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We're sorry, says Canadian government, to citizens tortured in Syria

Settlement in civil lawsuit comes 15 years after Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin were detained and tortured
Ottawa – under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his successor, Justin Trudeau – had until now refused to settle the case (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada – Ottawa has formally apologised for the role officials may have played in the torture and abuse of three Canadian men in Syria in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The government announced on Friday that it had settled a longstanding civil lawsuit brought by Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin. The men were each tortured in detention in Syria between 2001 and 2003.

“On behalf of the Government of Canada, we wish to apologise to Mr Almalki, Mr Abou-Elmaati and Mr Nureddin, and their families, for any role Canadian officials may have played in relation to their detention and mistreatment abroad and any resulting harm,” Ministers Ralph Goodale and Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

The government did not release specific details about the settlement.

It comes 15 years after Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin were detained and subjected to long periods of torture at the hands of Syrian interrogators, after Canadian officials flagged them as having ties to terrorism.

Detention and torture in Syria

The Canadian government had accused Almalki, a Syrian-Canadian engineer living in Ottawa, and Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin, both from Toronto, of having ties to al-Qaeda. The men have always denied the accusations.

I hope that we as a country learn from such injustices and work to better our country by strengthening our human rights laws rather than weakening them

- Abdullah Almalki

But Canadian officials with the federal police service, the RCMP, and the Canadian spy agency, CSIS, shared their unproven claims with their counterparts in Syria.

Almalki was detained upon arrival at Damascus airport in 2002 and spent 22 months in detention.

Egyptian-Canadian Abou-Elmaati was arrested and detained for two months in 2001 in Syria, and then transferred to Egypt, where he was detained for another two years.

Nureddin, an Iraqi-Canadian geologist, was arrested in Syria in 2003 on his way back to Canada from Iraq, and detained for 33 days.

The men were subjected to torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment in detention.

Almalki reported that his Syrian interrogators beat him, whipped the soles of his feet with electric cables, verbally insulted him, and left him in stress positions for long periods of time, as they pressured him to confess to being involved in terrorism.

Canada indirectly responsible

In 2008, a Canadian commission of inquiry found that Canadian officials were indirectly responsible for what happened to the three men.

The commission, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Lacobucci, found that officials had even submitted questions through Canada’s ambassador to Damascus at the time to Syrian interrogators to ask Almalki in prison.

Canada’s parliament urged the federal government in 2009 to apologise and compensate Almalki, Abou-Elmaati, and Nureddin, and correct any misinformation in the records of national security agencies in Canada and abroad.

But Ottawa - under former prime minister Stephen Harper and his successor Justin Trudeau – had until now refused to settle the case, which was expected to be heard in a Canadian court last month.

In a statement on Facebook on Sunday, Almalki said he was “very pleased” to get a long-awaited apology from the government and grateful that he and his family can now have closure.

“This is a victory for Canada and every Canadian who holds dear the Charter of Right[s] and Freedoms, the rule of law, freedom, equality, and dignity. It is also a victory for those who abhor torture, arbitrary detention, bigotry and racism,” he wrote.

‘Learn from injustices’

This is not the first time Canada has been forced to apologise and compensate citizens for its involvement in their mistreatment abroad.

Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian engineer, received $10.5m and a formal apology in 2007 after he sued the federal government. Arar was detained while transiting through the United States in 2002 and secretly deported to Syria, where he was tortured as a terrorism suspect for a year.

A separate commission of inquiry into his treatment found that Canadian police officials had shared false information about Arar being tied to terrorism – an unfounded allegation – with their US counterparts, which led to his detention.

Meanwhile, Almalki said he hoped hisstruggle, and that of many others over the years for truth, justice and reforms, will not be wasted”.

“I hope that we as a country learn from such injustices and work to better our country by strengthening our human rights laws rather than weakening them,” he wrote on Facebook. “We must strengthen laws and institutions to preserve our liberties and freedoms, rather than compromising them.”

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