Last Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2007 | 4:10 PM ET
Lawyers for a former Algerian air force lieutenant who spent nearly five years in American custody – despite being cleared by the FBI – are calling for an inquiry into Canada’s role in his detention.
“I can’t go on living like this. I need clarification – why I was treated in such a way,” Benamar Benatta said during a news conference in Toronto Wednesday.
The former military avionics technician was detained by Canadian border guards on Sept. 5, 2001, at the Peace Bridge crossing between Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ont., as he applied for asylum. He had arrived with an expired visa.
Canadian officials handed him to U.S. authorities on Sept. 11, 2001, one of roughly 1,200 mostly Muslim men arrested by the U.S. after the terror attacks that day. He’s believed to be one of the last of these detainees to be freed.
Benatta, a Muslim, spent nearly the next five years in detention centres in Buffalo and Brooklyn, even though the FBI cleared him of any links to terrorism in November 2001.
His lawyers said they have sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day asking for a review of “any and all actions of Canadian officials in relation to his ordeal.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday that he wouldn’t comment on the matter until he knew all the details.
There had been earlier suggestions from Ottawa that Benatta voluntarily went to the U.S., but the federal government says it has no documentation to support that.
U.S.-Algerian exchange program
Benatta first arrived in the U.S. in December 2000 on a six-month visa to take part in training seminars in Baltimore for defence and military conglomerate Northrop Grumman. It was part of an exchange program between the American and Algerian militaries, he said.
He didn’t return to Algeria, saying he feared for his life if he returned. His lawyers said he can’t give any details about what happened in Algeria because his Canadian refugee claim is still pending.
He lived briefly in New York City before taking a bus to Buffalo on Sept. 5, 2001. He crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada, where he filed for asylum.
Canadian border officials declared him a person of interest, and held him in a cell in their offices while he was investigated.
On the evening of Sept. 11, Benatta said, U.S. security officials, including the FBI, came to his cell and questioned him about the attacks.
Taken to N.Y. detention centre
They took him to a holding cell in upstate New York, later transferring him to a high-security detention centre in Brooklyn, where he said he was kept in solitary confinement.
In November 2001, the FBI cleared him of any connection to terrorism, something he didn’t learn until five months later, when he was transferred to a detention centre in Buffalo and given his first access to a lawyer.
While there, he also learned he faced charges of carrying false identification papers.
That charge was dropped in 2003, when a U.S. federal magistrate issued a scathing report into Benatta’s detention, saying federal prosecutors and FBI and immigration agents took part in a “sham” to justify their actions.
Benatta was then transferred into U.S. immigration detention, where, his lawyers said, he went through a series of immigration reviews and appeals.
American officials hadn’t ruled on his application when he was transferred back to Canada July 20, 2006, after Ottawa agreed to offer him temporary residence while he sought refugee status.
Benatta, who has no family in Canada, lives in Toronto on an allowance Ottawa provides refugee claimants.
His lawyers said they don’t know why Benatta was released by the Americans, only that there were high-level negotiations between Canada and the U.S.
“What went on to allow him to return is completely and entirely unclear,” said lawyer Nicole Chrolavicius.
Claims of torture
Benatta, who was 27 when he was first detained, said he was humiliated and tortured while in American custody.
U.S. officials wrote ‘WTC’ – meaning World Trade Center – on the door of his brightly lit cell, shackled his wrists and feet, bound his chest with a chain, denied him a lawyer and time to sleep, he said.
When asked whether Benatta would seek compensation, Chrolavicius said lawyers haven’t yet launched a statement of claim but haven’t ruled anything out.
“I know it’s time for me to face what I went through and put it behind me and try to go on with my life, if I can,” Benatta said. “I just need some explanation.”
Benatta has recently been denied standing at Justice Frank Iacobucci’s inquiry into the deportations of three Canadian citizens: Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin.
Chrolavicius said that was not a surprise, given the narrow scope of the terms of the inquiry.