Abdullah Almalki came to appreciate when the door to his cell was slammed shut. Despite the rats, the total darkness, the cockroaches and blood-sucking insects, and the confined space – the cell was an arm's length plus four fingers wide – being in the "grave" meant he was not under the interrogator's mercy. It meant he was not subject to beatings on the soles of his feet with an electric cable. And it meant he did not have to keep asking himself whether to falsely confess to being Osama bin Laden's left-hand man to stop the torture.
Early summer, 1998 – It began with a seemingly ordinary meeting with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Syrian-born Almalki had immigrated to Canada with his family in his teens, graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Carleton University in Ottawa and, after some time abroad working on a United Nations-sponsored development project, started his own business importing and exporting electronic equipment. A Canadian citizen since 1991, he had never had any problems with police or security officials.
One day that summer, he received a voice message from a CSIS agent who wanted to meet him. When he asked, Almalki was told the agency normally conducts interviews with people at random. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, that call marked the beginning of his nightmare: over a period of six years he was harassed, driven out of Canada and detained, interrogated and tortured abroad at the behest of the Canadian government.
Over coffee, in a second meeting with CSIS, agent Theresa Sullivan asked Almalki about Ahmad Said Khadr, a former regional director of a Canadian NGO Almalki had worked with in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 1990s. About a decade later, Khadr became a well-known figure in Canada because of his alleged connections to al-Qaeda's inner circle. Almalki had worked with the Canadian NGO on a UN Development Program (UNDP) reconstruction project in Afghanistan. Sullivan also asked about Osama bin Laden, and whether Almalki's company had sold equipment to the Taliban. He said no. The meeting ended pleasantly.
But the signs of trouble became more and more evident. Shipments to his company were continually opened and resealed by customs agents. He was stopped on his way back from a business trip and his luggage was thoroughly checked. CSIS asked a Muslim acquaintance of his to visit Almalki’s house and check for bomb-making materials. It was then that Almalki realized that something was seriously wrong.
A month after 9/11, Almalki and his family began being followed. By November 2001, as many as six vehicles followed him everywhere they went. His wife and children were even followed into the children's section of the public library.
This type of monitoring has been termed "conspicuous surveillance." It is meant to drive people right out of the country in frustration. Once they leave, seemingly of their own volition, a whole new – and less strict – set of rules apply.
Leaving the country is exactly what Almalki did. Unable to withstand the constant harassment, he and his family visited his ailing mother-in-law in Malaysia in November 2001. But the harassment followed them right to Kuala Lumpur. The luggage, holding their desktop computer, arrived a week late. They would later realize RCMP officials had illegally seized it and copied the hard drive. He was detained by Malaysian officials, who asked about his religiosity, his business and when he would be returning to Canada. The Malaysians told him not to blame them – it was the Canadian government, they said, who had asked them to question him. Finding that he had done nothing wrong, they released him within a few hours.
January 2002 – Back in Canada, the RCMP was not convinced of his innocence. While Almalki visited relatives, went sight-seeing and took his children swimming in Malaysia, the RCMP were emptying drawers, taking apart light fixtures and confiscating videos, tax documents, computer games and filing cabinets in his parents' home in Ottawa where he also resided. They also searched Almalki’s office and other locations in the city. They took two of his brothers in for questioning, and told one of them that their brother's company had sold equipment to companies in Pakistan which had been resold to the Pakistani army and had eventually ended up in the hands of the Taliban. Another RCMP officer told a family member that Almalki was an al-Qaeda member and asked if Almalki might go to Syria. Information gathered from these searches was shared with foreign and domestic agencies, according to testimony at the public inquiry into the case of another Canadian citizen who was tortured abroad, Maher Arar.
There is evidence to suggest the information used to obtain the search warrants came, in part, from yet another Canadian who was being tortured in Syria, Ahmad Elmaati. The judge, who approved the warrants, was not informed of this, according to findings from the Arar Inquiry.
Things got progressively worse. In April 2002, he left for Singapore and Saudi Arabia on business. The trip was to last one month. As usual, he kissed each of his five young children goodbye – the youngest just a few weeks old – and asked them to take care of their mother while he was gone. That was the last time he would see his family for over two years.
