Seemingly lost in the recent uproar of Afghan torture allegations against Ottawa is the case of Benamar Benatta, a French-speaking Algerian who became Canada’s first post 9/11 rendition victim.
But to understand the five-year ordeal the 33-year-old aeronautical engineer endured in an American prison, thanks to the alleged actions of Canadian authorities, one must understand the definition of ‘extraordinary rendition’.
As Benatta’s Toronto-based lawyer Nicole Chrolavicius defined it, it is a euphemism US officials coined to soften what is essentially a person that is kidnapped and sent to torture.
“A rendition is a handing over of an individual from one jurisdiction to another without lawful authority.”
In Benatta’s case, he was on the lamb from the Algerian Air Force in the late summer of 2001. He headed to the U.S. seeking political asylum fearing he’d face the death sentence if sent back to Algeria given that he deserted his country’s armed forces during a time of civil war. He was subsequently convinced by his friends stateside to seek refugee status in Canada, a French-speaking nation and one that was reportedly more tolerant and accepting of political refugees.
Perhaps that was true on most days, but upon entering our country on Sept. 5, 2001 via The Peace Bridge in Buffalo, Canadian authorities put him into immigration detention while they tried to ascertain his identity. While in Canadian custody and unbeknownst to him, terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre in New York City and other targets on Sept. 11.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Benatta was tossed into the back of a van in the middle of the night, driven back over the border and handed over to the Americans. The Muslim man with some knowledge of airplanes spent the next five years of his life in solitary confinement in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he claims he was beaten countless times. No trial, no phone call to a lawyer, nada. Adding further insult to injury, the Canadian officials refused to speak French to Benatta at the time.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that here in Canada we need to be concerned about torture and that it’s up for debate in our courts and amongst our politicians, I would have thought you were talking about a science fiction novel,” Chrolavicius said. “Canada’s reputation is incredibly tarnished . . . the positive thing is the government’s actions . . . is not our voice. (Canada) needs to reclaim our reputation as a leader in the area of human rights.”
Benatta has since sued the Government of Canada. After three and a half years of representing him, Chrolavicius admitted she’s “utterly baffled and appalled” at what has happened to him. “We’re in the midst of that battle now,” she said. “We’ll continue to fight it unless the government steps forward and acknowledges what happened to Benamar . . . they thought they had suspect no. 1 in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.”
Turns out they didn’t. He was released by the Americans, returned to Canada, and now has landed immigrant status, lives in Toronto, and has a job. For three years, he did nil; opting to forget the whole affair. But post-traumatic stress, night terrors, and unemployment compelled him to seek closure; ergo the current litigation against the federal government.
“Without a measure of justice . . . it’s impossible to move on,” Chrolavicius remarked. “Benamar’s case is a prime example of why the 26 recommendations that came out of the Arar Commission Report (are important) . . . we need oversight of our national security bodies.
“CSIS and the RCMP have run amok . . . not only are they passing information about people to foreign entities which is leading to peoples’ lives being ruined. They are complicit in processes where torture occurs.”
Benatta, seemingly shy and speaking with a thick French accent, said when he was released he tried to get on with his life.
“I tried to be quiet and move on . . . but when you’re labelled as a terrorist, you can’t get a job; it follows you for the rest of your life,” he said. “Why was I singled out?”
Chrolavicius demands change. She said we can’t trust the federal government to do the right things behind closed doors.
“The government will claim ‘it’s national security: we have to protect you. Don’t ask questions’,” she said. “But the actions they’re taking are actually making us less safe. In the name of national security, if we trade all of our rights away, what is left to protect the individual person in a time of crisis?”
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