In a live, interactive video conversation, Maher Arar, a human rights activist who is at the forefront of international debates and American constitutional law, spoke passionately with a packed audience in the Garonzik Auditorium.
Students were left questioning the scope of civil liberties during a time of war. “I was shocked by what happened to him, but it made me more aware,” said Ellen Shin ’10 after attending the video conference.
“It showed us that Obama’s administration is still practicing extraordinary renditions,” Nick Whittredge ’10 said, “and that no one is safe from executive power unless everyone can speak up.”
Mr. Arar, a dual citizen of Canada and Syria, was subject to a program implemented under the Bush administration as a protective measure in the years following 9/11/01. While on a business trip to the U.S. in 2002, he was stopped at JFK airport in New York due to some unproven but potentially suspicious information that Canadian authorities shared with the CIA.
After detaining him for a week, authorities flew Mr. Arar to Syria, the country he had left with his family at age 17 to avoid military service. He knew that torture was a routine practice in Syrian prisons. “All the time on the plane I was thinking of how to avoid being tortured,” he recalled.
Mr. Arar vividly remembers the physical and mental torture and threats inflicted upon him over the ensuing year. “I thought that they would put me there for only a few days,” he said, “not ten months.” He was brutally beaten, forced to confess to false accusations, and then placed in a tiny cell below ground.
His wife and others fought for his release, and his case soon became well-known. When released, he returned to Canada a different man. “I was profoundly changed both physically and mentally,” he said. “I no longer trust the [governmental] system, and I cannot concentrate for more than a short amount of time.” He still struggles to connect emotionally with others, including his own children.
In September, 2006, the Canadian government released the results of their investigation, which cited no evidence of wrong-doing, and apologized to Mr. Arar. They also provided him with a financial remuneration. However, the American government continues to state that evidence related to Mr. Arar’s personal connections and travel history are enough to keep him on the official no-fly watch list.
Mr. Arar was “expecting the Obama administration to put an end to this,” but he still awaits an apology and reparation. While individual members of Congress and other American diplomats have made personal apologies to Mr. Arar, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security asserts that his status should not be changed.
Mr. Arar and his supporters question the thinking behind the policies responsible for his hardships. “One positive that has come from this is that my eyes are now open,” he said. “I see how easily our human rights can be taken away from us.”