During his time in the Middle East, he decided to make an unscheduled trip to Syria to visit his more than 90-year-old grandmother who was also ill. He had not been back since he had left as a teenager. When he arrived in the Syrian capital, Damascus, his mother welcomed him at the airport. They had a brief embrace before he was once again asked to step aside and speak to an airport security officer. Only this time, the consequence of his compliance, with what was by then an all-too-familiar request, was much worse than he could have ever imagined.
For two years, Almalki existed in an alternate reality – one where he did not think of his family (it was too painful to do so); a reality where he was no longer an unknown engineer from a small suburb of the Canadian capital, but rather accused of being a top al-Qaeda member; a reality where he could tell the type of torture being administered by the screams of fellow detainees; a reality where pain began to eat away at his mental faculties; where he believed one more lash would kill him.
Almalki was taken to an office at the airport where he overheard an officer saying that a report was received from "the embassy" on April 22. It was the first sign that Canada was involved in his detention in Syria.
He overheard men saying he was wanted at "branch number 235." He was escorted by two officers to a minibus and told that he probably would not be long. They even told him to exchange some of his money for Syrian currency so that he could take a taxi back when he was finished.
After being driven through Damascus, Almalki found himself in the Palestine Branch of the Syrian Military Intelligence system, known in Arabic as Far Falestin. It was close to sunset when Almalki was blindfolded. And as the darkness set outside, it did for Almalki too: he would not be in broad daylight again for sixty-five days.
It is hard to describe what goes through a man's mind when he finds himself blindfolded in a jail on the other side of the world.
But Almalki told himself not to worry and tried to stay focused. Once he spoke with someone, it would all be cleared up, he thought.
Then it came: A slap across the face so hard, so unexpected that it shook him some 45 degrees. But more than the physical pain, "it was a slap that crushed my dignity, took away my humanity," Almalki describes. And it set the tone for the rest of the time he would spend in the basement of a Syrian prison where people are not supposed to know you exist.
May 3, 2002 – The first day, the beatings lasted about seven hours. Almalki was told to take off his jacket, shoes and socks. He was told to lie on the cut-stone tiled floor, face down, with his hands behind his back and the soles of his feet facing upwards. Then at least five people took turns whipping the soles of his feet with a cable, and kicking him with their wooden-soled shoes. This form of torture was known as the falka, but Almalki remembers it as the torture method that felt like lava was being poured onto his feet.
"Have you ever sold equipment to al-Qaeda or the Taliban? … Have you ever met or dealt with Osama bin Laden?" the interrogators repeated over and over as they beat him. They stopped only to pour cold water on his feet and ask him to get up and jog on the spot. This technique was to ensure he never lost feeling in his feet – so that he would continue to feel the pain. They asked him why the Canadians, the Americans and the British were interested in him. They also asked him what he was planning to do in Canada.
When he could no longer handle the severe torture, he falsely confessed to being Osama bin Laden’s “left-hand man” and lied that he had met him during his time in Afghanistan. This put a momentary end to the beating. But the Syrians soon found out he was not telling the truth, as bin Laden had not been in the same country as Almalki when he claimed to have met him.
And so the torture continued.
This was to be the order, he was told: First the falka, then the tire, then electric shocks, then nail pulling, if he did not talk. By the end of the first day, Almalki had received more than 1000 lashes with the cable, his torturers told him months later – more than any other prisoner. His legs were covered in blood. It hurt to sit, to stand, to lie down. Everything hurt.
"I killed my emotions for two years," he recalls. "I purposely tried to have no emotions. According to one psychologist, this may be what allowed me to survive. But the problem, now, is retraining my mind and… everything to get me to be a normal person."
On Day 2, Almalki was taken to his cell – what would become his home for the next 482 days. It was small, dark and felt colder than any Canadian winter. The blood on his feet stuck to the blanket on the floor of the cell, which itself was old, wet, mouldy and full of lice and other blood-sucking insects. Occasionally, cats urinated on him from the vent in the ceiling. Rats scurried across the floor and cockroaches were all around.
Day 2 consisted of 18 hours of interrogation. He was told that they were giving him a break that day.
