Background Briefing

United States

Maher Arar (Update)47

Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian national, was apprehended in September 2002 by US authorities while in transit from Tunisia through New York to Canada, where he had lived for many years. After holding Arar for nearly two weeks, and failing to provide him with the ability to effectively challenge his detention or imminent transfer, US immigration authorities flew Arar to Jordan, where he was then driven across the border and handed over to Syrian authorities. The transfer was effected despite Arar’s repeated statements to US officials that he would be tortured in Syria and his numerous requests to be sent home to Canada.

The US government has claimed that prior to Arar’s transfer it obtained diplomatic assurances from the Syrian government that Arar would not be subjected to torture upon return.

Arar was released without charge from Syrian custody 10 months later and credibly alleged that he was beaten by security officers in Jordan and tortured repeatedly, often with cables and electrical cords, during his confinement in a Syrian prison.48 The US government has yet to explain why it sent Arar to Syria rather than to Canada, or why it believed Syrian assurances to be credible in light of the government’s well documented record of torture. A lawsuit lodged by Arar in US federal court claiming that the US government violated his human rights was dismissed in February 2006 after the court ruled that adjudicating the case could interfere with the government’s ability to conduct foreign affairs.49 An appeal is pending.  

The Canadian government established an independent commission of inquiry (Arar Commission) in February 2004 to investigate the role of Canadian police and security agencies in Arar’s apprehension and transfer by the US government.50 The Arar Commission released its report on the actions of Canadian officials on September 18, 2006.  The report unequivocally stated that there was no evidence that Arar committed any offense or that he engaged in any activities that threatened the security of Canada.  It concluded Arar was the innocent victim of inaccurate and misleading information supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to US authorities, who appeared to have relied on this information in deciding to illegally remove Arar to Syria.

According to the removal order, US authorities were satisfied that Arar’s deportation complied with the US government’s obligations under the Convention against Torture.51 The order itself did not include language about the US securing diplomatic assurances against torture from Syria;52 the US made that claim only after Arar was released and said that he was tortured, an allegation that a separate expert report commissioned by the Arar Commission confirmed.53  Indeed, during Arar’s imprisonment in Syria, Canadian consular officials received prolonged assurances that Arar was being well treated.  All such assurances from Syria were false.  The Arar Commission report confirmed that Arar “lived through a nightmare” of torture while imprisoned in Syria, with profound, devastating, and continuing effects on his physical, psychological, social, and economic well-being.  On the issue of diplomatic assurances and rendition policy in the US, the commission drew heavily on expert testimony from Human Rights Watch, and acknowledged that Arar’s case is a clear example of the problems inherent in relying on such assurances.54

Bekhzod Yusupov

The US government has claimed that it sought assurances from the Uzbek authorities in an effort to deport Bekhzod Yusupov, an Uzbek national who has been in detention in the US for over four years.

In August 2005 the US Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) held that Bekhzod Yusupov was entitled to have his removal to Uzbekistan deferred because of the US government’s obligations under the Convention against Torture not to send anyone to a place where he or she faces the risk of torture. Yusupov is an “independent Muslim” (a person who practices Islam outside state institutions and guidelines). Recognizing that the record contained credible evidence of the Uzbek government’s routine use of torture, especially against persons imprisoned for “religious extremism,” the BIA held that Yusupov “more likely than not” would be tortured if returned to Uzbekistan.55  

Bekhzod Yusupov is currently being detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Pike County Prison in Milford, Pennsylvania.  In a July 19, 2006 “Decision to Continue Detention” letter, ICE informed Yusupov that it was pursuing assurances from the government of Uzbekistan that he would not be tortured upon return.56  The letter concluded that there was a significant likelihood of Yusupov’s removal in the reasonably foreseeable future in light of the attempt to secure such assurances, and that he would remain in detention until such time as the assurances were received. 

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU wrote jointly to US officials in September 2006 expressing dismay that the government would seek diplomatic assurances from Uzbekistan, a state that is notorious for practicing systematic torture.57 The letter noted that Uzbek law enforcement officers continued to round up and torture independent Muslims like Yusupov, and that another independent Muslim, Imam Ruhiddin Fakhruddinov, was detained and physically abused in custody after Kazakh authorities forcibly and illegally returned him from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan in November 2005.  The letter also stated that “[i]t is routine for the Uzbek authorities to charge and detain political and religious dissidents (including refugees who fled the country after the May 2005 massacre in Andijan) with supporting ‘illegal religious movements.’ Recognizing the high risk of torture and other ill-treatment faced by dissidents charged with supporting ‘illegal religious movements’ in Uzbekistan, the US State Department has urged other governments not to give in to Uzbek demands to repatriate such dissidents. Nevertheless, ICE claims that it is seeking diplomatic assurances to accomplish repatriation in Mr. Yusupov’s case.”58

In October 2006 the State Department informed Yusupov that it was no longer seeking assurances from Uzbekistan, but was looking to resettle him in a third country, possibly Russia.  The Yusupov case has given rise to concerns that the US government may be using the excuse of seeking diplomatic assurances to keep people detained longer than is currently permitted under US immigration law. By seeking assurances, or claiming that it is seeking assurances, the US government can continue to detain people who have been deemed worthy of protection—and thus would normally be eligible for release after a maximum time period—on the basis that they can be removed in the near future upon receipt of diplomatic assurances against torture.

47 Human Rights Watch, Still at Risk, pp. 33-36; “Empty Promises, pp. 16-17; and Report to the Canadian Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian officials in Relation to Maher Arar, June 7, 2005,

48 Statement by Maher Arar to CanWest News Service, November 4, 2003.

49 United States District Court, Eastern District of New York, Arar v. Ashcroft, Civil Action No. CV-04-0249, (accessed January 1, 2007). See also Center for Constitutional Rights webpages on the Arar case at (accessed January 1, 2007).

50 Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, February 2004, (accessed January 1, 2007).

51 Julia Hall, counsel in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, provided expert testimony on June 7, 2005, to the Arar Commission on the UN Convention against Torture and the US government’s reliance upon diplomatic assurances to transfer Arar. See transcript at (accessed January 1, 2007). During her testimony, Hall was presented with a copy of Arar’s removal order. The order stated that his removal complied with the US government’s obligations under article 3 (nonrefoulement) of the Convention against Torture.   

52 Ibid.

53 Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, “Report of Professor Stephen J. Toope, Fact Finder,” October 14, 2005, (accessed January 1, 2007). Toope concluded that Maher Arar was subjected to torture in Syria and that the effects of the abuse have had “profoundly negative” consequences for Arar and his family. Ibid., p. 23.

54 Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, “Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar,” September 18, 2006,,  p. 176, fn. 19 (accessed January 1, 2007).

55 US Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals,  In re Bekhzod Yusupov, A79 729 905-York, August 26, 2005, p. 3.

56 Letter from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Detention and Removal Operations to Bekhzod Yusupov (A79 729 905), “Decision to Continue Detention,” July 19, 2006, p. 1, on file with Human Rights Watch.

57 Letter from Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union to Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, US Department of State, September 7, 2006, p. 2, on file with Human Rights Watch.

58 Ibid.