By Ruth Conniff
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Dec. 10 is Human Rights Day, but any gestures the United States makes in commemoration will come across as hollow to me.
A few weeks ago, seven federal judges told me I had no way to seek justice in American courts for being sent by U.S. officials to be tortured in Syria, where I spent nearly a year in a grave-like underground cell.
I was a victim of an “extraordinary rendition”: I was seized by U.S. officials while changing planes in September 2002 at the Kennedy International Airport on my way home to Canada, prevented from going to court and sent, over my protests, to a country where I knew I would be tortured.
Despite both the Syrian and Canadian governments finding I had no connection to terrorism whatsoever, I have still received no justice from the United States and have seen no change since President Obama took office.
Since I launched my lawsuit with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2004, many facts regarding my case have surfaced.
A public Canadian commission of inquiry exonerated me and found that Canadian officials gave the United States false information about me, for which the Canadian government apologized.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that immigration officials concluded I would likely be tortured if sent to Syria. But that decision was overridden — in fact, the inspector general could not rule out that I was sent to Syria in order to be interrogated by unlawful means. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have confirmed the involvement of high-level U.S. officials. This information has left no doubt that my case was not a simple immigration matter, as the U.S. government has always proclaimed.
The significance of the dismissal of my case goes much beyond my inability to obtain justice. At the core of this dismissal is the credibility of the administration of justice in the United States.
Courts are supposed to ensure that no one is above the law and that the weak and vulnerable are protected. Yet U.S. courts have sided with the most powerful — the executive branch that modified the definition of torture to suit its purpose and used “national security” to justify sending people to be tortured.
The climate of fear and suspicion that the executive branch promoted has allowed it to obtain from the courts exactly what it wanted: to turn a blind eye to its above-the-law practices, all in the name of safeguarding the security of the nation.
The role of judges becomes a lot more important in times of crisis and calamities. They should ask themselves an important question: What would they have done if their son had been forced to go through the same injustice?
Finally, I want Americans to know that the actions taken by some of your government officials have destroyed the lives of many innocent human beings.
I was a successful engineer before all this happened. I had enjoyed life and had dreams of building a successful career. Now I am still suffering from the scars of torture and the disgrace of being labeled a terrorist.
I was at least expecting an apology from your government. With this latest decision, my hope of getting that apology is fading away.
Until the U.S. government rectifies my case, and the cases of all those who were tortured by the previous administration, the celebration of Human Rights Day by the United States will be a sham.
Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian citizen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.