Obama, the Supreme Court and Maher Arar: No Accountability for Torture

18.6.10

I don’t have time to write about the US Supreme Court’s shameful refusal to hear the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was rendered to Syria by the US in 2002, where he endured brutal torture for 10 months, so instead I’m cross-posting a suitably acerbic article by David Cole (one of Arar’s lawyers), as published in the New York Review of Books. Cole explains how, “In twenty-five years as a civil rights and human rights lawyer, I have never handled a case of more egregious abuse,” and expresses palpable disgust that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration that was responsible for Arar’s torture, has had the effrontery to claim in court that “torture is never permissible, but [has] then [gone] on to argue at length that federal officials accused of torture should not be held accountable.” As an additional note to readers, Maher Arar’s case is cited in the final part of the UN Secret Detention Report that I posted yesterday, which also discusses other men — and boys — rendered by the US to Syria up to eight years ago who have never been heard from since.

He Was Tortured, But He Can’t Sue
By David Cole, New York Review of Books, June 15, 2010

On Monday, June 14, the Supreme Court declined to hear Maher Arar’s case, conclusively shutting the door on the Canadian citizen’s effort to obtain redress from US officials who stopped him in September 2002 while he was changing planes on his way home to Canada and shipped him instead to Syria, where he was tortured and imprisoned without charges for nearly a year. In so ruling, the Court refused to reconsider the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, sitting en banc, which had ruled in November 2009 [PDF] that Arar’s case raised too many sensitive issues of national security and confidential information to permit its adjudication in a court of law. If he is to obtain any remedy now, it must come from Congress and the President. The courts have washed their hands of the affair, but that does not mean that it is resolved.

I am one of Arar’s lawyers, along with others at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. In twenty-five years as a civil rights and human rights lawyer, I have never handled a case of more egregious abuse. US officials not only delivered Arar to Syrian security forces that they regularly accuse of systematic torture, but did everything in their power to ensure that Arar could not get to a court to challenge their actions while he was in their custody. When they finally permitted him to see a lawyer, on a Saturday ten days into his detention, the government hastily scheduled an extraordinary hearing for the next night — Sunday evening — and only “notified” Arar’s lawyer by leaving a voicemail on her office answering machine that Sunday afternoon. They then falsely told Arar that the lawyer had declined to participate, and questioned him for six hours, until 3 a.m. Monday.

When Arar’s lawyer retrieved the voicemail message later that Monday morning, she immediately called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They told her falsely that Arar was being moved to New Jersey, and that she could contact him there the next day. In fact, he remained in New York until late that night, when he was put on a federally chartered jet and spirited out of the country. US officials never informed Arar’s lawyer that he had been deported, much less that he had been delivered to Syrian security forces.

Arar was beaten and tortured while Syrian officials asked him questions virtually identical to those US officials had asked him in New York. He was locked up for a year without charges and in complete isolation, most of the time in a cell the size of a grave. After a year, Syria released him, finding no evidence that he had done anything wrong. He returned to Canada — this time avoiding any change of planes in the United States.

Canada responded to Arar’s case as a nation who has wronged a human being should. It established a blue-ribbon commission to investigate his case, which wrote a 1,100-page report fully exonerating Arar, and faulting Canadian officials for erroneously telling US officials that Arar was the target of an investigation into possible al-Qaeda links. In fact, Arar was merely listed as one of many persons “of interest” to the investigation, because he was thought to know one of the individuals who was targeted. The commission found, however, that Canadian officials did not know that the United States was planning to send Arar to Syria. That decision was made by US officials with the Syrians and not shared with the Canadians.

Canada, in other words, played a relatively small part in Arar’s injuries, as compared to the United States. Yet Canada’s Parliament issued a unanimous apology, and the government paid Arar $10 million (Canadian) for its role in the wrong done to him.

