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Court Weighs 'Extraordinary Rendition' Case

A federal appeals court in New York heard arguments Tuesday in the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was flown from the U.S. to Syria for interrogation in a case of "extraordinary rendition."

Arar wants to sue the U.S. government for violating his constitutional right to due process — something he has not been permitted to do thus far because the Bush administration has said to do so would imperil national security.

The facts of the case are not in dispute. In 2002, U.S. authorities detained Arar at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. He was suspected of terrorism ties and was sent to Syria for interrogation. Arar spent 10 months there in a cell he called the "grave." He says he was tortured.

Eventually, Arar was allowed to return to Canada and a Canadian commission cleared him of all charges. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has even said mistakes were made in Arar's case.

National Security Grounds

In court Tuesday, one of the 12 appeals court judges present grilled government attorney Jonathan Cohn on the government's national security contention.

"So the minute the executive raises the specter of foreign policy, national security, it is the government's position that is a license to torture anyone?" Judge Sonia Sotomayor said. "License meaning you can do so without any financial consequence. That's your position?"

"No. That is not our position," Cohn countered. "That is emphatically not our position."

Cohn said he thought the court should wait until Congress acted and found a new way to address these kinds of cases so that they could be tried but still protect national security interests. This was not a normal case, he said, because state secrets were at its root.

So far, two courts have blocked Arar's case from being heard, siding with the Bush administration that it could unintentionally reveal things that would hurt national security. That's why Tuesday's hearing was important and why all 12 judges on the court heard the arguments.

Something Fundamental At Stake

Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights argued on behalf of Arar. She said the judges were weighing something fundamental.

"What's at stake is whether our courts will uphold the law," LaHood said. "Whether they will say that, 'Yes, we will enforce the laws against torture in this country, we will enforce the laws that permit people to come into court, and we will uphold human rights.'"

While this was Arar's big day in court, he couldn't attend the hearing because he is still on a no-fly list and can't come to the United States.

Arar told NPR's Morning Edition that he was pursuing the case because no U.S. officials had been held to account for violating his human rights.

"This needs to stop," he said. "Not only is it destroying the lives of innocent people, but it's not doing any good to the image of the United States."

It is unclear when the judges are expected to rule on his case.

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Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.