Ignoring Maher Arar won't make his torture claims go away.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 16 2010 6:14 PM

Nowhere To Hide

Ignoring Maher Arar won't make his torture claims go away.

Maher Arar. Click image to expand.
Maher Arar with his children

This week the Supreme Court denied, without comment, the appeal of Maher Arar, a dual citizen of Canada and Syria who was arrested in transit through JFK airport in 2002, then shipped off to Syria and tortured for 10 months. Arar's abuse allegedly included repeated beatings with electrical cables and confinement in a cell the size of a grave. When they realized they had the wrong guy—the really, totally, and utterly innocent guy—Arar was released without charges. He was then completely exonerated of any link to terror by the Canadian government, which impaneled a commission to investigate the incident, issued a 1,000-plus-page report on the matter, held its own intelligence forces responsible for their role in the screw-up, then apologized and paid Arar $9.8 million. Whereas the U.S. government—as Glenn Greenwald observes —has never apologized, never acknowledged any wrongdoing, never held anyone responsible, and, on President Barack Obama's watch, has only redoubled its efforts to prevent Arar from having even a single day in court.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

With the Supreme Court signing off on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to kick Arar to the curb, he has nowhere left to turn in the American courts. As Arar said in a statement issued by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the "decision eliminates my last bit of hope in the judicial system of the United States." Nor did it take any time at all for the Supreme Court's latest torture smoke signals to travel through the rest of the court system. The very same day the Supremes declined to hear Arar's case, a panel of judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments about former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo and his alleged role in the state-sanctioned abuse of another accused terrorist, Jose Padilla. Already one of the appeals-court judges was likening the denial of certiorari in Arar's case to the problem in John Yoo's case, worrying aloud about the courts wading in and "imposing liability on a non-policymaking lawyer." The Yoo and Arar cases thus became mirror images of each other in just a few hours: A torture lawyer cannot be held responsible for authorizing torture, and an innocent victim of torture cannot get restitution. Torture slowly becomes a singular act for which nobody will ever be held to account and nobody will ever be made whole.

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Each time an American court declines to address this issue because it's novel, or complicated, or a matter best left to the elected branches, it reaffirms yet again that there is no precedent for doing justice in torture cases. By declining to find torture impermissible, they are helping to make it acceptable.

One of the dissenters in the 2nd Circuit's fractured opinions in Arar pointed out how bizarre it is to even suggest that there is something special about torture and rendition that insulates it from any judicial scrutiny. Citing the very language of the Convention Against Torture, Judge Barrington Parker pointed out that "[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." Given that this is the law, he wondered, why was the majority of the panel searching high and low for some diplomatic, national security, or supersecret policy reason to defer to the other two branches of government to set the parameters of U.S. torture policy. There is no U.S. torture policy. We don't torture. So why are the courts leaving it to Congress to set its boundaries?

There are many reasons to be horrified that the courts have ended Arar's lawsuit before it could even begin, but chief among them is that the U.S. government was responsible for a year of abuse of an innocent Canadian. Having tossed out this unconscionable case, the court makes it impossible to make space for the more ambiguous ones. As David Cole, one of Arar's attorneys put it yesterday, in a piece that ought to be read in its entirety:

In twenty-five years as a civil rights and human rights lawyer, I have never handled a case of more egregious abuse. US officials not only delivered Arar to Syrian security forces that they regularly accuse of systematic torture, but did everything in their power to ensure that Arar could not get to a court to challenge their actions while he was in their custody.

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