Wife of man held in Syria asks Chretien to play diplomatic hardball
Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) - The wife of a Canadian being held in Syria without charge and allegedly being tortured made an emotional appeal to Prime Minister Jean Chretien for immediate help Thursday.

Monia Mazigh said the federal government has been supportive during her family's 10-month ordeal but now must play diplomatic hardball with Syria.

"I would like to ask the prime minister to recall the Canadian ambassador to Syria," Mazigh said at a news conference.

"I don't even know if (my husband) is alive or not."

Sources linked to Amnesty International say her husband, Maher Arar, has been beaten with sticks and cables and tortured by electric shocks while in jail.

The international human-rights organization says Canada's patience should be wearing thin by now.

"We clearly state that Canada needs to do more here and use a variety of tactics," said Alex Neve, the group's national secretary general.

"The Canadian government must do this. Basic human rights demand it."

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham would not immediately comply with Mazigh's request to remove Canada's ambassador to Syria.

But Ottawa is "extremely concerned" about allegations of torture and will pressure Syrian officials for an immediate meeting with the prisoner, Graham said in a statement.

Arar, a citizen of Canada and Syria, is accused of having links to al-Qaida.

Chretien has already asked Syria to allow diplomats access to Arar. He was last seen by Canadians in April when two MPs visited the Ottawa engineer and saw him crying.

Canadian officials say they saw no evidence of physical torture during previous visits.

Arar's supporters say those visits with him were closely controlled by Syrian guards.

Citing a tip that Arar was beaten on the soles of his feet, Neve said Canadian officials never had enough access to him to gauge the severity of his punishment.

"I'm sure he wasn't allowed to take off his shoes and socks and put his feet on the table," Neve said.

"Torture is insidious and often invisible."

Arar's supporters are asking that Ottawa take several steps that would put pressure on Syria to release him.

Recalling the ambassador would be a repeat of the diplomatic rebuke taken against Iran following the recent beating death of Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

Other possible measures include:

- Asking American authorities to ask for him back, because U.S. officials had him deported to Syria from New York.

- Demanding immediate resumption of consular visits with Arar, which have not been granted to Canadian authorities since April.

- Insisting that Arar be seen by a doctor, and that all visits with Canadian diplomats be private.

- An immediate phone call from Chretien to the Syrian government. The prime minister wrote a letter two weeks ago but has received no reply.

- Calling in the Syrian ambassador for a scolding.

Arar's supporters also want the RCMP to release all information they have on his arrest in September at Kennedy Airport in New York.

Arar was returning from a family vacation in Syria. It is not yet known whether U.S. officials were acting on a Canadian request when they deported him to his native country.

U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci has said Canada didn't necessarily want Arar back in the country.

Arar had not returned to his native Syria since immigrating to Canada at age 17 in 1988.