Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki, and Muayyed Nureddin are all too familiar with Maher Arar’s ordeal. Like Arar, they too were accused of having links to international terrorism and eventually found themselves in Syrian and Egyptian jails, where they were interrogated and tortured. In a report released recently, retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci found the RCMP and CSIS had indirectly contributed to the mistreatment of the three men by supplying their Syrian and Egyptian counterparts with inaccurate information. Iacobucci specifically criticized the RCMP for referring to Almalki as an “imminent threat” in a letter to Syrian officials, a description he characterized as “inflammatory” and “lacking investigative foundation.” Kerry Pither’s Dark Days presents an often chilling account of the horrors these men survived.
MAY 3, 2002
Abdullah hadn’t been in Syria for fifteen years so he booked a flight on Saudi Arabian Airlines, then called to tell his parents he’d be there at about 4 P.M. on Friday, May 3.
Abdullah’s parents had arranged a special welcome for Abdullah: A woman was waiting at the door of the airplane to take him to the airport’s ornate VIP lounge, where his mother was waiting for him. They embraced, and she introduced him to his cousin, whom he’d not met before. While Abdullah sipped lemonade with his mother, his cousin handed his passport to the VIP lounge staff, who took it to the immigration officials. When one of the officials came to say that airport security wanted to speak with Abdullah, he walked over with his cousin to see what they wanted. They were asked to go into an office.
In the office were three men. Abdullah asked if this had anything to do with his military service. By law, every male in Syria must serve thirty months of military service when they turn eighteen. Abdullah had left Syria when he was sixteen, and his father had since ensured that all of his sons’ military service deferrals were in order so that they could return to Syria without trouble whenever they wanted. That had to be done every five years, and Abdullah’s deferral did not expire until March 2003.
It had nothing to do with military service, the man replied. Abdullah’s cousin started to get angry and asked what was going on. One of the men asked him to leave. He did so, reluctantly.
Another man pulled out a book. “It is recent,” he said. “The report was received from the embassy on April 22, 2002.” Then he led Abdullah into another room. There, two other officials asked him about his family and why he hadn’t been in Syria for so long.
“He is wanted for Branch 235,” one of the officials said. Abdullah asked what that was.
Abdullah had heard of Far’ Falastin but didn’t know its reputation as a house of torture.
Not to worry, the man assured him, it wouldn’t take long.
“They told us to chain you from head to toe, but you don’t look dangerous,” one of them said. But Abdullah didn’t take him seriously. “They weren’t armed and were being so polite with me. I didn’t feel that there was any misunderstanding that I couldn’t resolve,” he says.
Abdullah followed the men out the door to a waiting minibus. It was the shuttle bus that brought the immigration officers to the airport; there were about ten workers on the bus. Abdullah looked out the window and chatted casually with the two men as the bus made its way from the airport into the city. They reassured him again that he wouldn’t be held up for long.
After about thirty minutes, the minibus drove into a compound and stopped outside a gate. Once off the bus, Abdullah’s escorts told him that he’d have to carry his own bags now. Abdullah tipped them anyway for carrying his bags until then, giving them each five hundred liras. As they went through the gates and into a building, Abdullah saw a blindfolded man in the office ahead of them. That’s when he realized Far’ Falastin wasn’t a friendly place. That made him nervous. But he kept his concern to himself, still certain matters would be sorted out soon. By the time it was Abdullah’s turn to go into the office, the blindfolded man had gone. A man behind the desk stood up.
“You are spoiling him,” he said to his escorts.
“Yes, they are,” Abdullah said, smiling.
Looking back now, he says this was the worst way he could have responded. But the old Abdullah—the man standing in that room, smiling—had lived his entire life learning and expecting that as long as he had never done anything wrong and treated others with respect, he would receive that respect in return. All of his memories and experiences of Syria had been good ones. Of course, he says now, like everyone in Syria, he’d heard stories about oppression and torture. But those stories were far removed from his own experience of a childhood entirely devoid of politics. He was a young, successful businessman, brimming with confidence in his ability to resolve problems and negotiate solutions.
“I am an engineer—a problem solver,” Abdullah says. “As the owner of a company that dealt all over the world with people of many cultures, I was used to solving major problems. In my life I dealt with people of all levels of status and power, from poor refugees to United Nations directors to some of the richest of European businessmen. I knew it was pointless to argue with someone who only knew to follow orders. I was focused on speaking with someone in power, hoping to sort things out.”
A guard took him through a door inside the office and into another room with a desk and lockers. He asked Abdullah to empty his pockets, then took Abdullah’s wallet, Palm Pilot, and laptop, writing in a ledger how much money Abdullah had and stamping the entry with Abdullah’s thumbprint.
The guard told him to take what he needed from his bag. “For how long?” Abdullah asked.
He was surprised when the guard told him three days.
Abdullah took out a pair of pants, a pair of underwear, a sarong, socks, a fleece vest, his toothbrush, toothpaste, a handkerchief, and his Tums and Tylenol. The guard was in a hurry. Abdullah wanted to take a towel but couldn’t find it quickly enough.
The guard pulled a rubber blindfold over Abdullah’s eyes. “That made me very worried. But I didn’t let it show. I just wanted to speak to someone in a position of higher authority. There was no sense getting angry with this guard,” Abdullah says. The guard took him into another room. After a few minutes, Abdullah heard many people enter the room.
“You’re here in Syria, you’re not in Canada, you don’t have a lawyer, and you have to speak,” a man said. “Which way would you prefer to be dealt with? The friendly way or the other way?”
“The friendly way,” Abdullah replied.
The man asked someone to get him a chair, then asked Abdullah to explain what he had been planning in Canada, and why the Canadians, Americans, the British, and the whole world were interested in him.
Abdullah started to talk but was interrupted with more questions. Does he know Ibrahym Adam? Does he know Ahmad El Maati? They asked about a third man Abdullah didn’t know. Yes, Abdullah said, he knew Ibrahym; he was asked about him in Canada and thinks he was of interest to investigators because he is a Muslim, and a pilot. Abdullah didn’t recognize the second name at first. Abdullah didn’t know Ahmad well. He had met him once in Ottawa, and maybe once more in Montreal, through Ibrahym. He had talked to him on the phone about a bride for a friend of his.
“You must prefer the non-friendly treatment!” the man yelled. Then it came. A slap, hard, across the face.
Abdullah’s whole world shifted at that moment. For the first time in his adult life, he had no control. His skills, his confidence, his upbringing couldn’t help him now. There was no negotiating with these people. This was a totally different world. “That slap changed everything. He took away my humanity and crushed my dignity,” he says. Now he was shaking, and his heart raced. “My heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest.”
The interrogator insisted Abdullah knew Ahmad, so Abdullah asked him to describe him. He was a big man, an Egyptian, the interrogator said. Abdullah realized he was referring to Ahmad, and said yes, now he realized who was meant. His voice faltered now, not confident, like it had been before the slap. The interrogator ordered Abdullah to take off his jacket, shoes, and socks and to lie on the floor on his stomach. His knees were bent, with his feet in the air. Two or three men started whipping the soles of his feet with cables. “It was like people pouring lava on the soles of my feet,” Abdullah remembers. The men without cables were kicking him. When Abdullah flipped onto his back, he was ordered to lie back on his stomach. Then one of his assailants stood on his head, the other on his back, and took turns whipping his feet and kicking him.
The questions came as hard and fast as the lashings. What was his relationship with Ahmed Said Khadr? Had he sold equipment to al-Qaeda or the Taliban? Had he dealt with Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda? What computer equipment had he sold to them? Abdullah replied that he had not sold to them or dealt with them in any way. “I was still trying to answer in logical ways. I said, ‘Go to my computer and you’ll see what I sell, I don’t sell computers.’”
Every few minutes the men would stop the whipping, pour cold water on his feet and legs, and tell him to stand and jog on the spot. Then they ordered him to the floor again to resume the whipping. “At that time, I had no idea why they did that. Later, the other prisoners told me it was to keep the blood circulating so I could feel the torture.”
Abdullah saw from under his blindfold what they were beating him with. It was a black, double-folded twisted cable. “I told them the truthful answers to the questions, but it didn’t work. Eventually, I got to a point where I broke down and couldn’t take it anymore,” he says.
They asked what his position was in al-Qaeda, then insisted Abdullah was bin Laden’s right-hand man. Abdullah told the interrogators this didn’t make sense: Everyone knew bin Laden’s right-hand man was al-Zawahiri. The interrogators agreed; they had meant to say that he was his left-hand man. To that, Abdullah said yes. He lied, telling them what he knew they wanted to hear—that he knew bin Laden. When asked from when and where, Abdullah said from when he worked on United Nations Development Programme projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The beating stopped and the men left the room. But before long, they came back and accused him of lying: bin Laden had been in the Sudan when Abdullah was in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Abdullah told them that he had never met bin Laden and had only said it to stop the torture. But the beating started again, the interrogators saying that now it was falaka (beating on the soles), next it would be dulab (the tire), and then the chair, electric shock, and nail pulling. They threatened to bring in his parents to be interrogated. After a while, Abdullah was no longer able to speak—his mouth wasn’t working. He lost consciousness. He woke up to find someone taking his blood pressure.
They were done with the torture for the day.
He was dragged back to the room where his belongings were. When the blindfold was pulled off, he looked down. His feet and ankles were covered in blood. The skin was ripped off the inside of his right ankle. The big toenail on his right foot had turned sideways.
The men ordered him to strip. They searched him, then let him dress. They took the shoelaces and insoles out of his shoes. His feet were so swollen it took a long time to get his feet into the shoes, even without the insoles and laces. Abdullah was then made to pick up the things he’d taken from his bags and carry them down a flight of stairs. Every step was painful, and Abdullah moved very slowly.
One of the men pushed him into a small cell. “You don’t talk. If you want something, knock on the door. No one should hear your voice or know you are here,” he said, closing the door and sliding the lock shut.
Abdullah pried off his shoes. His bloodied feet stuck to the blanket. He wrapped himself in his suit jacket and curled up on his side on the floor.
In a few hours, his interrogators came back and dragged him upstairs for more interrogation. This time, they told him, they were giving him a break from the torture, but if he didn’t talk, tomorrow they’d use the dulab (tire) and then the chair and electric shock. They wanted him to talk about his relationship to Khadr, to say Khadr was his link to al-Qaeda. That interrogation lasted about eighteen hours.
They came for him again on the morning of the third day. He was taken from his cell to an interrogation room, blindfolded, and told to strip down to his underwear. They brought the dulab into the room—the car tire used to completely immobilize victims for torture—and told Abdullah to sit on the floor. They pulled his legs through the centre of the tire so that the backs of his knees were against the inside rim—they bent his upper body forward and forced his head through the tire—now his head and lower legs protruded out of one side of the tire, his shoulders, arms, and torso out the other side. He was wedged in so tightly that the inside of the tire pressed hard against the back of his neck and knees. The men kicked him until the tire was parallel to the floor, his head and lower legs forced upward, all his weight pressing on his lower spine. They started whipping him with the cable, aiming for the soles of his feet, his head, and his genitals.
While some of the men lashed at him, another asked the questions and wrote down his answers. He was questioned again about Khadr and asked about all the Muslims he knew in Canada. “You must be hiding something because we were told you are wanted in Canada. Authorities everywhere are looking for you!”
Again he was questioned about Ibrahym and told that his friend had been plotting another 9/11.
“I told them he would never do such a thing. If he wanted to crash a plane into a building he would not have worked so hard to get his licence. Check with the Canadians, [I said,] as far as I know he has never been arrested, or charged with anything. But I finally broke down and lied and told them what they wanted to hear, that he had a jihadi spirit.”
Abdullah tried to reason with the men. “But it didn’t matter what I said. Nothing would stop the beating. If I lied, they beat me. If I told the truth, they beat me. So I was telling the truth after because it didn’t matter what I was saying. Whenever I lied or confessed to something, I did tell them after that I lied because they were torturing me.”
After several hours, the beating stopped, but Abdullah was kept in the tire for about an hour before he was taken out and had his blood pressure checked.
He wasn’t able to eat much of the food he was brought. He was shivering uncontrollably and didn’t have much control of his body from the waist down. He could barely move his arms and hands. “They asked me to eat an orange, but it burned the top of my mouth where I think the skin was gone from screaming.”
Abdullah has visible scars. The nail on one of his big toes is deformed from the falaka—the beating on his feet. He has scars on his right ankle from where the flesh tore away and on his right wrist from being suspended. It took years to diagnose the source of some his most debilitating pain. Now he’s in physiotherapy for soft-tissue injuries. After four years of working to regain his strength and stamina, he was thrilled to be able to play basketball with his kids for about five minutes. His wife, Khuzaimah, is constantly reminding the children about their father’s physical limitations. “What they hear from my wife is, ‘Your father can’t do this because he has a fragile body. He needs a place to rest comfortably.’ I have a fragile body. This is the reality,” Abdullah says.
Abdullah remembers what happened when and is a confident public speaker. He thinks that talking about what he endured helps him cope. He has assembled an hour-and-a- half-long PowerPoint presentation documenting his experience, which he takes to church halls, schools, and conferences. But while he is describing being stuffed into a tire or suspended and whipped, his face is often expressionless. He shows very little emotion and has had to work hard to remember to use the words I or me instead of talking about his experience in the third person. Dr. George Fraser of the Ottawa Trauma and Anxiety Clinic says Abdullah is suffering from major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Abdullah’s “coping strategy of blocking out emotional feelings and emotions … in order to cope with his isolation” has made reconnecting with his family and friends difficult.
Abdullah finds it hard to trust people, especially officials with government and police, and says he feels socially isolated. “Some people have made it clear they don’t want to associate with me. They know me, I did them favours in the past, but now they don’t want to know me … and people who know me walk by as if they don’t know me. But not everyone is afraid. Others who I never thought would be supportive are.” He worries most about the impact on his wife and children. “I am learning how to be a father again, because for two years I wasn’t a father. I’m not patient enough with the kids, but it’s better now than before.” He credits his wife, Khuzaimah, for her strength. “I don’t know how she managed, but she walked a fine line and managed to keep the whole family together.” Since he was released, Abdullah and Khuzaimah have had their sixth child, another boy, who is very close to Abdullah. It has been hardest to bond, Abdullah says, with his second-youngest son, who spent all but the first weeks of his first two and a half years without his father. “For all the kids, I missed two years, which, for each of them was important in different ways to learn something from me. The youngest ones, for bonding. The older ones, for exploring.”
Abdullah remembers how much of what he calls his “real education” came from watching his father and uncle run their businesses. “My kids do not have this. Now they’re learning what? They’re learning about torture. They’re learning about a father who is broken.”
Abdullah has flashbacks and nightmares. His are triggered by things like the sight of a car tire, the size and layout of stalls in some public washrooms, the sound of screaming on the television, and some insects. He has trouble reading and concentrating, and sometimes forgets how to say words. “I can remember the word but can’t say it. There are certain words that just do not come anymore.”
Abdullah wonders how he’ll ever work again. “Engineering and business are part of me. I loved my company because I was able to combine both. Now not being able to do either, part of me is gone, and I constantly feel its absence.” He can’t sit in front of a computer for more than an hour without experiencing intense back pain. Even standing for a half hour hurts. And his concentration is impaired. “Combine that with being smeared. Why would anyone hire me? If I want to start a business, how could I? Is there someone who can tell me how I could start a business again? I would not do business with me, and I would excuse anyone who would not want to do business with me. If they buy products from me, they could lose their money or their reputation or get accused of links to terrorism.”
From: Dark Days by Kerry Pither. Copyright (C) Kerry Pither 2008. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).