We used to feel protected by the law

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Of all the horrifying things about the Maher Arar case — the beatings, the rat-infested, coffin-like cell — the most horrifying may be Ottawa's refusal to hold a public inquiry.

Here we were, thinking we live in a country based on the rule of law, with our freedoms carefully set out in our much-celebrated Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and then we discover that a Canadian was imprisoned and tortured in Syria for 10 months — and it all apparently happened because of action taken by Canada's own security officials.

If this isn't enough to warrant a public inquiry, what on earth is? It's hard to imagine anything more basic to our rights as Canadians than the right to be free from our own government setting us up for torture abroad.

But that's what appears to have happened in this case.

Of course, it was U.S. officials who diverted the computer consultant to Syria after he passed through JFK airport on his way home to Canada in September, 2002. And it was Syrian officials who repeatedly beat him with an electric cable.

So Canada's involvement seems at least lower down the torture chain of responsibility.

But from what we know — and this is precisely why we need an inquiry — Canada's role was crucial; without the actions of Canadian security officials, the whole excruciating nightmare probably wouldn't have happened. Arar had been travelling to the United States without problem prior to his arrest; Washington had even extended his work permit several months earlier.

Canadian security officials apparently brought Arar to U.S. attention by forwarding to their American counterparts information that Arar was acquainted with another Ottawa man, Abdullah Almalki, whom Canada had been investigating as a possible terror suspect. (Almalki had witnessed Arar's signature on Arar's Ottawa rental lease.)

In forwarding this rather tenuous piece of information to U.S. officials, Canadian security officials should have known — since it had been reported in the newspapers — that the U.S. had adopted the practice of transferring some detainees to brutal countries like Syria to increase pressure on them to talk.

Now, it's true that we can't stop countries around the world from torturing people, nor can we stop the U.S. from sending detainees to such places.

But we do have control over what goes on in this country, including — theoretically, at least — control over our own security agencies. Yet someone inside these agencies apparently made the decision to toss a Canadian citizen to the wolves. And this may not be the only such case, nor the worst.

Almalki, who witnessed Arar's signature on his lease, is also in a Syrian jail on apparently tenuous evidence and undergoing worse torture, according to Arar, who saw him there recently.

Did Canadian security agents play a role in his detention, too?

We urgently need a public inquiry to put the hot, heavy glare of the public spotlight on the actions of our agents as they, apparently recklessly and overzealously, co-operate in the U.S. war against terror. What information about Canadian citizens is being handed over to U.S. authorities? What agreements have our agencies entered into with the U.S. in the post-9/11 world? Did the U.S. violate an agreement with Canada in transferring a Canadian citizen to a torture country, or is there no agreement to prevent such a transfer?

A public inquiry would also send a strong message to Canadian security officials — who seem to operate largely without surveillance; not even Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham appears to know what happened here — that they don't have carte blanche to trample our freedoms, that this is a rules-based country, that we have legal rights.

A generation of Canadians has grown up thinking their rights are protected by the Charter, which has, among other things, been a useful tool for corporations to defend their tobacco advertising rights under the banner of free speech. Yet our government refuses to hold a public inquiry despite compelling evidence that its security agencies may be setting up Canadian citizens for torture abroad. So what's the message — that torture is less serious than restraints on advertising?

If there's not going to be an inquiry, then I hope Ottawa will at least advise us whether it's dangerous to do things like have our rental agreements witnessed by someone with an Arab name, who might just be under investigation by Canadian authorities. If we do such provocative things, should we avoid U.S. airports?

I just want to know what's considered acceptable behaviour in my country. I used to feel that I knew, but I'm not so sure any more.

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