Fact-finder report supports allegations by four Canadians of torture in Syrian prisons

Canada demanded answers from Syria on Thursday after a report supported claims that Ottawa engineer Maher Arar and three other Canadians were severely tortured in Damascus prisons.

Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew called in Syrian Ambassador Jamil Sakr, following the release of the fact-finder's report, which said the four men told credible stories of being physically abused in Damascus prisons.

Pettigrew said he expects Syria to investigate the findings and prosecute the jailers responsible: "These people should be convicted."

The report, prepared by law professor Stephen Toope for the federal inquiry into Arar's case, concludes the Ottawa engineer was repeatedly tortured in Damascus.

Toope believes another Ottawa man, Abdullah Almalki, as well as truck driver Ahmad Abou El-Maati and geologist Muayyed Nureddin, both of Toronto, also suffered serious physical and psychological trauma.

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained at a New York airport in September 2002 on suspicion of being a member of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. U.S. authorities subsequently deported Arar to Syria via Jordan. He denies any involvement in terrorism.

After being released in 2003, Arar made detailed allegations about extensive interrogation, beatings and whippings with electrical cable in grim Syrian prison cells.

In early 2004, the federal government established an inquiry to determine the role Canadian officials played in the case of Arar, who has been deemed innocent of any allegations of terrorist connections.

Arar wants to know whether Canada is complicit in contracting out torture to a country known to use violent methods to extract information from prisoners.

Toope, president of the Montreal-based Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, conducted interviews with several people, including the four former prisoners, and studied classified government documents. The former dean of McGill University's law school was blunt in his findings about Arar's mistreatment.

"I conclude that Mr. Maher Arar was subjected to torture in Syria," he said. "The effects of that experience, and of consequent events and experiences in Canada, have been profoundly negative for Mr. Arar and his family."

The report said Arar has experienced serious psychological effects and severe financial woes. It notes medical assessments have found Arar to suffer from acute post-traumatic stress, depression and mood swings. He kept sensing that bugs were crawling over his body _ a result of living for months in unsanitary conditions.

Arar remains unwilling to fly, even in Canada, for fear his plane might be diverted to the United States. Despite being a highly skilled engineer, he has been unable to find work due to his high-profile case, the report said.

Toope added he was "confident in concluding" that the descriptions of imprisonment offered by the three other men were convincing. He says Almalki, who once worked as an electronics exporter in Ottawa, was "especially badly treated" in Syria.

Almalki and the two other Canadians were arrested in Damascus while on visits, AP reported. V.A.