2011-02-14 Omar Suleiman and Canadian complicity in torture

Ahmad Abou El Maati is one of four Canadian citizens of dual nationality who became loosely linked together, incidentally and accidentally, by botched police and intelligence investigations in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US.* All four were either apprehended in or kidnapped and transferred to Syria, where they were tortured.** Because El Maati’s country of origin was Egypt (born in Kuwait to an Egyptian father), he alone was transferred from Syria to Egypt months after he was detained, and survived another two years of torture in a succession of Egyptian prisons.

These four cases have received decisive if not finished judicial investigation in Canada. The first and best-known of the four, the case of Maher Arar, was the subject of Justice Dennis O’Connor’s inquiry in 2004-06, which led to an official apology to Mr Arar from the Canadian government and compensation of $10 million. Although the O’Connor inquiry was able to investigate the behaviour of Canadian agents and officials thoroughly, it remains unfinished because the governments of the United States, Jordan, and Syria refused to co-operate with the inquiry.

The cases of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin were investigated by the Hon. Frank Iacobucci QC, a retired Supreme Court justice, in 2006-08. The scope of his inquiry was much narrower than Justice O’Connor’s had been. Iacobucci himself and, in civil cases, the attorneys for the three victimized men have had disputes with the Canadian government over evidence that the government continues to wish to suppress, apparently because the government believes its publication could cause damage to international relations.

The published findings of both inquiries are not in dispute, however. They show that all four men were tortured in illegal detention in Syria, that El Maati was tortured in illegal detention in Egypt, that information from Canadian sources sometimes played a part in their interrogations, and that various Canadian agents and officials had some degree of knowledge of their treatment. It seems clear as well, from government objections to releasing classified material in the civil cases arising from the Iacobucci inquiry, that agents and officials of the United States, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt played a part in the illegal detention and torture of the victimized men.

We know from US State cables originating in Cairo and Tel Aviv (and released by WikiLeaks and its publishing partners) that Omar Suleiman, former head of military intelligence in Egypt, was highly regarded by the US government as an effective partner in what may sometimes have been counterintelligence but may also have been simple suppression of opposition of various kinds. From CABLE 09CAIRO874:

EGIS [Egyptian General Intelligence Service, or Mukhabarat el-Aama] Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.

We know from journalists like Jane Mayer and Stephen Grey that Suleiman was considered “the CIA’s point man in Egypt for renditions” and apparently respected by a former US ambassador for being “not squeamish.” We read worse from Grey, that while Suleiman may not have sullied his own hands with physical abuse or murder, he was “not squeamish” about ordering others to torture or kill. (See full citations at WL Central 2011-01-29.)

Because Suleiman’s profile was suddenly raised internationally in the last two weeks by the revolution in Egypt and for one other notable reason, Colin Freeze of the Globe and Mail was prompted to check back to the testimony of Ahmad Abou El Maati before the Iacobucci inquiry and his memory of this passage:

101. In the 10 days that Mr. Elmaati remained at Nasr City in March 2003, he
was subject to further interrogation. At some point after the first interrogation
with the electric shock, he endured an interrogation session that lasted for
about 10 hours. Mr. Elmaati was taken to an interrogation room, allowed to
sit in a chair, and the hood was removed from his head, although he remained
handcuffed from the front. A man, in plain clothes, sat across the desk from
Mr. Elmaati, asking him questions “from the beginning.” Mr. Elmaati felt as
though this man was reviewing the whole file and whole history of the interrogation.
Mr. Elmaati thought that he recognized his interrogator from the
news and that he might be Omar Soleiman, the head of Egyptian Intelligence.
The interrogator had a pile of papers in front of him and wrote down the
answers that Mr. Elmaati gave. On one side of the room there was one-way
glass; Mr. Elmaati assumed there were people observing from the other side. It
was also very significant that they brought him tea during this interrogation. He
assumed that the tea was provided only because there were people watching
from behind the one-way glass. Periodically they would send Mr. Elmaati back
to his cell for 15-minute breaks, and then bring him back for more questioning.
By the end of the 10 hours he was exhausted. Mr. Elmaati does not think
that the guards placed the hood back on his head when he was returned to
his cell.

Internal Inquiry, p 292/455

Freeze’s other reason for going back to El Maati’s testimony would have been a recent decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Mr El Maati’s civil suit:

The suit suffered a setback last week when the Ontario Court of Appeal supported some state-secrecy procedures surrounding the case.

Federal lawyers argue Canada can’t afford to embarrass allies by releasing classified intelligence information. The government has sought to blot out any public mention of the CIA and related agencies.

Relatively few of the cases of illegal kidnapping, torture, indefinite detention, and sometimes murder that have been rationalized as part of a “global war on terror” have reached Western courts outside of the closed and frequently shifting structures of US military and civilian legal systems. In most cases, the governments of Western US allies have intervened to suppress evidence of violations of international law by arguing on grounds of national security, damage to international relations, or executive privilege.

There have been cases where courts have refused to allow such claims to be used to cover up violations of international or constitutional law, most notably the decisions of the UK High Court in the case of Binyam Mohamed, but those have been rare. A full review of inquiries that have gone on in a number of European countries is beyond the scope of this note, although a few have led to satisfactory settlements with victims like Maher Arar. More commonly, even victims like El Maati, Almalki, and Nureddin -- who have been exonerated by judicial reviews and whose claims against agents and officials of their own governments have been confirmed -- are left fighting lengthy and expensive civil cases for some form of compensation. In no case has an innocent victim of the illegal kidnapping and torture regime been successful in gaining justice from the US government, although Maher Arar’s suit in the US gained considerable political support and reached an advanced stage before it was suppressed. (The dissent in Arar v Ashcroft remains an eloquent and important part of the record; Judge Calabresi wrote: “ …I believe that when the history of this distinguished court is written, today's majority decision will be viewed with dismay …”)

Ahmad El Maati’s suit will go on, as will others, swimming against the current of wilful official evasion and censorship. In Canada and in Europe, claimants against governments guilty of complicity in heinous violations of human rights commonly fight with one hand tied behind their backs, given claims of state privilege and an induced climate of paranoia surrounding the “war on terror.”

Somewhere in the testimony that Judge Iacobucci was not allowed to publish, however, there is almost certainly at least one statement from a CSIS agent or an official from DFAIT describing El Maati’s ten-hour interview with a man who wanted to be seen – by Canadian officials on the other side of that glass, maybe the odd American as well – to be taking a full and fair history of El Maati’s treatment in Syria and Egypt. That statement could confirm El Maati’s educated guess that his interrogator was Omar Suleiman.

But Canadians cannot be allowed to see that statement, as they cannot see any testimony concerning US agencies like the CIA. The public admission that representatives of the government of Canada co-operated with Omar Suleiman in the interrogation of a Canadian citizen – without actively attempting to protect and repatriate him – could, after all, damage Canada’s relations with the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Or that was, at least, the official excuse, as it remains a convincing argument to the Ontario Court of Appeal with any testimony about liaisons between Canadian and US authorities in the illegal detention and torture of a Canadian citizen.

The Parliament of Canada has called by majority vote for an official apology and compensation for El Maati, Almalki, and Nureddin. That expression of the will of Parliament has thus far had no practical effect.


* There are a number of other Canadian citizens of dual nationality, legal residents, or legitimate refugee claimants whose treatment abroad and in Canada has been murky. The four cases mentioned in this note are remarkable for having received thorough review by an impartial judge, and in the single case of Maher Arar, satisfactory public admission of the role played by agents and officials of the Canadian government in his illegal kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment.

** We do not use US government euphemisms for illegal kidnapping, torture, or murder.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer