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Arar working with RCMP as it probes his overseas torture

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie / Reuters

Canada's federal police, long faulted for a role in the overseas torture of Canadian Maher Arar, appear to be trying to build a criminal case against the foreign officials who orchestrated his interrogation.

Mr. Arar and his legal team revealed Monday they are co-operating with an RCMP investigation. The probe, known as Project Prism, now involves a team of four detectives said to be jet-setting around the globe to gather evidence.

Unlike past probes focusing on the actions of Canadian officials, these RCMP detectives are targeting Syrian and, to a lesser extent, American officials, according to Mr. Arar's lawyer.

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After Mr. Arar lost a civil suit against the U.S. government on Monday, Paul Champ revealed that both he and his client have lately had many fruitful conversations with the Mounties. "The RCMP investigators have really gone to great lengths to build trust," he said, adding that "we speak to the RCMP investigators almost every other week."

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Mr. Champ said Mr. Arar was initially wary of Mountie detectives, but has developed "a very good rapport" after meeting half a dozen times at lawyers' offices in Toronto and Ottawa.

RCMP Project Prism is about four years old, but it stalled while probing Canadian officials. Now, the Mountie team has been "in discussion with American law enforcement officials," Mr. Champ said. He said the RCMP doesn't necessarily know all the identities of the specific U.S. officials they might hope to target. "The primary focus of the investigation has been Syrian officials."

Police declined comment. "The RCMP does not confirm or deny who or what may be the subject of a criminal investigation," said Sergeant Greg Cox, a spokesman. "Sorry, that is all."

Gar Pardy, a former Foreign Affairs official in Ottawa, recalls detectives coming to him with questions more than a year ago. "Quite clearly [the focus]was Canadian officials at that point," he said. He said he had no idea the probe may be turning international, but "if Arar says he had met with the RCMP, then that gives it a specificity it had never had before."

That Mr. Arar is even sitting down with the RCMP is a remarkable turnaround.

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For years, the Mounties were fingered as complicit in the Syrian-Canadian's torture, and stonewalled any public investigation of the case. Police said they feared embarrassing international partners.

Eventually, a Canadian judge faulted sloppy RCMP intelligence exchanges for wrongly elevating Mr. Arar to an al-Qaeda suspect in the eyes of the Americans after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the same judge also upheld that the Mounties never signed off on any overseas interrogation.

The blame for that lies elsewhere.

In 2002, U.S. officials arrested Mr. Arar as he passed through a New York airport. He was held for two weeks and then hustled aboard a Gulfstream jet leased by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

After the CIA jet landed in the Middle East, Mr. Arar spent most of the next year imprisoned in his homeland. In Syria, he was interrogated about his relationship to other Arabs also under investigation.

Upon his return to Canada, Mr. Arar professed his innocence and successfully pressed for an inquiry. Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor found him credible and supported his claim that Syrian jailers had beaten him with two-inch-thick electric cables. Faulted for an indirect role, Ottawa officials compensated the Arar family with $10.5-million.

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No other government has been censured - or paid a penny in compensation.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not revisit the landmark Arar v. Ashcroft case. Lower courts had upheld that lawmakers, and not judges, are to rein in the CIA.

Mr. Champ said his client disclosed his co-operation in the RCMP probe because he wanted it known that this "does not end his pursuit of justice and accountability."

Canada is a signatory to the United Nations conventions that technically gives police power to investigate torture as a rare type of international crime. Despite some recent successes in genocide and terrorism prosecutions, Canadian authorities have huge problems pursuing cases overseas.

Project Prism detectives have never visited Syria or the United States, sources said. However, they have gone to Lebanon as well as Italy.

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About the Authors
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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