News / Canada

Government to settle lawsuit with Muslim Canadians jailed, tortured in Syria

The three men, one from Ottawa, two from Toronto, suffered separate ordeals at the hands of Syrian interrogators, acting in part on questions the RCMP passed on.

Abdullah Almalki (right to left), Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad El-Maati arrive at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday Oct.21, 2008.

The Canadian Press

Abdullah Almalki (right to left), Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad El-Maati arrive at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday Oct.21, 2008.

OTTAWA—The federal government will settle a lawsuit filed by three Muslim Canadian men who were jailed and tortured in Syria more than a decade ago with a formal apology, the removal of their names from Canada’s “no-fly” list and a multimillion-dollar compensation package, the Star has learned.

An announcement could come as early as next week.

A settlement of their $100-million claim for damages would be the final dramatic chapter in a troubling and long-running post-9/11 saga.

Abdullah Almalki of Ottawa, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, of Toronto, suffered separate ordeals at the hands of Syrian interrogators, acting in part on questions the Mounties passed on. In El Maati’s case, he was transferred and endured additional torture in an Egyptian jail.

Their cases never got the attention the other high-profile post-Sept. 11 torture case of Maher Arar drew. That’s in part because a judicial inquiry into their torture was conducted in secret with a narrower mandate — ostensibly to speed up the probe — than the lengthy public inquiry into the Arar affair. There were no daily hearings or parade of witnesses with disturbing testimony.

In 2008, retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci concluded that Canadian officials indirectly contributed to the mistreatment and torture of all three men by sharing information with foreign intelligence and police agencies, including sending questions to Syrian authorities which prolonged their nightmares.

Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, is not involved in the litigation and could not comment on any negotiations toward a settlement.

But Neve has long called on Ottawa to take responsibility for its officials’ actions. Asked to comment, Neve said in an email that Amnesty International “hopes that a settlement is indeed imminent, and Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin can get on with healing, recovery and rebuilding their lives.”

Almalki was an Ottawa communications engineer who had dual Syrian-Canadian citizenship. Arrested in May 2002 at the Damascus airport, he was detained for 22 months.

El Maati was a Toronto truck driver arrested at the Damascus airport in November 2001 as he was travelling to celebrate his wedding. Later transferred to Egypt, he was jailed for more than 26 months.

Nureddin, a Toronto geologist, was stopped by Syrian officials in December 2003 as he crossed into Syria from visiting family in northern Iraq. He was held for 33 days and never charged.

Lawyer Phil Tunley who leads the legal team for all three men refused to confirm or deny a settlement has been reached when contacted by the Star, citing his clients’ confidentiality.

Nor would key federal ministers comment when contacted through their offices.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s spokesperson Dan Brien said he would not confirm or deny the settlement, or offer any comment on a matter that is “still before the courts.” Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould spokesperson Dave Taylor also said her department would offer no comment.

But Neve was scathing.

“The torture and other human rights violations these men experienced took place between 13 – 15 years ago,” he said, adding the Iacobucci inquiry documenting Canada’s role in those abuses was released more than eight years ago.

The United Nations Committee against Torture called on Canada to “move quickly to provide redress to them over four years ago,” said Neve. “It is a dramatic understatement to say that compensation and an apology for these three men is long overdue.”

A trial of the men’s civil claim was to get underway Feb. 27. Now it appears the men will attend a public announcement of the settlement, which may come in advance of a motion to formally drop the lawsuit.

It was long delayed by unsuccessful federal efforts under both Conservative and Liberal governments to protect intelligence sources. Federal lawyers failed to persuade the courts that a 2015 law that enacted new protections for the identity of CSIS human sources should apply retroactively.

The Liberal government’s efforts in the litigation came in spite of the fact that the Liberals in opposition had voted in support of an apology, compensation and a recommendation that the Government of Canada “do everything necessary to correct misinformation that may exist in records administered by national security agencies in Canada or abroad with respect to” the men and their families.

The Star was unable to confirm the amount of compensation that will be paid out to each man and their families, but the Arar case is a guide to what might be considered fair.

Arar received a federal apology and $10.5 million in compensation and another $1 million to cover the legal fees in his fight for restitution after devastating experience, for a total of $11.5 million.

In the dramatic months after the 2001 Al Qaeda terror attacks in the U.S., the RCMP and CSIS aggressively pursued individuals suspected of terrorist links, acting on tenuous leads or failing to caution other agencies that information was unverified or uncorroborated.

The security agencies’ net ensnared Canadians like Arar, a dual Syrian-Canadian citizen. Arar was detained by American authorities on his way home to Ottawa from a Tunisian family holiday and then shipped to Syria via Jordan. He was jailed, tortured and interrogated at Far Falestin prison in Damascus.

The Arar commission of inquiry led by Justice Dennis O’Connor determined Canadian actions were indirectly responsible for Arar’s rendition and torture. The other three men weren’t deported to torture, but were arrested upon arrival in Syria, interrogated and tortured at the same Syrian military prison as Arar.