September 12, 2010 – It would be difficult to imagine that nine years ago today, anyone on the planet was unaware of the terrorist attacks that had occurred the previous morning in the United States. Yet one individual in Canada was not only unaware, he was also falsely tarred with responsibility for the attacks and illegally rendered to the U.S., where he would face five years of imprisonment under conditions that constituted torture.
Benamar Benatta, a former member of the Algerian air force who, for refusing to commit war crimes, had to flee for his life, came to Canada seeking asylum on September 5, 2001. Like many refugees, he was thrown into detention pending further investigation, and was in solitary confinement, cut off from the rest of the world, when the planes struck New York City and Washington, D.C.
Following a brief detention review on the morning of September 12th, during which Benatta had no access to legal counsel or a translator, he was remanded one further week in custody.
Later that day, two officials who Benatta believed to be Canadian asked him whether he knew how to fly airplanes and whether he had any counter-terrorism training.
RENDERED TO TORTURE IN THE U.S.
What happened next is a nightmare beyond imagining. That evening, he was taken from his cell, placed in the back of a car, and driven across the Rainbow Bridge into the U.S., all without benefit of a hearing, access to a lawyer, or due process of any kind.
Surrounded by dozens of men with guns on the U.S. side, he was taken to an immigration detention facility and interrogated four days about alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks. He was then bundled off to Brooklyn’s notorious Metropolitan Detention Centre, where he was thrown into a solitary confinement cell, the letters WTC (World Trade Center) plastered across his door, and treated as a prime suspect in the attacks.
With the light burning 24 hours a day in his solitary confinement cell, he was jarred awake every 30 minutes day and night with guards banging on his door. Once again denied access to a lawyer, he was only taken out of his cell for interrogation. In addition to humiliating strip searches, he experienced continual beatings, including having his head slammed against the wall, his leg shackles stomped upon, causing foot and ankle injuries, and other torturous treatment at the hands of guards. This was all later confirmed and well-documented in studies by the U.S. Department of Justice and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which concluded that his treatment was tantamount to torture.
Conditions were so bad that Benatta and other detainees conducted hunger strikes, with Benatta going to the point where prison officials, fearing he might die, were on the verge of force feeding him.
FBI CLEARS BENATTA WITHOUT TELLING HIM
In November, 2001, the FBI cleared Benatta of any suspicions of involvement in terrorism, but no one told him. Apart from some U.S. officials, no one knew where he was as he continued his indefinite punishment in solitary confinement. It would not be until he was transferred to a detention facility in Batavia, New York, in April, 2002, that he first saw a lawyer, but he would spend over four more years behind bars.
In 2003, Benatta was finally brought before a judge to face criminal charges that were dismissed as a “ruse” by the FBI and immigration authorities to justify his continued detention.
The judge found that “there is no doubt in this court’s mind that the defendant, because of the fact that he was an Algerian citizen and a member of the Algerian Air Force, was spirited off to the MDC in Brooklyn on September 16, 2001 and held in SH [special housing] as ‘high security’ for purposes of providing an expeditious means of having the defendant interrogated by special agents of the FBI….” The judge also found Benatta “undeniably was deprived of his liberty and held in custody under harsh conditions which can be said to be ‘oppressive.’”
But Benatta would not breathe the air outside of prison for another three years, when he was eventually released and returned to Canada to resume his refugee claim (since accepted). Benatta is also now a permanent resident in Canada.
TREATED LIKE A CRIMINAL
Benatta says that “On the day I was released, I had nothing – no money, no belongings and no family or friends to turn to. When I arrived in Canada by prison escort, after being interviewed for hours by Canadian officials, I was allowed to leave with a U.S. lawyer who had come to help me. We headed to the local Wal-Mart, me still in my prison uniform, to find some new clothes. I will never forget the frightened little girl who ran from me, or the cashier who eyed me like I was a criminal. It is these little indignities that stick with me.”
Canada’s role in this nightmare is the focus of a lawsuit currently before the courts. As with other torture cases in which Canadian officials maintain a maddening policy of denial (largely from scandal-ridden spy agency CSIS and the equally complicit RCMP, along with the Department of “Justice” and Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade), Benatta is unable to get a concession that what happened to him was real, much less the responsibility of federal officials.
Yet in Benatta’s case, the Canadian government knows it is in the wrong. In January 2006, while Benatta was still behind bars in the U.S., a briefing note was prepared for the President of the Canadian Border Services Agency by Nicole Houle, Director General, Admissibility Branch, Peoples Programs Directorate. Houle wrote that the agency has “reviewed the file and determined that proper procedures may not have been followed and that Mr. Benatta may be entitled to have his [refugee] claim heard in Canada.”
INTERNAL DOCUMENTS ADMIT CULPABILITY
The briefing note later states “the notes and documentation on file and the lack of clear supporting documentation for the actions taken [the illegal transfer to the U.S.] suggest that an oversight my have occurred in this case, which resulted in Mr. Benatta not being allowed to have his refugee claim heard in Canada.”
It is putting it kindly to refer to this action as an “oversight” when it was Canadian officials who took the proactive step of calling up the U.S. and informing them them of Benatta’s presence in Canada. Indeed, U.S. Magistrate Schroeder, hearing Benatta’s case in 2003, found as fact that “as a result of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, Canadian authorities alerted United States authorities of [Benatta’s] presence and profile as set forth and returned him to United States authorities on September 12, 2001.”
The CBSA briefing note further states that “there maybe [sic] at least a moral if not legal obligation to review Mr. Benatta’s file” and a need to explore “the legal ramifications or liability for the Agency in this case given Mr. Benatta’s long term detention in the U.S.”
Despite this acknowledgment of complicity in his rendition from four years ago, Benatta is still facing an uphill battle. Earlier this year, an Ontario Court ordered the federal government to disclose all documents related to the case when it was found that Ottawa had been withholding numerous files.
Such lawsuits tend to drag on for years, especially when the government stalls, stonewalls, and attempts to whitewash its complicity in clearly illegal activities. But still Benatta fights on, seeking an apology, accountability, and compensation for nine lost years.
A man who refuses to commit human rights abuses is someone we should celebrate and welcome. But in a world gone mad with hyped up Muslim-hatred and ruled by irrational fear (a poll released two days ago revealed half of Canadians feel Muslims do not share their “values”), Benatta still faces an uphill struggle.
Anyone who knows Benatta (as this writer does) comes to the early and easy conclusion that he is an individual of great integrity. He is also someone who clearly continues to suffer from the aftereffects of torture and the further humiliation of trying to deal rationally with a Canadian government that denies and deflects all questions of responsibility.
SUPPORTING BENAMAR BENATTA
It is a stunning challenge, but one he can only meet with the support of people in this country who are willing to support him. Benatta survives in poverty, trying to finish a university degree so he can find work.
Individuals who wish to help out with financial support can do so through a special “Benatta fund” set up by Toronto Action for Social Change, which pays for such necessities as food, rent, and educational expenses.
If you wish to support Mr. Benatta, you can make out cheques to Toronto Action for Social Change (marked “Benatta” in the memo portion of your cheque) and mail them to PO 73620, 509 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0. Tax receipts are available for donations over $75. For details on how to receive a tax receipt email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, it never hurts to write to Stephen Harper (via the website http://pm.gc.ca/eng/contact.asp) and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Toews.V@parl.gc.ca), calling on them to accept responsibility, and not only offer an apology and compensation, but take the measures necessary to ensure this never happens again, and that those responsible are held truly accountable.
Further information is available at www.benamarbenatta.com