On the third day of detention at Far Falestin, Almalki was told to strip to his boxers and squeeze himself into a car tire, so that his neck rested against the inner rim of the tire and his legs protruded through the hole, his body literally folded in half. While in that position, he was beaten on the soles of his feet, his head and his genitals.
He was asked again about Ahmad Said Khadr and other Muslim men he knew in Canada. He was asked about a Canadian Muslim pilot they claimed was plotting a second 9/11. They told him he must be hiding something because, according to their information, he was wanted in Canada and had fled Canada for that reason. No matter how many times he repeated the only answers he knew, the beatings continued.
Hours later, Almalki was taken out of the tire. His hands shook uncontrollably. He was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. When they brought him lunch, he had trouble eating it. The acid from the orange burned the inside of his mouth, which felt raw from screaming.
As time went on, his treatment improved and his interrogations decreased in length to six to eight hours a day. He spent the rest of the time in his cell.
Three times a day, he was permitted a two-minute session in the washroom, where he washed his food containers, filled up his water bottle, emptied his urine bottle and used the toilet. Sometimes, water was only available between 7:00 a.m. and noon. When he got diarrhea, which happened frequently because of the food he was given, he was not able to use the washroom when he needed to.
May 31, 2002 – While Almalki continued to suffer in Syria, RCMP officers responsible for Project A-O Canada (the project investigating Almalki and other Canadians) were in the United States trying to convince the FBI of the alleged danger Almalki posed. In a PowerPoint presentation, they placed Almalki at the centre of an al-Qaeda diagram. The Americans reviewed the evidence presented by the Canadians, but were not convinced. According to the Arar report addendum, "Project A-O Canada was not successful in convincing the FBI to institute a criminal investigation."
But it appears the RCMP continued to try to engage the Americans. In his personal notes dated June 3rd, RCMP Sergeant Rick Flewelling wrote: “It would appear that we will have to bring the Americans on board. Future meeting will be needed to determine the next step and how to plan it.”
June 21, 2002 – In other personal notes from a RCMP meeting (documented by the Arar Inquiry), Flewelling wrote: "Question: Intel versus criminal. Do we want him back. Do we have enough to charge. A Division would really want him back for the purpose of laying charges under Bill C-36. The question is really how Syria is going to play." In the now-public document, the name of the person is redacted, but we can reasonably assume this refers to Almalki. He was the only person of interest to Project A-O Canada in Syrian custody at the time.
This evidence suggests that in its cooperation with the Syrian authorities, the Canadian government was debating whether to leave Almalki in Syria for intelligence purposes or bring him back to Canada to charge him.
The note continued: "We may have to take and be satisfied with the prevention side of the mandate and hope that additional information can be gleaned with respect to: his plan, [other] plans we are not aware of, other individuals or groups, etc."
Did "the prevention side of the mandate" mean dealing with any potential national security issues related to Almalki by illegally leaving him jailed in Syria and continuing to try to get information out of him through the Syrian interrogators and torturers? Also, was this because the RCMP had nothing to charge him with? Was the RCMP trying to get the Syrians to force a confession out of him so that they could charge him in Canada?
Abdullah was now being asked about trade names he had tried to register in Canada – names that could only have come from company records seized by the RCMP when his office was searched in January – as well as addresses to which his company had shipped products. He was also asked about names of Canadians.
By mid-June 2002, having found nothing against him, the Syrian interrogators told Almalki they had decided to release him. They began working on the documents for his release. They allowed him a family visit and 20 minutes in an outdoor courtyard where he saw daylight for the first time in two months. It was the first time he stopped to truly appreciate the beauty of the sky.
But behind the scenes, the Canadian ambassador to Syria had arranged a meeting for an RCMP liaison officer (LO) who travelled to Syria to meet with the head of the Syrian Military Intelligence. According to revelations made at the Arar Inquiry, the RCMP officer was, in July, working to "broker a deal," and in the RCMP liaison officer’s opinion, Almalki would "never be returning to Canada."
Following that meeting, notes from an RCMP meeting in Ottawa on July 16 show that Canada decided to “further share project info[rmation] with the Syrian authorities.”
The next day, in Syria, Almalki's treatment worsened abruptly. Instead of being released, a new interrogation and round of severe torture began.
He was brought to an interrogation room, blindfolded and the interrogator started slapping him and repeating, “Why did you lie to us?”