Here in the United States, the response could not have been more different. US officials have never apologized to Arar. They persist in leaving him on a “no-fly” list, despite the fact that Canada has cleared him of any suspicion, much less wrongdoing. And when we filed suit in 2004 to seek damages from the US officials directly responsible for the decision to send Arar to his torturers, lawyers for the Bush administration argued that even assuming that federal officials had intentionally delivered Arar to Syria to be tortured, and blocked him from seeking court protection while he was in their custody, they could not be held liable for his injuries on the grounds that the case implicated secret communications and national security concerns not appropriate for court resolution.

Regrettably, the courts agreed with the Bush administration position — and so has Obama’s Department of Justice. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reasoned that hearing Arar’s claims would present too many sensitive issues that courts were ill-equipped to decide. These included, according to the court, the perceived need for the [extraordinary rendition] policy, the threats to which it responds, the substance and sources of the intelligence used to formulate it, and the propriety of adopting specific responses to particular threats in light of apparent geopolitical circumstances and our relations with foreign countries.

But these questions would be presented only if it is permissible under some set of circumstances for the United States to send a man to another country for the purpose of having him tortured — as Arar alleged happened in his case, and as the courts were required to take as true for purposes of deciding whether his case should be dismissed at the outset. Even the Bush administration lawyers did not argue that sending Arar to be tortured was permissible. Torture is directly contrary to US law and policy. Thus, there can be no “perceived need” for rendering a man to a foreign country to have him tortured, regardless of the “threats to which it responds,” the “geopolitical circumstances,” our “relations with foreign countries,” or the “intelligence” that might underlie it. If, as US law provides, torture is absolutely forbidden, none of the above “sensitive” issues need to be decided.

In addition, the United States did not dispute that if, as was his legal right, Arar had been able to get his claim before a court while he was being detained in the United States — before he was sent to Syria — the federal courts would have entertained his case and could have stopped his rendition. Congress has expressly authorized the courts to review immigration decisions and to bar removal of foreign nationals to any country where they face a risk of torture. Knowing that, US officials made sure Arar could not get to court — denying his initial requests for a lawyer, lying to him and his lawyer, and then flying him out of the country in the dead of night before he or his lawyer could file anything. Arar therefore sought the only remedy left — damages for his injuries. The Second Circuit never explained why Arar’s case, which indisputably could have been adjudicated had he been able to seek review before he was removed, suddenly became too “sensitive” once Arar sought damages for injuries incurred as a result of that removal.

Bush administration officials sent Arar to be tortured, and Bush administration lawyers initially sought to have his damages suit dismissed. But nothing changed when President Obama took office. The Obama administration aggressively defended the Second Circuit’s decision to throw Arar’s case out of court. It opened its brief to the Supreme Court with a paragraph reiterating that torture is never permissible, but then went on to argue at length that federal officials accused of torture should not be held accountable.

In this, the Obama administration’s brief eerily echoed one of the Bush administration’s own “torture memos.” After retracting John Yoo’s infamous August 2002 memo authorizing waterboarding, the Bush administration in December 2004 replaced it with a new memo that opened with the proclamation: “Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.” As we now know, however, that memo went on to approve of the very same torture tactics that Yoo’s memo had approved — including waterboarding. So, too, Obama’s Justice Department opened its brief [PDF] by proclaiming that torture is always forbidden, but then defended a ruling that said that those who send an innocent man to be tortured cannot be held liable for their actions.

In President Obama’s May 2009 speech on national security and American values, he opposed a commission to investigate torture by arguing that there were proceedings in the courts that could provide accountability. Yet in the Arar case — as in every other civil case that has sought accountability for torture — the Obama administration argued that the courts were not an appropriate forum. To the Obama administration, defending government officials from suit, regardless of the gravity of the allegations, is evidently more important than holding individuals responsible for complicity in torture.

By refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court has now effectively upheld the Bush and Obama administration positions. The court’s decision has no value as a precedent, because it is merely a decision not to take up the case on its merits. But it is the end of the line for Arar in the courts. It must not be the end of the line for the United States, however. Canada’s legislature and government did the right thing by Maher Arar without a judicial decision. So, too, the United States Congress apologized to the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned on the basis of their race during World War II — even though the Supreme Court had years earlier upheld the internment as legal. It took Congress more than 40 years to do right by the World War II internees. We must do better this time around.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Andy,
    I saw Cole argue on behalf of Arar to the Federal Court of Appeals on a rainy day two Novembers ago in the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Court House. (Ironically, the entrances are located on Pearl Street and Worth Street.) He was valiant in his advocacy for his client who was not allowed to even be there. That significant enforced absence alone was the tip-off that we were in the outer regions of the possibility of obtaining justice.

    One of the three judges asked a few interesting questions, another one or two, and the third was completely silent, not a peep out of him. The gist of Cole’s argument was that if Arar had been beaten and tortured in the holding cell at the airport,the U.S. would have been liable, and that the mere convenient fact of them having out-sourced the job via rendition could, or at least should, have no impact on that liability.

    As it happens, I rode the elevator down with the team of U.S. Justice Department lawyers who had also skillfully risen to the challenge, even if they had had to pervert their intellects to get the job done. Their arguments were narrowly focused on this or that technicality; they could not and did not speak to Cole’s principled argument, not if they wanted to “win.”

    Not one to let an opportunity like that go by, in the confined space of the elevator to my captive audience, somewhat volubly, I asked whether they understood that “we” (though it was only me, but I presumed to speak for others) did not want prisoners tortured in our name. The only woman on the team said to me by way of an answer, “We’re tired.” And you know, Andy, she really did look tired. I could only say, “So are we.”

    Now with this terrible Supreme Court decision by non-decision the possibilities for judicial justice for Arar in the U.S. have been exhausted. But I don’t feel tired any more; just enraged, and as a consequence, invigorated.

  2. Frances Madeson says...

    Make that three Novembers ago. 2007. What a long time to wait for such a piss-poor result.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent anecdote, Frances. Thanks for that — and for being back here commenting!
    As for being invigorated by the pursuit of flagrant injustice, I know what you mean. I get tired myself, of course, but at least that’s not because, like the Justice Department lawyers you mentioned, I’ve opened up a moral vacuum inside myself.
    The thing abut Maher’s case that is so compelling — and as David pointed out so succinctly — is that it so clearly involves attempts to defend the indefensible.
    As the UN Convention Against Torture, Article 2.2 states:
    “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
    We all need to remember that – and I think we should have it on T-shirts too!

  4. Frances Madeson says...

    How ’bout T-bags? That would spread the word even faster in your neck of the woods.

  5. Lee Evans says...

    I decided today to look at “torture” sites to see if others felt as I do that the Obama administration may be finalizing “acceptance” of this method as legitimate means of U.S. policy – holding no one responsible – I have been outraged by this mess – and am so glad I found your site – I’m a 64 yr old disabled man living in Manhattan.
    What actions can I take?
    I’m old enough to find the web a bit difficult to navigate, and yet I found you!
    Looking forward to reading your material – I’m terribly offended that this practice is being done in MY NAME!!!
    It seems there are so many citizens that are either out right advocating for this practice, or are in a comatose state about it – and after working so hard to get Obama elected (as a professor of law, no less). Thank you for pursuing this issue! I feel like a pre-Hitlerian in Germany circa 1935!

  6. Revolution in Egypt – and the Hypocrisy of the US and the West « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] included teenagers rendered from Pakistan — have resurfaced (most notably, the Canadian citizen Maher Arar), but others remain unaccounted [...]

  7. Syria: Amazingly, The Next Crucible of Revolution in the Middle East? – OpEd « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] for decades, will have to prove impossible for the President al-Assad’s regime to suppress, as Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Candian citizen rendered by the US for torture in Syria during the “War on [...]

  8. The Decision to Bomb Syria | Translation Exercises says...

    [...] any wrongdoing. Needless to say, the Bush and Obama Administrations, along with the US judiciary, will never forgive Arar for being innocent, which explains why to this day he cannot enter the United States and remains on the No-Fly list [...]

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