GUANTANAMO BAY and OTTAWA – An FBI interrogator stunned a military court at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, today claiming that captive Omar Khadr provided incriminating information about Canadian Maher Arar attending terrorist “safehouses” in Afghanistan.
FBI Special Agent Robert Fuller testified that he showed Khadr a picture of Arar during an Oct. 2002 interrogation at the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and that the Toronto-born teenager said he recognized Arar from Kabul safehouses operated by a Syrian with links to Al Qaeda.
The surprise admission may answer why the U.S. administration has refused to take Arar’s name off their no-fly list when a Canadian federal inquiry has cleared him of wrongdoing.
But Khadr’s lawyers claim any statements the Toronto teenager made in Bagram were gleaned under torture. Two Afghan captives died as a result of injuries sustained during their interrogations at Bagram in the months following Khadr’s transfer there.
Khadr was shot and captured at the age of 15 following a firefight with U.S. forces. He has been held in U.S. custody for almost seven years now. The Pentagon has charged him with five war crimes including murder for the death of U.S. soldier Sgt. Christopher Speer.
Arar was awarded $10.5 million and an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007 after the inquiry found that the RCMP provided erroneous information to the U.S. that connected Arar to Al Qaeda.
The timing of Khadr’s interrogation may prove important. Fuller testified that he interrogated Khadr beginning Oct. 7, 2002.
Arar was detained at New York’s JFK airport on Sept. 26, 2002, and held in U.S. custody. On Oct. 8, one day after Khadr’s interrogation began, Arar was rendered to Syria where he was tortured and held without charges for almost a year.
“I don’t have the date and I don’t think we will ever prove what day or days he was shown the pictures,” prosecutor John Murphy told the Toronto Star.
Murphy said the report outlining the intelligence gathered from Khadr did not specify what days the pictures were shown to him.
Fuller was one of the Pentagon’s first witnesses to testify at Khadr’s hearing and disputed claims that the injured Khadr was physically abused, threatened with rape, exposed to extreme temperatures and subjected to a sleep deprivation program at Guantanamo known as the “frequent flyer program.”
The two interrogators said Khadr also confessed to throwing a grenade that fatally wounded Speer.
Their testimony came after Khadr’s lawyers lost their appeals to delay the start of this week’s pre-trial hearings.
A female military interrogator identified only as “Interrogator 11” said that during the dozen interviews she had with Khadr at the prison here, he was “smiling and very willing to talk to us.”
Prosecutors also showed a video that was retrieved following Khadr’s capture that showed him constructing improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. Fuller said he asked Khadr his reaction to the video during his interrogations and Khadr replied that he was “proud.”
Khadr’s Pentagon-appointed lawyer, U.S. Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, reacted angrily to the start of hearings, saying the military judge pushed the hearing forward so Khadr’s prosecution “ends on the government’s show.”
In Canada, the reaction to the news emerging out of Guantanamo ranged from baffled to silent.
Asked if the information could explain why the U.S. has consistently refused Canada’s request to remove Arar from its watch list, a government spokesman would not comment.
Kory Teneycke, communications director for Prime Minister Harper, said only: “We have seen the story and we have no comment at this time.”
Stockwell Day, the former public safety minister, was travelling in India and unavailable for comment, his office said.
Many lawyers and advocates who have been intimately involved in the Arar story over the years immediately discounted the new allegation.
Arar claimed after he returned from his Syrian detention and torture ordeal that he had never travelled to Afghanistan and a two-year inquiry essentially concluded he had been wrongly labelled a “terrorist suspect.”
Reached in Vancouver, Lorne Waldman, the lawyer who acted for Arar and successfully won the $10.5-million settlement of his compensation claim against the Canadian government, said he was reluctant to comment or give the accusation any credibility at all.
“It’s worthless,” said Waldman, who has not spoken to Arar for months and said he was not speaking on Arar’s behalf.
In an interview with the Star, Waldman said it was “exactly like” the damaging leaks that came out during the Arar inquiry that were later deemed by Justice Dennis O’Connor to be unfounded.
