NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Canadian who says he was whisked off a plane in New York and sent illegally to Syria where he was tortured for a year lost his case against the U.S. government on Monday on a technicality.
Maher Arar, a Syrian-born software engineer, sued U.S. government officials in 2004 over his arrest during a 2002 stopover in New York and subsequent deportation to Syria because of suspected links to al Qaeda.
In a case that roiled U.S.-Canada relations, he says he was imprisoned in Syria for a year and tortured.
Arar had argued his constitutional rights were violated when he was confined without access to a lawyer or the courts and then forcibly returned to Syria, where U.S. authorities had reason to believe he would be tortured.
But the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming a lower court decision, ruled that Arar failed to establish that the federal court had jurisdiction to hear his complaint.
“Arar has not adequately established federal subject matter jurisdiction over his request for a judgment declaring that defendants acted illegally by removing him to Syria so that Syrian authorities could interrogate him under torture,” the ruling said.
U.S. laws do not permit actions in federal courts against U.S. officials for claims such as Arar‘s, the first of its kind, the panel of three judges ruled, saying that Congress had not authorized damages for such cases.
Judge Jose Cabranes, writing for the majority, said Arar has no federal standing in the case, which was the basis for the hit Hollywood movie “Rendition.” He said the case could not be heard in a federal court because Arar was an inadmissible alien and as such never entered U.S. jurisdiction.
A third judge, Robert Sack, in a dissenting opinion, disagreed, saying the majority saw the civil suit as an immigration case, when “it is in fact about the forbidden tactics allegedly employed by the United States law enforcement officers in a terrorism inquiry.”
Arar had claimed defendants including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, violated his constitutional, civil and international human rights.
His case has become a sore spot in U.S.-Canadian relations. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted last October the United States had mishandled Arar’s case but stopped short of an apology. And the U.S. Justice Department said in June it is investigating whether agency attorneys improperly deported Arar to his native Syria.
That followed a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Declassified portions of that report found U.S. authorities had ignored Arar’s fears of torture if he were sent to Syria.
It said immigration and Justice Department officials disregarded normal procedure, which would have been to send Arar back to Canada or to Switzerland, where his flight originated.
It also found the Immigration and Naturalization Service had concluded that Arar was entitled to protection from torture under international law.
Arar was seized in late September 2002 while en route to Montreal from a family visit to Tunisia. He was sent to Jordan the next month and was taken into custody by Syrian officials.
The Canadian government has cleared Arar of any links to terrorist groups and apologized and paid him $10.9 million in compensation and legal fees.
The Canadian government has said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had wrongly told U.S. border agents that Arar was suspected of being an extremist.
Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman