'Canada cannot afford to isolate itself,' torture inquiry hears

Canada does not tolerate torture, but must sometimes work with countries that have questionable human rights records in its efforts to protect the public, a federal lawyer told an inquiry looking into torture claims by three Arab-Canadians.

Canada does not tolerate torture, but must sometimes work with countries that have questionable human rights records in its efforts to protect the public, a federal lawyer told an inquiry looking into torture claims by three Arab-Canadians.

Ahmad El Maati spent more than two years behind bars after his arrest in Syria while attending his own wedding. ((CBC))

Michael Peirce told the commission of inquiry Tuesday during a rare open session that Ottawa faces the tough act of balancing the public's safety and individual rights.

"Unfortunately, we know that terrorism is often exported from countries with poor human rights records," Peirce said. "Canada cannot afford to isolate itself, in its information gathering, from those important sources of information."

Headed by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, the inquiry is probing whether Canadian officials were complicit in the imprisonment and torture of the three men while overseas.

As in the high-profile Maher Arar case, the three men — Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmed Al Maati — spent time in Syria's most feared prison. All three allege they were tortured, accused of al-Qaeda links and told by their interrogators that information about them had come from Canada.

Peirce began his inquiry submission with the strong declaration: "Canada does not countenance torture."

But then he went on to say that the risk of mistreatment abroad is just one factor that determines whether the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service should share suspect-related information with foreign governments.

And even if Ottawa did facilitate the men's arrests, he argued, that would not violate the UN International Convention on Torture, saying the agreement obliges Ottawa only from preventing torture on its own soil not in foreign countries.

Canada fed questions to Syria: lawyer

The lawyer for Almalki, Paul Copeland, accused Canadian security officials of feeding questions to Syrian interrogators even though they should've known the three would likely face torture.

"There was information out there that suggested that Syria had a terrible reputation for human rights, that Syrian military intelligence in particular engaged in torture," said Copeland.

All three were eventually freed and returned to Canada, but now want answers about whether their government had any involvement in their ordeal.

Nearly all of the commissioner's work is taking place behind closed doors, since it deals with national security matters, but was opened to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But the open sessions have done little to diminish criticism of the private hearings.

"Apart from very general updates about interviews going on and the names of people being interviewed, we know nothing about the evidence the inquiry has gathered," said John Norris, a lawyer for complainant Nureddin.

'He was beating, beating, beating'

"We should deserve some answer, a fair answer from this government. Government shouldn't leave us in no man land. We're still human," said Nureddin.

But his lawyer is uncertain the inquiry will provide any answers.

Norris wants Canadian security officials held accountable if they had anything to do with his client's imprisonment in Syria, but without the opportunity to question those officials, he wonders if that will ever happen.

Nureddin, a principal of a Toronto Islamic school, was arrested at the Syrian border while returning from a visit with relatives in northern Iraq. He spent a month in prison before his release in January 2004.

He has been reluctant to speak of his ordeal, but recounted his story for CBC Radio's The Current, detailing how he was tortured on three occasions by a couple of prison guards.

Muayyed Nureddin, shown in October 2007, said he spent more than a month in a Syrian prison. (CBC)

"He was hitting, hitting very [hard]. Then I was screaming and begging him to stop, 'Don't do it!' But he was beating, beating, beating."

The guards, he said, wanted to know why he was carrying more than $15,000 into Iraq, his home country.

He said the money was intended to help his family, but the Syrian guards suspected he planned to hand it over to a terrorist organization.

After about a month in jail, Nureddin was suddenly released.

Imprisonment lasted months

The other men have similar tales of imprisonment and torture, but their time behind bars stretched out for months, not weeks.

El Maati, a Toronto truck driver, spent two years and two months behind bars after the Kuwait-born man was arrested in Syria while in the country to attend his wedding. He said he was also imprisoned and tortured in Egypt.

Almalki was on a visit in Syria in the spring of 2003 to visit his dying grandmother when the Ottawa-based communications engineer was arrested. During 22 months in prison, he said, interrogators beat the soles of his feet with steel cables to try to elicit a confession that he was an al-Qaeda member.

"They were hammering me with a barrage of lashes on my soles that felt like nothing I could describe," Almalki described his treatment to CBC Radio before the inquiry began.

The Iacobucci inquiry into their claims was ordered as part of the recommendations from the inquiry into the case of Arar, an Ottawa-based Syrian Canadian who was deported to Syria in 2002 while travelling through the U.S. then imprisoned and tortured for months.

The commissioner was expected to submit a report to the federal government by Jan. 31, but an extension has been requested.

With files from the Canadian Press