“It’s not any different,” said Waldman. “How can you respond to something without being able to know the true source of the information and the circumstances under which the information was given?”
Waldman and others like author Kerry Pither, who wrote a book on the four Canadian Muslim men, including Arar, who were rendered into the hands of torturous interrogators, dismissed outright any information obtained under coercion or torture.
“Anything that comes out of Guantanamo has no credibility,” said Waldman.
“Just look at the Khadr case. Every step of the way through the Khadr hearing there’s one revelation after another of information that was withheld, that was falsified. I mean how can one attach any credibility to any information that comes out of that process?”
Waldman and others recalled that then-public safety minister “Stockwell Day was apparently shown the entire Arar file” by the Americans, and later said there was no reason in his view that Arar should remain on a watch list. The Canadian government went on to make its apology to Arar.
“If he was told he was shown the whole file, either we have a major problem if he wasn’t shown this, or he was shown it and he attached no credibility to it. The minister said that after reviewing the file he was still satisfied with Commission O’Connor’s opinion,” said Waldman.
Pither challenged the whole motivation behind the FBI’s statements coming at a time when Arar’s case is pending an appeal in the U.S. courts and when the incoming Obama Administration appears poised to close the Guantanamo prison complex down and order a complete change “in the way those agencies carry out their work.”
“I think it’s another gratuitous swipe at Maher Arar’s reputation,” said Pither.
She said it is clear “the Americans have no evidence; if they had, they would have shown it to Stockwell Day” when the then-public safety minister travelled to the U.S. and then made the decision to apologize and compensate Arar.
“And we know the Canadians have no evidence because Maher Arar was fully exonerated at the Arar inquiry. He is probably the most investigated person in Canada.”
If any such information had been shared with Canadian authorities, she suggested it would have been revealed to justify their own mistakes in the case.
Paul Cavalluzzo, the commission counsel to Justice O’Connor, said he could not confirm or deny whether any such information was conveyed to the inquiry in its closed-door sessions, but he noted that the final report warned against drawing conclusions that anybody in Afghanistan at a certain time was engaged in terrorist activity, when there were “religious” motivations to travel there.
“Arar never testified,” said Cavalluzzo, but he added that O’Connor said there was no evidence Arar was engaged in any terrorist activity.
“Was this evidence the product of torture?” Cavalluzzo asked of the FBI’s reported Khadr statement. “You just can’t give an easy answer to it, and knowing what’s happening at Guantanamo Bay, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a product of torture, which means that it’s meaningless and useless information.”
Hilary Homes, a spokesman for Amnesty International Canada, echoed similar sentiments.
“I think we need to be skeptical of the products of those interrogations at that time,” she said, adding that it is also being put forward in a pre-trial hearing where it is impossible to test the claim.
It’s widely anticipated that shortly after U.S.-president elect Obama takes office tomorrow that he will issue an executive order halting these trials.
Khadr’s hearing had begun this morning amid confusion and questions as to whether the charges had in fact been withdrawn. The uncertainty stemmed from the actions of Susan Crawford, the Pentagon official overseeing the trials here, after she secretly withdrew charges last month and then re-instated them last week.
Military judge Army Col. Patrick Parrish ruled that while the senior Pentagon official may have been “inartful” in her handling of the case, she had not intended to derail the process.
“It’s a sham and that just shows you why this needs to shut down,” Kuebler told reporters following the ruling, saying Crawford’s directive was “overwhelmingly clear.”
Khadr’s lawyers had argued today that the case was essentially pushed back to the beginning and the Toronto-born captive must be arraigned once again.
Prosecutors countered that the legal measure was taken only because the members of the potential jury pool had retired and Crawford needed to assign new military members — an argument Parrish upheld.
Following Parrish’s ruling, Khadr’s lawyers asked for another delay, arguing that they still did not have access to the evidence they needed to start the hearings.
Prosecutors dismissed the argument as a last-ditch effort to stall the process.
Parrish will decide following the hearings this week what evidence can be used at Khadr’s trial. The military commission rules allow evidence gleaned under “coercive” measures but not under torture.