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Torture is morally repugnant, unjustifiable

May, 2009

The shock engendered by 9/11 and other terrorist actions has shaken the moral fibre of Western nations and weakened the basic pillars of our liberal democracies: innocence until proven guilty in a court of law, freedom from torture, the right of any suspect to be indicted after 24 hours or released from custody. Debate is swirling in the United States about whether charges should be laid, or at least a public inquiry held in to the way the country has interrogated terror suspects. World opinion, and that of this newspaper, is clear on this issue.

As stated in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, it is against international law to inflict “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental” to obtain information or a confession. Canada ratified the convention and allows individual complaints to the UN, while the US has signed but not ratified it.

The debate was reignited last month when US President Barack Obama released so-called torture memos, outlining harsh interrogation techniques sanctioned by the George W. Bush administration. These include: water boarding, simulating the sensation of drowning; placing a harmless insect in a suspect’s confinement box and telling him it would sting; sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours; confining a detainee in painful positions. Obama banned these practices his first week in office.

Then there is the system of extraordinary rendition, where a suspect is apprehended and transferred to another country so that “torture by proxy” can be carried out. Shamefully, Canadians are not immune to this practice. Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was arrested in New York on Sept. 26, 2002, based in part on incomplete and unverified information supplied by the RCMP about his alleged links to Al-Qaeda. Twelve days later he was flown to Syria, where he was beaten, tortured and forced to make false confessions. He has since been cleared of any terrorist links or activities, and the Canadian government has apologized for any role Canadians may have played in the ordeal and awarded him $10.5 million in compensation.

Among the painful lessons to be learned here is that detainees will say virtually anything under torture in the hope it will stop. Professionals understand the limited value of information obtained under these circumstances, and we all should be concerned about embarking on that slippery slope that erodes our values.

In Canada, nobody was singled out for blame or punishment in the Arar affair. And we have watched in amazement as Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian of Sudanese origin, has been forced for the last year to sleep in the foyer of the Canadian embassy in Khartoum– and pays for the privilege – because he’s on a no-fly list. On a visit there to see his ailing mother, he was imprisoned and tortured, apparently on the recommendation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. In spite of the torture – he has shown visitors the physical scars as evidence – and what he may have said, both CSIS and the RCMP have advised the Harper government they have no reason to believe Abdelrazik is a terrorist. He has also been cleared by the Sudanese secret service. CSIS insists it does not arrange for the arrest of Canadian citizens overseas, despite documentary evidence from Foreign Affairs to the contrary in this case.

US President Obama has absolved CIA operatives who used torture tactics, but debate is still swirling as to whether those in the administration who sanctioned these methods should be held accountable, or at least examined in a public inquiry. CSIS has offered to take part in a similar inquiry into its role in the Abdelrazik affair. We believe both are necessary. Public officials involved should be granted immunity from prosecution so the issue of aiding and abetting torture for any reason can be aired. We support giving our intelligence services in Canada the resources they need to protect our society from conspiracy to carry out terrorism. But that must not include licence to torture, which goes against the fundamental principles of rule of law, is morally repugnant and plainly intolerable under any circumstances.



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