Canada on Friday formally apologized to three Canadian men of Arab descent who said they had been tortured in Syria and blamed Canadian secret services for their ordeal, shading the light on the cooperation between Assad regime and the western intelligence agencies before the crisis.
The Liberal government also said it had agreed on a cash settlement with Ahmad El-Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nureddin, who had pressed their case for a decade.
In October 2008, an inquiry led by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci found Canadian officials contributed to the torture of the three men by sharing information with foreign agencies.
All three men were arrested separately when entering Syria between 2001 and 2003. They say they were tortured and interrogated, and some of the questions they were asked were based on information that could only have come from Canada. In the case of El Maati, he was abused in Egypt as well.
Legal actions filed by the three men had been stuck in the courts for years. They sought compensation for experiences they say shattered their reputations and left them physically and psychologically wounded.
Almalki, an Ottawa electronics engineer, was detained in Syria in 2002 and held for 22 months.
El Maati, a former truck driver, was arrested in November 2001 after flying to Syria to celebrate his wedding — nuptials that did not take place.
Nureddin, a Toronto geologist, was detained by Syrian officials in December 2003 as he crossed the border from Iraq, where he was visiting family. He was held for 34 days in Syria in late 2003 and early 2004.
For years the government refused to budge even though Maher Arar, another Arab-Canadian who was abused in a Syrian prison, received an apology and $10.5 million, plus another $1 million to cover legal fees.
The government’s apology
In a statement, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland apologized to the three “for any role Canadian officials may have played in relation to their detention and mistreatment abroad and any resulting harm”.
“We hope that the steps taken today will support them and their families in their efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in their lives.”
All three men deny involvement in terrorism and none has ever been charged.
“Our clients are gratified to have received an apology from the highest level of the Canadian government,” said Phil Tunley, lawyer for El Maati and Nureddin. “They and their families are pleased that their long legal ordeal is over.”
Goodale spokesman Dan Brien declined to answer how much the men would be paid. The Toronto Star newspaper, which reported in February that a settlement was imminent, said the deal would run into millions of Canadian dollars.
It has been a long and difficult journey to justice for the three men, said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
“They deserve gratitude and respect from all Canadians for their steadfast determination. This compensation and the apology will now help them to recover and rebuild their lives,” Neve said in a statement.
He added that the apology “will also send a strong message that what was done to them cannot and must not ever be done to others.”
Toronto law firm Stockwoods, which represented the men, said in a statement “Our clients are gratified to have received an apology from the highest level of the Canadian government.”
It added that the three men and their families “are pleased that their long legal ordeal is over”.