The next morning, the interrogators made Almalki stand on one leg with his arms up for hours.
"I have orders to torture you until you need to be hospitalized," the head of the investigation team told him at one point.
Then, the interrogators took turns slapping and punching Almalki on the head until he heard a loud tone in his ear. Blood started coming out of his mouth and he lost balance.
At that point, they told him to lie on the floor face down, the same way as the first day, and they tortured him using falka and whipped him with an electric cable.
When he was sent back to his cell at night, he could not rest – he felt like an animal waiting to be slaughtered. The next morning, a new torture technique was introduced, the shabah, in which Almalki was suspended from his wrists and beaten until he could no longer utter a single word.
Words were of no use anyway. When he told them the truth, they did not believe him. When he made up a name of a training camp to please them, they quickly discovered his fabrication and started a new round of beatings.
He was told, had it not been for a new report they had received, he would have been released.
Sometime in the late summer of 2002, Syrian interrogators showed Almalki part of a document they said they had received from Canada, alluding to a search of his parents' home in Ottawa. The report said the search had turned up weapons and evidence that he was a bin Laden aid. The only “weapons” in the home were kitchen knives, and until this day, no proof has been produced linking him to bin Laden.
On Aug. 24, 2002, Almalki was tortured using falka. The next morning, he was taken to another intelligence branch where he was interrogated by Malaysian interrogators who had information that must have originated from Canada.
When Almalki was taken back to Far Falestin, he told the interrogator that the Malaysians seemed to have interrogated him on behalf of the Canadians. The interrogator agreed that it might be possible and told Almalki that the Canadians had requested to interrogate Almalki directly, but their request had not yet been approved.
Twenty-four hours a day, Almalki thought of nothing, but what was happening to him. He trained his mind to remember every detail possible. On a small piece of Kleenex, he sketched a calendar with a pen he found in his pants. The guard must have missed it on the first day. It was there that he kept a record of all that was happening to him. He knew he would need it later on.
Syria is one of those places well-known for its longstanding record of human rights abuses. Both the intelligence branch of the Canadian department of Foreign Affairs, and the Canadian ambassador to Syria had warned the RCMP that sending interrogation questions for Almalki in Syria might result in torture. "The RCMP are aware of this, but have nonetheless decided to send their request," wrote Foreign Affairs official Jonathan Solomon, in an internal memo dated Oct. 10, 2002.
On Nov. 24, 2002, Almalki was put through a new round of interrogation and threatened with torture for a couple of weeks. One day, he saw the cover page of the report from which he was questioned. It said “meeting with Canadian delegation on Nov. 24th.” The Arar report confirmed that a CSIS delegation went to Syria, at that time, and had meetings with the Syrian Military Intelligence.
On Jan. 15, 2003, the Canadian ambassador, Franco Pillarella, handed yet another set of questions to the Canadian Consul, Leo Martel, who personally delivered them to his contact in the military intelligence branch of the Syrian prison. The next day, Almalki was interrogated on these questions. During this interrogation, the interrogator frequently went and tortured other detainees whose rooms were around Almalki’s interrogation room.
After 483 days in Far Falestin, Almalki signed some papers. He was not allowed to read them all. He was then transferred to another military intelligence branch. After ten days of being kept in an overcrowded, underground room, he was transferred to the Sydnaya political prisoners’ jail.
Almalki was tortured when he arrived there, along with two other people. He was not able to bear looking at the torture of the others. Then, he was placed in solitary confinement in an underground cell for ten days. Afterwards, he was transferred to a communal section in the jail, where he stayed with other political prisoners. They tried to take care of him and his body, which had become so fragile after living underground for more than 500 days.
One day, while Almalki was fulfilling the daily task of carrying water containers to his jail section, a guard congratulated him on being transferred from solitary confinement. Almalki replied with a smile that caused another guard to beat him. Then, other guards tortured him by restraining him with a car tire and a metal bar and whipping him with a “tank belt.” After examining his wounds, Almalki concluded the “tank belt” must have had small nails on it, for it had torn his skin and caused him to bleed.
As other Canadians, tortured in Syria, returned to Canada, word about what was happening in the basement of the Palestine Branch started to become public.
