ICPJ Program Coordinator Bill Alt published the following Op-Ed in the June 7 issue of the Detroit Free Press.
In 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian birth, was returning to Canada from a visit to family in Tunisia. While changing planes at JFK Airport in New York, he was detained by U.S. authorities because of suspected links to al-Qaida.
He was held for 12 days without being charged and then deported to Syria, a victim of the Bush administration’s policy of “extraordinary rendition.”
The Syrians held him for 351 days in a 3-by-6-foot underground cell with no furniture or natural light. He was whipped and beaten with an electric cable and threatened with electric shock. Arar described his cell as a “grave” and said cats and rats urinated through a grate in the ceiling.
Then, after his captors failed to establish any connection to terrorism or terrorist organizations, he was released without charge and allowed to return to Canada.
To its credit, the Canadian government convened a commission of inquiry to investigate Arar’s case and its role in his detention. Ultimately, he was exonerated. The Canadian government formally apologized and compensated him for his suffering. To this day, however, the U.S. government refuses to apologize, offer compensation or hold anyone accountable. Arar’s lawsuit brought against the U.S. government was dismissed without being heard.
Twelve days detained without charge. Three hundred and fifty-one days interrogated, beaten and tortured. Zero established links to al-Qaida. Zero acts of terrorism. Zero days in a U.S. court to tell his story. Zero apologies or compensation from the president or Congress.
The numbers do not add up, and the scale of justice is not balanced. And as much as President Barack Obama would like to move our nation past this dark history, it will be impossible as long as we fail to acknowledge our mistakes and hold accountable those who perpetrated these crimes.
Three years ago, Obama gave a speech in which he said: “Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight. … And during this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists and citizens — fell silent.”
We must no longer be silent. Now is the time to issue a formal apology to Maher Arar, a victim of a “hasty decision.” Now is the time to establish an impartial, nonpartisan and independent commission of inquiry to investigate U.S.-sponsored torture and ensure that we have a full understanding of who was tortured, why they were tortured, who tortured them, who authorized the use of torture, and what can be done to ensure that our government never uses torture again.
Torture is immoral and illegal, without exception. The UN Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. is a signatory, prohibits torture under any circumstance. Torture is indefensible and violates our deepest values.
I agree with Obama that we must move on, but there cannot be reconciliation and healing until there is accountability. To heal, we as a nation need to confess our use of torture, apologize to Maher Arar and all victims, and resolve not to use torture again.
On May 21, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture joined with other human rights and religious organizations in delivering more than 60,000 names of people who have signed statements urging the president to issue a formal apology to Arar. My name was among them.
William Alt is program coordinator for the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Ann Arbor, which is a regional partner group of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.