Algerian refugee handed over to U.S. accuses Ottawa of cover up

Posted by admin on Sep 11th, 2009

KIRK MAKIN, Globe and Mail, Sep 11, 2002

An Algerian man who was turned over by Canada to the U.S. and imprisoned for five years as a possible terrorist is accusing federal lawyers of a cover up. Lawyers for Benamar Benatta will seek a court order today directing the government to hand over documents that could shed light on why Mr. Benatta was spirited out of Canada on Sept. 12, 2001 – the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Mr. Benatta’s lawyers accuse the government of suppressing damning e-mails and briefing notes – some of which they obtained recently through a Freedom of Information request – which undermine its claim that it handed over the 35-year-old man under a routine immigration procedure.

The FOI documents are a smoking gun signalling the probable existence of other, highly relevant communications, said Nicole Chrolavicius, a lawyer for Mr. Benatta.

“I would hate to think that our government would take those steps … but it causes me concern that the government isn’t playing fair,” she said in an interview. “These are clearly relevant documents that should have been disclosed. I believe it is an after-the-fact attempt to justify an illegal transfer; an extraordinary rendition.”

Mr. Benatta, a former Algerian military officer, alleges that he was severely disciplined by his superiors for refusing to act in “immoral ways” to deter would-be terrorists, including mutilating the bodies of terrorists who had been captured and killed.

Mr. Benatta said that he bribed an Algerian official to enroll him in a U.S. aeronautical course. Soon after arriving, he deserted and made his way to Canada, filing a refugee claim on Sept. 5, 2001.

After being handed back to U.S. authorities, Mr. Benatta spent five years in solitary confinement. In 2006, he was cleared of all allegations, returned to Canada and was granted refugee status. Now living on social assistance in Toronto, Mr. Benatta is hoping to attend university.

“I have no family here,” he said yesterday. “I’m all by myself. It is very hard to make friends. You always try to keep your distance because you worry about how people will react if they find out about my story.

“What the Canadian government did with me is wrong,” Mr. Benatta added. “I was tortured and abused for five years without them intervening or doing anything. Now, they are trying to find any basis or justification whatsoever to justify their actions. It is really abhorrent.”

A $35-million lawsuit he launched in 2007 alleges that Mr. Benatta was given to U.S. authorities in a fit of post-9/11 panic because, as an aeronautical student from the Middle East, he fit the profile of a potential terrorist.

“I could not seek the help of my government,” he said in the interview. “I was all on my own. The FBI said, ‘If you co-operate with us, we give you life. If you don’t co-operate, we give you death penalty.’ I thought that if they didn’t find out who did it, they would present me to the American people as being the guy who did it.”

Ms. Chrolavicius said that federal lawyers initially defended Mr. Benatta’s lawsuit by claiming that he voluntarily withdrew his request for refugee status on Sept. 12, 2001. However, the government recently changed its strategy, and is now claiming that he was returned temporarily to the U.S. under an immigration procedure known as “direct back,” she said.

Ms. Chrolavicius said that the information in the FOI documents strongly suggests that this is a bogus rationale. She said that, unlike in the notorious case of Maher Arar, who was deported to Jordan and alleges he was tortured there, her client was actually handed over to U.S. authorities who wrongly imprisoned and tortured him.

“In Benamar’s case, the Canadian government not only passed on misinformation by identifying him as a terrorist suspect – or somebody who fit the profile of a terrorist suspect – but they actually put him in the back of a car at nighttime and drove him over that border,” Ms. Chrolavicius said.

“Effecting that physical transfer takes Canadian culpability to the ultimate level. He has been re-victimized by Canada’s refusal to acknowledge what happened and come clean about handing him over without lawful authority.”

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