, to allow me to go back to my cell
to perform my prayer, they refused, completely refused.
Also during my stay at the
Metropolitan Detention Center I could clearly see that I was
being treated differently from other prisoners. For example,
they didn’t give me toothpaste they would allow me to go for
recreation for about a week. They always ignored my demand for
making a phone call. Eventually they allowed me to make a phone
call. Up until that time, which was a week after I was arrested,
no one in my family knew where I was. My wife thought I was disappeared,
I was killed. No one knew exactly what happened, until I informed
my mother-in-law that I was arrested.
Eventually on October 8th,
against my will, they took me out of my cell. They basically
read the pieces of document to me saying, that we will be sending
you Syria. And when I complained, I said to them, I did explain
to you if I’m sent back I will be tortured and they, I remember,
the INS person flipped a couple of pages in this document, to
the end of this document and read to me a paragraph that I still
remember until today, an extremely shocking statement she made
She said something like: The
INS is not the body or the agency that signed the Geneva Convention,
convention against torture. For me what that really meant is
we will send you to torture and we don’t care.
So they put me on a private
jet, which I found extremely strange. I was the only passenger
on that, on that plane. Its a luxurious plane, with leather seats
in it. My only preoccupation during this trip is how I could
avoid torture. By then, I realized that they were exactly sending
me to Syria for torture. And that became very clear to me. Then
the plane flew to Washington from Washington it flew to Maine
then to Rome, then from Rome to Jordan.
And I remember on the plane
I was most of the time I was shackled and chained except the
last two hours when they offered me a shish-kabob dinner. Up
until this day I do not, I cannot explain why they did that.
If I was a dangerous person like they claimed in the beginning,
why they would remove my chains and shackles the last two hours
of the trip?
During also the trip, whenever
I wanted to use the bathroom, one of the team members would go
inside with me. Even though I complained that this was against
my religious belief.
The plane landed in Jordan
on three in the morning October 8th. And a couple of Jordanians
were waiting, men, were waiting for me. They took me, they blindfolded
me, they put me in a car and shortly after they started beating
me on the back of my head. Whenever I complained about the beating
they would actually start beating me more. So I just kept silent.
I stayed in Jordan for about
12 hours in a detention center. I still don’t know what that
I was always blindfolded whenever
they took me from one cell to another or when they took me to
see the doctor. But I felt something strange in that prison.
I felt, what, that I used an elevator, which is quite strange
for a Middle Eastern prison.
After 12 hours of detention,
unlawful detention in Jordan I was eventually driven to Syria.
And I just didn’t want to believe that I was going to Syria.
I always was hoping that someone, a miracle would happen–the
Canadian government would intervene. A miracle would happen that
would take me back to my country Canada.
I arrived in Syria that same
day, at the end of the day and I was able to confirm that I was
in fact in Syria after my blindfold was removed and I was able
to see the pictures of the Syrian President. My feeling then
is I just wanted to kill myself because I knew what was coming.
I knew that the Americans, the American government send me there
to be tortured.
Sometime later the interrogators
came in. They started asking questions, routine questions at
the beginning, but whenever I hesitated to answer their questions
or whenever they thought I was lying one of them would threaten
me with a chair, a metallic chair with no seats in it, only the
frames. And back then I did not understand or I did not know
how they would torture people with it. I later learned that from
other prison inmates.
But the message was clear:
if you don’t speak quickly enough we will torture you. That day,
the interrogation lasted about four hours. There was no physical
beating; there was only verbal threats. Around midnight, they
took me to the basement. In the basement, the guard opened a
door for me, a metallic door. I could not believe my eyes. I
looked at him and I said, what is that? He didn’t answer. He
just said to me: Enter.
The cell was about three feet
wide, six feet deep and about seven feet high. It was dark. There
was no source of light in it. It was filthy. There were only
two thin covers on the floor. I was naïve; I thought they
would keep me in this place for one, two, maybe three days to
put pressure on me. But this same place, the same cell that I
later called the grave was my home 10 months and 10 days. The
only light that came into the cell was from the ceiling, from
the opening in the ceiling. There was a small spotlight and that’s
Life in the cell was impossible.
At the beginning–even though it was a filthy place, it was like
a grave–I preferred to stay in that cell rather than being beaten.
Whenever I heard the guards coming to open my door I would just
think, you know, this is it for me that would be my last day.
The beating started the following
day. Without no warning…(long pause as he fights tears) without
no warning the interrogator came in with a cable. He asked me
to open my right hand. I did open it. And he hit me strongly
on my palm. It was so painful to the point that I forgot every
moment I enjoyed in my life.
This moment is still vivid
in my mind because it was the first I was ever beaten in my life.
Then he asked me to open my left hand. He hit me again. And that
one missed and hit my wrist. The pain from that hit lasted approximately
six months. And then he would ask me questions. And I would have
to answer very quickly. And then he would repeat the beating
this time anywhere on my, on my body. Sometimes he would take
me to a room where I could, where I was alone, I could hear other
prisoners being tortured, severely tortured. I remember that
I used to hear their screams. I just couldn’t believe it, that
human beings would do this to other human beings.
And then they would take me
back to the interrogation room. Again another set of questions,
and the beating starts again and again. On the third day the
beating was the worst. They beat me a lot with the cable. And
they wanted me to confess that I have been to Afghanistan. This
was a big surprise to me because even the Americans who interviewed
me, the FBI officials who interviewed me, did not ask me that
question. I ended up falsely confessing in order to stop the
torture. The torture decreased in intensity.
From that moment on they rarely
used the cable. Mostly they slapped me on the face, they kicked
me, they humiliated me all the time.
The first 10 days of my stay
in Syria was extremely harsh and during that period I found my
cell to be a refuge. I didn’t want to see their faces. But later
on living in that cell was horrible. And just to give you an
idea about how painful it is to stay in that place–I was ready
after a couple of months, I was ready to sign any piece of document
for me, not to be released, just to go to another place where
it is fit for human being.
During this time I wasn’t aware
that my wife launched a campaign with other human rights organizations
like Amnesty International and others. My wife lobbied the media,
she lobbied politicians and eventually I was released. The Syrians
released me and they clearly stated through the ambassador in
Washington that they did not find any links to terrorism. I was
not charged in any country including Canada, United States, Jordan
Since my release I have been
suffering from anxiety, constant fear, and depression. My life
will never be the same again. But I promised myself one thing,
that I will continue my quest for justice as long as I have a
breath. What keeps me going is my faith, Americans like yourselves
and the hope that one day our planet Earth will be free of tyranny,
torture and injustice.