Obama opposes Assad’s human rights violations now, but not when they were useful to the US rendition program

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A protest in support of Haher Arar, a Canadian citizen sent to Syria to be tortured under the US rendition program (Photo: Todd Heisler/New York Times)

It was widely reported last week that President Obama, during a televised meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, reiterated White House calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.   

Reuters has posted a video of the meeting, in which Obama said, “Unfortunately, we’re continuing to see unacceptable levels of violence inside that country so we will continue to consult very closely with Jordan to create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourages the current Syrian regime to step aside so that a more democratic process of transition can take place inside of Syria.”  (This statement seems to imply that there is an “acceptable level of violence” that Assad could be using against peaceful protestors.)       

The protests in Syria began on March 18, 2011 and were immediately met with brutal violence from Syrian police and security forces.  On March 25, 2011, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that peaceful negotiations toward democracy were necessary and said that “We strongly condemn the Syrian government’s attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators,” according to the Los Angeles Times.  Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview on CBS’ Face the Nation in which she said, in part, that “There is a different leader in Syria now.  Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” However, she also condemned the Syrian government’s use of violence, a position that has been affirmed by multiple official statements from the White House and backed up with economic sanctions.  So while it might be unfair to accuse the White House of failing to meaningfully respond to the violence in Syria (in contrast to the violence against peaceful protestors in Bahrain, Yemen and other U.S. client states), motivation remains an issue. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s record in opposing Syrian atrocities is itself atrocious.  Consider the infamous case of Maher Arar, whose nightmare at the hands of the American, Canadian and Syrian governments was  extensively  documented in an excellent series of articles for Harper’s by Scott Horton. 

As Horton reported, Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was arrested at JFK airport after Canadian Mounties gave U.S. agents what turned out to be a false tip that Arar was associated with Al Qaeda.  (In fact, Arar was a software engineer with no connection to terrorism whatsoever who was on vacation abroad with his family when he was called back to Canada for work.  His connecting flight was out of JFK, where he was arrested.)  Although the Canadians were willing to accept Arar after his arrest, Bush appointees at the Attorney General’s office advised Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson to sign an order having Arar shipped off to Syria, based solely on the fact that he was born there.  (Thompson resigned shortly after discovering all the circumstances of the case.)   

Horton also details how the Bush officials who advised Thompson to sign Arar’s deportation order were told in advance by an immigration review panel that Arar would be tortured in Syria.  In fact, that’s exactly what happened.  After being sent to Syria, Arar was tortured for a year before finally being returned home to Canada and having his named cleared.  For their part, the Canadian government paid Arar about $10 million in compensation, issued a lengthy report following an investigation into how they mishandled the case and apologized.   

Mr. Arar was not as successful in seeking legal remedies against the U.S., however.  “The United States tenaciously refused to acknowledge ever having made any mistakes—even after its own sources did so. It stonewalled Congressional probes and issued a travel ban to stop Arar from testifying before Congress. The Bush Justice Department made aggressive representations to the courts in response to Arar’s suit that strained credulity at almost every step.”

The United States District Court eventually dismissed Arar’s lawsuit.  As part of its “look forward not backward” policy to shield all high-level Bush/Cheney war criminals from prosecution, the Obama administration maintained the government’s vigorous defense of the Arar defendants on appeal.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in an en banc rehearing, agreed with the Bush-Obama position and affirmed the judgment in favor of the United States, holding that Arar could not sue federal officials for intentionally sending him to a foreign country to be tortured.  When Arar sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Obama administration convinced the high court not to review the Second Circuit’s decision, ending the case.  Thanks to these and other efforts by the Obama administration, it is virtually guaranteed that no high-level Bush/Cheney officials will ever be criminally prosecuted for torture, setting a frightening precedent that the law does not apply to those in power.    

