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Canada's top Mountie apologizes to deported man

David Ljunggren / Reuters | September 28 2006

The head of Canada's federal police force offered an unprecedented public apology on Thursday to a man who was deported by U.S. agents to Syria after the Mounties mistakenly labeled him an Islamic extremist.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli admitted his force had mishandled the case of Maher Arar, whom he described as an innocent man swept up in a search for terror suspects in the wake of the 9/11 suicide attacks.

Zaccardelli said he would not quit over the affair because he wanted to stay on to tackle the problems it revealed.

Arar, a 36-year-old Ottawa software engineer, says he was repeatedly tortured during the year he spent in Syrian jails.

Last week an official inquiry into the case strongly criticized the police for incompetence and dishonesty.

"Mr. Arar, I wish to take this opportunity to express publicly to you and to your wife and to your children how truly sorry I am for whatever part the actions of the RCMP may have contributed to the terrible injustices that you experienced and the pain that you and your family endured," a contrite Zaccardelli told Parliament's national security committee.

It was the first time he had commented in the wake of the report, which prompted calls for his resignation.

Police officials told Reuters they could not recall a case where a Mountie commissioner had apologized in public to someone wronged by the police.

"I know that an apology can never give back to Mr. Arar what was taken from him, but what we can do is move forward with changes and reform, and that means in very concrete terms identifying and acknowledging errors that were made," he said.

Later Zaccardelli added: "This terrible event has had a profound impact on the RCMP."

Arar wants a formal apology from the Conservative government. Public Security Minister Stockwell Day declined, citing a lawsuit Arar has filed against Ottawa.

"There is no excuse for mistakes that were made ... what he and his family went through was unacceptable," Day told the committee, saying he had full confidence in Zaccardelli.

Gilles Duceppe, leader of the opposition Bloc Quebecois, later told reporters he felt Zaccardelli would have to quit.

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was arrested in New York in September 2002 and quickly deported to Syria.

The official report found the Mounties had asked U.S. customs agents to put Arar and his wife on a special watch list, calling them "Islamic extremist individuals".

In fact, the probe concluded, there was no evidence to suggest Arar posed any threat or had done anything wrong.

"It is a terrible truth that we have had to acknowledge that in the pursuit of justice against those who would destroy our way of life, innocent people can be swept up in our search to find those who might harm us," Zaccardelli said. "It happened in this instance."

He said the official report found that Canadian officials played no role in the U.S. decision to deport Arar.

Even before Arar was deported, the Mounties were trying to correct some of the information they had sent to U.S. authorities, he added.

Serge Menard, a Bloc member of Parliament, accused the top Mountie of hiding the truth.

"You let him rot for almost a year in Syrian prisons ... you knew Mr. Arar had been linked to terrorists and you knew it was false," he said.

Zaccardelli replied that he had no idea the information passed on to U.S. agents might have prompted the decision to deport Arar as a suspected terrorist.


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