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December 2, 2009

Extraordinary rendition: Canadian style

Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel S. AmdurBenamar Benatta will appear at an International Human Rights Day program at the Steelworkers Hall, 25 Cecil Street, Toronto on December 9 at 7:15 p.m.

He will be speaking about his demand for a public inquiry into Canada Immigration’s actions in rendering him into the hands of authorities in the United States. 

While extraordinary rendition is a well-known practice of the United States, it now raises its ugly head in Canada. 

So let’s get to Benatta’s story.

He was born in Algeria in 1974.  In 1992, he joined the military and went to university to study aeronautical engineering. 

This was at the time that the military carried out a coup d’état to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front from being elected to power. 

Because Benatta refused to take part in human rights violations carried out by the military, he was subjected to abuse and spent some time in prison.  At the same time, because he was a member of the military he faced threats from the Armed Islamic Group, an offshoot of the Islamic Salvation Front.

When an opportunity to get out of Algeria arose, he seized upon it. 

The military sent him to the U.S. for training seminars in Baltimore, part of a military exchange program.  He went AWOL after the seminars ended. 

In New York City he worked as a bus boy.  His visa expired in June, 2001, so that he was in the U.S. without status.  Benatta then decided to leave for Canada and make a refugee claim. 

He arrived at Fort Erie to make his claim on September 5, carrying false papers.  He immediately revealed his true identity and stated that he wanted to claim refugee status, but he was then put in the Niagara Detention Centre pending inquiries about his identity. 

Then on September 12—one day after the fateful 9/11--he was bundled into a car and delivered back across the U.S. border to American authorities. 

All of this happened without the presence of a lawyer and without access to his preferred official language (French). 

He was a suspect for various reasons.  He arrived with false documents.  He was connected to airplanes, though he was not a pilot and could not fly a plane, and he was an Arab and a Muslim.  As well, he was fleeing the U.S. just around the time of the 9/11 disaster. 

Benatta was imprisoned in detention centres in Brooklyn and Buffalo, where he was shackled and beaten, his head repeatedly slammed against the wall. 

He was also subjected to sleep deprivation, with jailers waking him up every half hour. 

Omar Khadr was also subjected to sleep deprivation, so it appears to be a tool that American authorities use in different situations. 

The FBI investigated his case and decided in November 2001 that there was no evidence of any terrorist connection, but he was told nothing about the FBI report on him.

A lawyer was finally appointed to assist him in April, 2002, but he continued in custody, faced with immigration violation charges and charges of having counterfeit documents. 

He continued in custody because he was unable to make $25,000 bail. 

Two years later, the UN Commission on Human Rights issued an opinion that his treatment in prison “could be described as torture” and that his ongoing imprisonment “constitutes arbitrary detention.”

Once he had a lawyer, he engaged in various legal efforts to gain asylum and to avoid deportation back to Algeria. 

In 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Schroeder denounced the government’s delays in their criminal charges related to his false papers, and as a result the charges were dropped. 

Asylum was denied in 2004 but he was able to obtain a stay of deportation to Algeria. 

Then the tide began to turn for him in a major way in 2005.  By that time, the American Civil Liberties Union became involved and the American media began to take notice of his case. 

Most important, Janet Dench, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, stepped in and lobbied Canadian officials to have them act to gain his return here. 

She pointed to the illegal rendition, arguing that that action by Canadian authorities created a moral obligation for Canada to seek his return.  Her efforts bore fruit: on July 20, 2006, he was returned to Canada, in shackles.  He received refugee status in November, 2007.

Benatta still bares scars from his American ordeal, physical scars from the deliberately tight shackles which bound his wrists and legs and emotional scars from the humiliation, torture, and years of incarceration. 

He wants answers.  Why was he illegally kidnapped by Canadian immigration officers and rendered to torture?  That’s why he wants a public inquiry. 

But that’s not all. 

He is also suing the Canadian government.  His lawyer Nicole Chrolavicius is representing him in his claim for $35 million. 

Canada paid Maher Arar some $10 million to compensate him for its role in his rendition by the Americans to Syria, but in Benatta’s case it was Canada itself which rendered him to torture.  That fact makes the case for more than the Arar award. 

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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