It’s worth remembering that during the early days of the Egyptian revolution last year, it was widely reported that the White House tried to install Omar Suleiman as successor to Mubarak.  Suleiman was Mubarak’s second-in-command and a key ally in our extraordinary rendition program. As Lisa Hajjar noted in Al Jazeera English, “The extraordinary rendition program landed some people in CIA black sites — and others were turned over for torture-by-proxy to other regimes.  Egypt figured large as a torture destination of choice, as did Suleiman as Egypt’s torturer-in-chief. At least one person extraordinarily rendered by the CIA to Egypt — Egyptian-born Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib — was reportedly tortured by Suleiman himself.”  (Obama’s affinity for extraordinary rendition and torturers should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the treatment of Gulet Mohamed.)  

I have no doubt that whatever role the U.S. takes in accomplishing its stated goal of regime change in Syria will be justified by Obama with grand humanitarian proclamations about stopping the brutality of the Assad regime.  But what reason will we have to believe him?            

About Chad Austin

Chad Austin is a practicing attorney in San Diego, CA.
Posted in Arab Spring, Middle East, US Policy in the Middle East, US Politics | Tagged

{ 5 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Hostage says:

    Thanks to these and other efforts by the Obama administration, it is virtually guaranteed that no high-level Bush/Cheney officials will ever be criminally prosecuted for torture, setting a frightening precedent that the law does not apply to those in power.

    The Military Commissions Act allowed the President to define torture, and until the provision was repealed, it also eliminated any private right of action against our government officials based on a violation of the Geneva Conventions. It’s likely that the act was unconstitutional, but the Obama administration has never seriously considered prosecuting officials for war crimes or crimes against humanity or challenging the Bush era abuses in Court. Neither the President nor the Senate have the right to ratify a treaty that violates a citizen’s right to a trial by jury (see Reid v Covert), so there’s little chance that the US will be joining the Rome Statute as a state party anytime soon. There’s still the possibility that ICC members will turn over Americans for crimes committed on their territory.

    Oddly enough, the Supreme Court here has ruled that former government officials can’t claim state immunity from the tort statutes for acts they committed while in office that violate treaties or customary norms of international law. link to cja.org

    So the Bush and Obama teams could still face lawsuits in the courts here and overseas.

  2. Dan Crowther says:

    John Walsh at dissident voice has a wonderful essay up called ” A pledge for anti-interventionist Progressives in 2012″ – well worth a read:
    link to dissidentvoice.org
    “I pledge to exclude potential allies who do not share my notions of justice from the antiwar movement. After all the antiwar movement belongs to progressives. I pledge to keep at bay libertarians, paleoconservatives and, above all, the average American Jane and Joe, with an unscalable Chinese Wall of political correctness. Let’s keep out the riff-raff. For this I pledge to look for leadership to “Progressive” Democrats of America, UFPJ, Peace Action and Juan Cole.

    I pledge neither to sponsor nor to join any large antiwar marches or demonstrations this election year. For if there are antiwar marches, it is a sure sign that there are wars. I pledge, if forced into such marches of folly in order to preserve my credibility or my donor base, to censor any mention of Obama. I pledge to treat impeachment as a taboo subject.

    I pledge until November 7, 2012 to keep far from my consciousness the unspeakable suffering being visited on the darker peoples of the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia by my president with his sanctions and bombs. These sufferings are as nothing compared to the purity of my movement and the hollow promises of Obama for better social programs.”

  3. gazacalling says:

    Yikes that is really frightening.

  4. this post and author was mentioned in an article in the SF chronicle on the same topic: “Obama’s stance on rendition different for lawsuits”

    link to sfgate.com

    When Obama started calling for leadership change in Syria, some critics brought up the Arar case. One was San Diego attorney Chad Austin, who said in a Jan. 27 blog on the Mondoweiss website that Obama wasn’t so eager to renounce Assad’s human-rights abuses when they served the rendition program.

    (thanks to karen platt for calling this to our attention)

  5. piotr says:

    One comment: Arar should be gratetful for being “outsourced” to Syria to be tortured. If he was sent to Guantanamo, he could be still there, while Syrians somehow found him innocent within a year.

    No suspect kidnapped by our security apparatus was released faster, as far as I know.