Editors Note: Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who is barred from entering the United States, delivered his acceptance speech for the Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights Award in a pre-recorded videotape. This is a transcript of his speech, which was viewed at the award ceremony hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies on Oct. 18, 2006 in Washington, DC.
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 justice.
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 citizen.
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 questions.
Going to Syria
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 to me.
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.
Shackled and Chained
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 place is.
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 it.
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 and Syria.
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.