Man says his ordeal similar to cases of Canadian Muslims tortured in Mideast
Jeff Sallot, Globe and mail, 21 March 2007
OTTAWA — A defector from the Algerian air force, detained by Canadian authorities just days before the 9/11 attacks and then deported to the United States as a terrorism suspect, is fighting to have his case investigated by a federal commission of inquiry.
Benamar Benatta, 32, who was held by the United States for almost five years, said there are important similarities between his case and those of three Canadian Muslim men who were tortured in the Middle East.
The inquiry, set up by the Conservative government in December to probe possible Canadian involvement in the three torture cases, begins its first hearings today. Lawyers for Mr. Benatta are asking for legal standing so they can present evidence of what they say is Canadian complicity in their client’s illegal detention in the United States after the al-Qaeda attacks.
Frank Iacobucci, a former Supreme Court judge, who heads the inquiry, will also hear from five human-rights and Islamic groups seeking legal standing and federal financing for lawyers’ bills.
Mr. Benatta’s story is largely unknown in Canada, although it attracted some coverage in The Washington Post during his long struggle to be released from a U.S. detention centre.
The Algerian man is now living in Toronto. He is seeking political asylum in Canada, but has not yet had a refugee-determination hearing.
Canadian immigration officials granted him temporary residency last summer after they were unable to locate legal papers that might have justified his deportation from Canada in 2001.
In an affidavit filed with the Iacobucci inquiry, Mr. Benatta says in the 1990s he was a lieutenant in the Algerian air force with an engineering degree in aviation electronics.
He says he was jailed for insubordination for five months when he refused to participate in the “unlawful and unconscionable acts of the Algerian military” against civilians. His life has also been threatened by an Algerian Islamic militia, he says.
Mr. Benatta returned to military service and was sent to train on new aviation electronics equipment in the United States. In 2001, he deserted by refusing to go home to Algeria. Fluent in French, he felt his asylum and resettlement chances were better in Canada than in the United States.
He crossed the border at Fort Erie, Ont., on Sept. 5. Six days later, he was still being held for identification and processing at a Canadian immigration detention centre when terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
What happened next is subject to dispute. Canadian officials say Mr. Benatta voluntarily agreed to be returned to the United States. However, “there is no documentation to support this,” one Canadian immigration official admits in a letter sent last year to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Willingly or not, Mr. Benatta was driven back across the border to Buffalo and handed over to U.S. authorities. He spent nearly five years at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, the same lock-up where Canadian Maher Arar was held before he was deported to Syria.
In his affidavit, Mr. Benatta says the Americans treated him harshly, kept him in solitary confinement for long periods in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day and deprived him of sleep. He says he was beaten regularly. “I repeatedly had my head slammed against the wall.”
(The mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at the Brooklyn lock-up has been documented in a report by the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector-general.)
The Federal Bureau of Investigation cleared him of involvement with terrorism. But the Americans continued to hold him on charges that he used false identification to remain in the United States after his defection.
He was released last summer when Canadian immigration officials informed the Americans that Mr. Benatta would receive a temporary residency permit while he pursued his refugee claim.
Canadian records show “Mr. Benatta would be allowed to return to Canada should he wish once the U.S. authorities had finalized processing of his case,” Randy Orr, a Canadian immigration official, wrote July 11, 2006.