March 9, 2015
The Government of Canada has settled a lawsuit with Benamar Benatta, an Algerian refugee and aerospace engineer who was falsely labelled a terrorist suspect by Canadian immigration officials and unlawfully transferred over the U.S. border to FBI agents in the middle of the night on September 12, 2001. The transfer was carried out without any legal process whatsoever and has been described by experts as an example of “extraordinary rendition” by Canada. Completely innocent, Mr Benatta would spend the next five years in U.S. jails before being allowed to return to Canada in 2006 and renew his refugee claim. He was accepted as a convention refugee in 2007 and became a Canadian citizen in 2014.
During his time in U.S. prisons, Mr Benatta was seriously abused and assaulted by guards who viewed him as a “high value” suspect in the 911 terrorist attacks. He was regularly beaten, shackled, threatened, kept in solitary confinement, denied food and hygiene products, and subjected to sleep deprivation, all due to erroneous information shared by Canadian officials. FBI officials concluded on November 15, 2001 that Mr Benatta had no involvement in the 911 attacks, but kept him in prison on trumped up immigration charges. When Mr Benatta wrote to Canada from prison to request that he be allowed to return to Canada to renew his refugee claim, Canadian officials wrote back saying they had no record of him.
In 2003, a U.S. judge ordered that all charges be dropped against Mr Benatta and criticized U.S. prosecutors, the FBI, and immigration agents, saying that they had used a “sham” to justify their actions in detaining Mr Benatta. The judge also found that his constitutional rights were violated and wrote, “The defendant in this case undeniably was deprived of his liberty and held in custody under harsh conditions which can be said to be oppressive.”
After the 2003 ruling, Mr Benatta was still held in prison as an illegal alien but his case became a cause célèbre in the U.S., with features by Time magazine, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights took up his case in the U.S., and the Canadian Council for Refugees did the same in Canada. After protracted negotiations between Canadian and U.S. officials, Mr Benatta was allowed to return in Canada on July 20, 2006. He was handed back to Canadian immigration officials in hand cuffs, nearly five years after he had been illegally driven over the U.S. border by Canada.
Mr Benatta was later recognized as a refugee by Canada because he faced persecution in Algeria. At the same time, he demanded an explanation from Canada for his unlawful treatment. Human rights and civil liberties groups called for a public inquiry, but Canada ignored these demands and refused to apologize. With no other option, Mr Benatta commenced his lawsuit in 2007 against Canada, alleging racial profiling, false imprisonment, abuse of process, and violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He also has a lawsuit ongoing in the U.S. courts for his abuse and mistreatment by U.S. officials.
Mr Benatta’s lengthy court battle with Canada was scheduled to culminate in a four week trial in Toronto, starting March 30, 2015. Mr Benatta and the Government of Canada reached an agreement to settle the case on March 5, 2015.
Mr Benatta still suffers from his terrible ordeal but is thankful the case has been resolved. “Canada is a great country but unfortunately there are many examples where Canadian officials have dispensed with human rights in the name of national security,” said Mr Benatta. “People need to understand a terrible injustice was done to me. I was labelled a terrorist because I happened to be Muslim and had been in the air force. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ethnic background. That is racial profiling at its worst. These Canadian officials ruined my life without a second thought, and that is really hard to bear.”
Benamar Benatta was represented by Ottawa law firm Champ & Associates. “No one should have to wait so long for justice but I am very happy for Benamar now that he can start re-building his life,” said his lawyer Paul Champ. “His case is a cautionary tale of the grave consequences on a person’s life when government officials share personal information without properly considering its reliability. There was a series of gross mistakes here, but it all started with officials thinking its o.k. to ignore human rights in order to protect national security. When we abandon our values and principles to fight terror, the terrorists have already won.”
Many organizations supported Mr Benatta’s demand for justice, including the Canadian Council for Refugees, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Amnesty International, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Rideau Institute, and many others.
For more information, or further comments, please contact:
Paul Champ (613-816-2441)