Canadian Falsely Accused Of Terrorism

With tears in his eyes, Maher Arar reacts during a news conference on Monday Sept. 18, 2006 in Ottawa, Canada.
AP PHOTO/CP, Fred Chartrand
A software engineer falsely accused of being a terrorist by Canadian police was shipped to Syria by the United States, where he was imprisoned and tortured, according to a Canadian commission.

The 2 1/2-year commission of inquiry into the case of Syrian-born Maher Arar exonerated him of all suspicion of terrorist activity and urged the Canadian government to pay compensation.

"They arrested me. They never told me what they had against me," Arar tells CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian. "I was a disappeared person. My family did not know where I was. I knew I was sent to Syria to be tortured."

Arar is perhaps the world's best known victim of extraordinary rendition — or the U.S. transfer of foreign terror suspects to third countries without court approval.

The Washington Post reported that since Sept. 11, the CIA has captured about 3,000 suspected terrorists. Many, the newspaper said, were secretly shipped to other countries, where they were often tortured.

But former counterterrorism official and CBS News consultant John Brennan says rendition does have its place.

"I think it allows us to have the option to move a person, who was involved in terrorism or terrorism-related activities to a country where they can be effectively questioned or prosecuted," Brennan tells Keteyian.

Watch more of Keteyian's interview with Arar
Read the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar

"I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada," Commissioner Dennis O'Connor said in a three-volume report on the inquiry's findings, only part of which was made public.

Arar was traveling on a Canadian passport when he was detained at New York's Kennedy Airport on Sept. 26, 2002, during a stopover on his way home to Canada from vacation in Tunisia.

Arar said U.S. authorities sent him to Syria for interrogation as a suspected al Qaeda member, an allegation he denied.

He spent nearly a year in prison in Syria. After his release in 2003, Arar made detailed allegations about extensive interrogation, beatings and whippings with electrical cable in Syrian prison cells.

Beyond beatings with a two-inch cable - a charge denied by Syria - Arar told CBS News he was held in a 6-foot underground cell, which he calls a "grave."

"This underground cell ended up being my home for the next 10 months and 10 days," he said.

In 2005, Arar spoke with 60 Minutes II's Vicki Mabrey about his "year in hell.". He also detailed his experience in a 2004 interview.

Justice O'Connor also criticized the U.S. and recommended that Ottawa file formal protests with both Washington and the Syrian government over Arar's treatment.

"They removed him to Syria against his wishes and in the face of his statements that he would be tortured if sent there. Moreover, they dealt with Canadian officials involved with Mr. Arar's case in a less than forthcoming manner," O'Connor wrote.

The U.S. already faces intense criticism from human rights groups over the practice of taking suspects to countries where they could be tortured.