His Year In Hell

Canadian Tells <B>Vicki Mabrey</B> That He Was Deported to Syria

Is it possible the United States sent an innocent man out of the country to be tortured?

That's the disturbing question at the heart of a case that may reveal a secret side of the war on terrorism, one that the government does not want to talk about.

As Correspondent Vicki Mabrey first reported last year, it involves an accusation that the Justice Department sent a man from the U.S. to Syria to be interrogated and tortured.

The man making the claim is a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was taken into custody, under suspicion of being connected with al Qaeda, while changing planes in New York.

Maher Arar told Mabrey about what became his year in hell, which began when federal agents stopped him for questioning at JFK International Airport.

"I cooperated with them 100 percent. And they always kept telling me, 'We'll let you go on the next plane,'" says Arar. "They did not."

It would be more than a year before Arar would see his family again. In September 2002, he'd taken his wife and two children on a beach vacation in Tunisia. But he flew home alone early for his job as a software engineer.

What he didn't know is that he'd been placed on the U.S. immigration watch list. So when the agents began questioning him, he told 60 Minutes II, he wasn't concerned – at least not at first.

"The interrogation lasted about seven or eight hours, and then they came, and shackled me and chained me," recalls Arar. "I said, 'What's happening here?' And they would not tell me. They said, 'You are gonna know tomorrow.'"

He spent the night in a holding cell. The next day, he was shackled, driven to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and locked in solitary confinement. Agents told him they had evidence that he'd been seen in the company of terrorist suspects in Canada.

"What they accused me of being is very serious. Being a member of al Qaeda," says Arar, who denies any involvement with the organization.

Arar wasn't allowed to make a phone call, so when his wife, Monia, didn't hear from him, she called the Canadian embassy.

"Nobody knew at that time where he was. He vanished," says Monia, who didn't hear from him for six days. Then, American officials acknowledged they were holding Arar in Brooklyn. A Canadian consular official visited and assured Arar he'd be deported home to Canada.

But the Justice Department had a different plan. After two weeks in U.S. custody, Arar was taken from his cell by federal agents in the middle of the night.

"They read me the document. They say, 'The INS director decided to deport you to Syria,'" recalls Arar. "And of course, the first thing I did was, I started crying, because everyone knows that Syria practices torture."

Arar says he knows because he was born in Syria. He emigrated to Canada with his parents as a teenager. But, returning to Syria as an accused terrorist, he had good reason to be afraid.

Torture in Syrian prisons is well-documented. The State Department's own report cites an array of gruesome tortures routinely used in Syrian jails. And in a speech, President Bush condemned Syria, alongside Iraq, for what he called the country's "legacy of torture and oppression."

Nevertheless, deportation agents flew Arar on a specially chartered jet to Jordan, and the Jordanians drove him to Syria.

"When I arrived there, I saw the photos of the Syrian president, and that's why I realized I was indeed in Syria," says Arar. "I wished I had a knife in my hand to kill myself."

The next morning, Arar says a Syrian intelligence officer arrived carrying a black electrical cable, two inches thick and about two feet long.

"He said, 'Do you know what this is?' I said, I was crying, you know, 'Yes, I know what it is. It's a cable.' And he said, 'Open your right hand.' I opened my right hand … and he beat me very strongly," says Arar. "He said, 'Open your left hand.' And I opened my left hand. And he beat me on my palm, on my left palm. And then he stopped, and he asked me questions. And I said to him, 'I have nothing to hide.'"

Arar says the physical torture took place during the first two weeks, but he says he also went through psychological and mental torture: "They would take me back to a room, they call it the waiting room. And I hear people screaming. And they, I mean, people, they're being tortured. And I felt my heart was going to go out of my chest."

Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador in Washington, says Arar was treated well. But he says Syrian intelligence had never heard of Arar before the U.S. government asked Syria to take him.

Did the U.S. give them any evidence to back up the claim that Arar was a suspected al Qaeda terrorist?

"No. But we did our investigations. We traced links. We traced relations. We tried to find anything. We couldn't," says Moustapha, who adds that they shared their reports with the U.S. "We always share information with anybody alleged to be in close contact with al Qaeda with the United States."

The Syrians allowed Canadian officials six short visits with Arar. But Arar says he was warned not to tell them about the torture or how he was being held – in an underground cell 3 feet wide, 6 feet long and 7 feet high. It was his home for a full 10 months.

"It's a grave. It's the same size of a grave. It's a dark place. It's underground," says Arar.

He says the Syrians were pressing him to confess he'd been to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan: "They just wanted to find something that the Americans did not find -- and that's when they asked me about Afghanistan. They said, 'You've been to Afghanistan,' so they would hit me three, four times. And, if I hesitate, they would hit me again."

Arar says he signed a confession because he was "ready to do anything to stop the torture." But he claims that he had never been to Afghanistan, or trained at a terrorist camp. "Just one hit of this cable, it's like you just forget everything in your life. Everything," he says.