Soon after his return to Canada, Arar told his story publicly for the first time in November 2003. He spoke of having seen Almalki in the prison they shared and about how badly he had been treated. He also repeated this in private meetings he had with Canadian officials. Elmaati, who had been transferred to an Egyptian jail, informed consular officials in August 2002 that he, too, had been tortured in Syria. Later, Muayyed Nureddin, another Canadian citizen who was detained and tortured at the Palestine Branch in Syria, would also corroborate their stories.
Yet none of this testimony seemed to have deterred the Canadian government from sharing information with the Syrians. In February 2004, Almalki was questioned about a Canadian family based on a new report the Syrians said they had received from the Canadians.
Nor did the testimony of torture induce the Canadian government to ask after the well-being of its citizen still being detained abroad. Never once did Almalki receive a consular visit. To the contrary, consular officials visited Arar to check on his well-being on the very same trips in which they requested RCMP direct access to interrogate Almalki, well aware of the torture risks in Syrian Military Intelligence jails.
During a number of family visits, Almalki told his relatives that he was being tortured.
Back in Ottawa, his brothers tried to obtain letters from the RCMP and Ottawa police explaining that there were no criminal charges outstanding against him in Canada – all that the Syrians demanded for his release. For almost half a year, both agencies refused, until finally, after a public media campaign launched by one of Almalki's brothers, the RCMP agreed to write a letter confirming that there was no outstanding arrest warrant against him in Canada.
Almost immediately, Almalki's parents flew to Syria with that letter in hand and presented it to the Syrian authorities.
On March 10, 2004, after more than 22 months of illegal imprisonment, Almalki was released on bail. Eight days later, limping so badly that he could be identified from afar, he went to the Canadian embassy. Almalki personally told the consul, Leo Martel, that he had been tortured in prison. Martel said he was surprised to see him released.
In April, Almalki was called back to the Palestine Branch by Syrian interrogators and questioned again based on a new report. "The Canadians are not happy," he was told. "They want you back in jail."
In July, he was cleared of all charges by one of the world's harshest courts, the State Supreme Security Court of Syria; however, the judge said that he should be handed immediately to military police to do his military service. But once the judge got off of the bench, one of the three court members ordered the military police not to take Almalki.
Almalki had a legal military deferral, as a son of Syrian expatriates, which expired about a year into his illegal imprisonment.
Mr. Dan McTeage’s office, the MP responsible for Canadians detained abroad, advised Almalki, through his brothers, to stay in the embassy until his military services issue was sorted out. Almalki and his family were worried that forced enlistment would kill him in his physical state.
“Not in my lifetime,” was the consul’s response. When 4:30 p.m. rolled around, Almalki was asked to leave. It was closing time.
When Almalki’s wife and five children met him in Syria, after more than two years apart, his children did not even recognize him. Not only had he lost much weight during his detention, some of his children were so young when he had left that "I was standing there in front of them and they didn't have a clue who I was."
And so the transition to normal family life has been difficult. His business and reputation have been destroyed. After forcefully shutting down his brain for almost 500 days to avoid thinking about his situation and worrying about his family, he is struggling to fully recover his mental capacities. But slowly, things are starting to improve.
"The psychologist's assessment was that I have no emotions. I live in one box and every human being lives in another box,” Almalki remembers.
“I still live in that box, but the windows are a little bit open now."
July 28, 2004, Almalki left Syria for good, setting foot in Canada a few days later.
In December 2006, the Canadian government announced an inquiry into the role Canadian officials played in the detention of Almalki and two other Canadian men with similar stories. That inquiry has been conducted almost exclusively in secret. Neither Almalki – nor his lawyers – are allowed to attend, see a single document or cross-examine any witnesses.
Almalki and his lawyers have been trying to persuade the government to make the inquiry public, so that he can get answers to his troubling questions and so that Canadians can know what their government has been doing in their name. So far, he has been unsuccessful.
It has been frustrating and very emotionally demanding on him and his family. Progress has been extremely slow. "But the alternative is not to do anything. In five, ten years, my son could run into the same problem. What would I tell him?" Almalki asks.
“These cases are important because the similarities lead to a clear pattern, and the inescapable conclusion, that the system needs to be reformed to ensure that what I went through does not happen to another Canadian.”