Wednesday, May 2, 2007

So far parts of Arar (O'Connor) report are still censored

This has been going on forever. The inquiry took three years and it is now half a year since the attempt to make public part of the censored material has been going on and it still is not settled.

Judge, Arar join to uncloak torture report secrecy
Public still can't see blacked-out words despite $15-million spent on a three-year investigation

OTTAWA -- One of Canada's most respected judges yesterday formed a united front with Maher Arar aimed at lifting a veil of government secrecy around 1,500 words censored from last fall's report into possible Canadian government complicity in Syrian torture.

Counsel acting for Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, the author of last fall's more than 800-page report on the Maher Arar affair, yesterday tried to persuade Federal Court Judge Simon Noël to force the government to reveal censored portions of the report. The public is still not allowed to see the blacked-out portion of the report, not even after a $15-million public inquiry that lasted more than three years.

Justice Department lawyers, who argue the government was hardly heavy-handed with its censor's pen, say that it is Ottawa's prerogative to shield portions of inquiry findings for security reasons. Crown lawyer Alain Préfontaine said that fewer than 1,500 words, or less than one half of 1 per cent of the overall Arar Inquiry report, have been censored.

But Paul Cavalluzzo, Judge O'Connor's commission counsel, argued at the Federal Court that "it's not a matter of the quantity of the evidence, it's a matter of the quality of the evidence."

He argued that Canadians need to know the entirety of the judge's report to have faith in government and to keep it accountable.

"The public demands to know what happened, why it happened," Mr. Cavalluzzo argued.

Some of the language surrounding the censored parts of the report appears to indicate that Judge O'Connor might believe that untested intelligence, possibly derived from the torture of a Canadian truck driver then held in the Middle East, may have found its way into RCMP search warrants in early 2002.

(The truck driver, Ahmad El Maati, is a former Afghanistan-based mujahed [holy warrior] who says he was tortured into naming other Canadians, and to being forced to confess to being behind a fake al-Qaeda bomb plot in Ottawa.

Just what, if anything, Canada did with this intelligence has never been made clear; Mr. El-Maati has never been charged with a crime.)

The full text of the search warrants has never been revealed.

But around the time of the searches, the RCMP probe seemed to have taken on a greater urgency as it looked at Canadian Arabs who were believed to have spent time in Afghanistan during the 1990s.

Judge O'Connor's public findings have revealed that the RCMP mislabeled Mr. Arar an "Islamic extremist" on a flight-watch list, a designation that the judge found "very likely" figured into the U.S. decision to arrest the telecommunications engineer at a New York airport and label him an "al-Qaeda member."

Mr. Arar -- who has always insisted that he never set foot in Afghanistan -- was deported to Syria and spent a year in a Syrian prison.

Judge O'Connor also publicly cleared Mr. Arar of ever being a threat to Canadian national security.

The report's findings have led to the recent resignation of the RCMP commissioner and $10-million in compensation for Mr. Arar.

But the former suspect's lawyers continue to argue for greater transparency.

"It's only 1,500 words to the government," said Mr. Arar's lawyer, Lorne Waldman. But he argued that his client needs to know what these words are "to get on with his life."

Yesterday's hearing was, in some ways, a bizarre spectacle: The judge, who was tasked years ago by the federal government with getting to the bottom of things, pleading through Mr. Cavalluzzo for the government to lift the secrecy it has imposed on aspects of the case.

Ottawa was initially hostile to the very notion of a public inquiry into Mr. Arar's detention, and even after public pressure forced one, frequently required the commission to meet in private for reasons of national security.

Today, an offshoot "internal" inquiry is investigating the related overseas detentions of other former counterterrorism targets, but meeting almost entirely behind closed doors. Privately, counterterrorism investigators complain that a "judicial jihad" has messed up their investigations and damaged relations with intelligence-sharing partners, including the United States.

The Federal Court hearing concerning the Arar matter was open to the public yesterday, but will meet in camera for the remainder of the week.

It is not known when Judge Noël, who yesterday struggled to reconcile Judge O'Connor's position with the government's claims that it controls the information, will make his findings.

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