Rachel Browne

VICE News, Tuesday 1 September 2015 1:55pm

Police in Canada have criminally charged the Syrian military official believed to have tortured Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian engineer who was imprisoned in Syria after US authorities deported him on what turned out to be false suspicions he was linked to al Qaeda.

"It does finally break the silence around torture," said Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, who announced the "ground-breaking" charges against Colonel George Salloum, an intelligence officer, at a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday morning.

He added that the charges by Royal Canadian Mounted Police "send a strong message around the world that torturers that commit their terrible abuses in far-away prison cells may well find their crimes judged in a Canadian court."

Arar's wife, Monia Mazigh, and his lawyer, Paul Champ, were also in attendance.

"While this criminal charge is only with respect to my case, Colonel George Salloum was directly involved in the torture of other Canadian citizens," Mazigh, who spoke on Arar's behalf, told reporters. She explained that Arar has not spoken to the media in years as he is "trying to lead a private life."

In 2002, Arar was returning to Canada from his vacation in Libya when he was detained on a layover at JFK International Airport, in New York. He was interrogated for two weeks and then renditioned to Syria.

Under torture, Arar falsely confessed to being involved with al Qaeda, but after he was released in 2003, Canadian law enforcement concluded that he was not involved in terrorism. A government inquiry into his case launched in 2005 found that the RCMP shared incorrect information about him with American authorities, likely leading to his rendition. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued Arar a formal apology and he was awarded $10.5 million in damages from the Canadian government. At the time, it was the largest government compensation package to an individual in Canada's history.

Still speaking on behalf of her husband, Mazigh continued: "The laying of this charge comes at a critical point in our history. Canada has lost much of its credibility within the last decade when it comes to supporting important human rights causes. It is my hope that Canada gives high priority to eradicating torture and bringing who's committed it to justice."

Even though the whereabouts of Salloum are unknown — and it would be a challenge to extradite him to Canada to stand trial if he is located — the charges are significant because it gives Canadian law enforcement greater ability to press other governments for information on him. It's also one of the only times a state has pursued torture charges against a government official in another country.

Canada's criminal law against torture was added to the criminal code in 1985 after it ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, which requires states to implement ways to prevent torture and prohibits states from transporting people to any country where they might face torture.

A statement from the RCMP released Tuesday said it would "continue to work with its domestic and international law enforcement and security partners in locating Salloum in order to begin the extradition process to bring him to Canada here he will face justice."

Neve implored Canadian officials to undertake further investigations with respect to Arar's case, "including other Syrian officials, certainly US officials who have never faced justice in any way for having subjecting Mr. Arar to an illegal rendition."

A representative for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stressed the importance of keeping the role of the US in Arar's case in mind. In a statement to VICE News, Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU's human rights group said "it is heartening to see Canada taking additional steps toward accountability for the unlawful rendition and torture of Maher Arar.

"US failure to conduct a comprehensive criminal investigation into Mr. Arar's rendition and other similar cases is reprehensible and fosters a culture of impunity for torture."

Arar attempted to sue US officials after his release for conspiring with Syrian authorities to authorize his torture, but the case was dismissed by the lower courts in 2010. 

Last year, Amnesty International reported it had received complaints of torture and "other ill-treatment committed by state officials" in 141 countries from 2009 to 2013.