After sitting through withering criticism in a Senate hearing, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has promised more information on the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian who ended up in a cell in Syria after U.S. officials grabbed him on a stopover in New York.
Gonzales was grilled relentlessly on Thursday by Senate judiciary committee chairman Patrick Leahy. Leahy said that when Arar —a citizen of both Canada and Syria travelling on a Canadian passport — was detained in 2002, American authorities knew he would be tortured if they deported him to Syria.
"We knew damn well if he went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured," said Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. "He'd be held and he'd be investigated.
"We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country — a country that has always been a beacon of human rights — to send somebody to another country to be tortured.
"You know and I know that has happened a number of times in the past five years by this country. It is a black mark on us."
Leahy noted that U.S. officials claimed to have had assurances that people sent to Syria would not be tortured.
"Assurances," he snorted, "from a country that we also say now that we can't talk to them because we can't take their word for anything."
Arar, then an Ottawa-based engineer, was detained as a terrorism suspect, apparently because of a bad tip from the RCMP. He was flown to Syria, where he was held for a year.
In 2006, a Canadian public inquiry cleared him of any involvement in terrorism.
It was clear that officials from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush would face a rough questioning on Capitol Hill after the Democrats gained majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the November 2006 elections.
Gonzales was not attorney general in 2002 but drafted some of the administration's justifications for harsh interrogation practices in combating terrorism.
He promised the committee a briefing on the Arar case. It was not immediately clear whether the information would be made public.
"Before you get more upset," he told Leahy, "perhaps you should wait to receive the briefing."
"How long?" the senator responded.
"I'm hoping that we can get you the information next week."