At the Mercy of the State

In September 2002 a mild-mannered telecommunications engineer was flying home from family holiday when he was abducted by government agents and plunged into months of torture and abuse for information he did not possess.

It sounds like the plot of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. An innocent abroad caught up in an international conspiracy, which, try as he might, he cannot not make sense of. This actually happened to a Canadian citizen called Maher Arar.

Arar was transiting JFK airport in New York when he was pulled aside by US officials. Canadian police had generated a deeply flawed intelligence report based on a brief social encounter in Ottawa between Arar and 'a person of interest.' US officials accepted it without question and Arar's nightmare began.

Despite his citizenship and residency in Canada, Arar was handed over illegally to the Syrian government -- a country whose human rights record the United States has routinely condemned. He was held in Syria in a cell no larger than a grave and tortured for over a year until he was finally released and returned home.

Maher Arar was not the only person treated like this. German national Khalid el Masri, was grabbed in Macedonia and flown to a CIA black site in Afghanistan where he was tortured and abused for three months.

In el Masri's case the CIA quickly realized they had the wrong man -- he had a similar name to a wanted terrorist. Even though they knew he had done nothing wrong the CIA held on to el Masri because they didn't want to compromise the secrecy of their black sites.

In the end, the CIA dumped him on a hillside in Albania without any funds or means of getting home in the hope that this would sufficiently cover their tracks. El Masri's family had no idea what had happened to him and he has never fully recovered from his ordeal.

The United States has made no attempt to defend or justify either action. Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice acknowledged before Congress that Arar's case had not been not handled as it should have been. It was also Rice who ordered el Masri's release.

Amnesty International has a profound commitment to the liberty of the individual and its members are dedicated to protecting individuals around the world from the predations of states.

As the old saw has it, power corrupts. Governments around the world - whether out of fear, prejudice or greed -- frequently succumb to the temptation to abuse their power and lives are ruined as a result. Our own government is no exception.

As citizens we have an obligation to hold our government to account for what it does in our name. That hasn't happened in America.

Despite a ban on arbitrary arrest and 'cruel and unusual punishments' in the fifth and eight amendments to the US constitution, Maher Arar, was treated as though he had no rights. Even a foreign national on US soil is entitled to due process of law.

The US government has gotten away with it. Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration after it have hidden behind the states secrets privilege to block Arar's attempts to seek redress in the US courts.

The extraordinary rendition program run under both the Clinton and Bush administrations is a perfect example of unchecked government power run amuck. There has been no meaningful oversight and no accountability. No government employee has been punished; no government agency has been forced to make restitution to those wrongly impacted.

In the absence of accountability, there is absolutely nothing to stop the government doing this again and again, every time it feels threatened. We have a pattern of over-reacting in times of national crisis of which the Palmer Raids, the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II and the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s are well-worn examples.

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks the government felt threatened again and deeply held American values like the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus and due process were trampled in a rush for greater security and innocent men like Maher Arar were crushed underfoot.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin's much quoted warning that "those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety" may have obtained the status of cliche but it remains every bit as true as in the early days of the Republic.

Liberty needs its champions now more than ever. Governments need their citizens to keep them honest, sometimes they need their citizens to remind them of the core values they were elected to protect. We do that best by holding them accountable and forcing them to take ownership of their mistakes.

So please visit Amnesty's website and add your voice to the thousands of other Americans calling for the US government to apologize to Maher Arar.