GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Maher Arar, the Ottawa computer engineer whose 2002 deportation and torture in Syria made him a symbol of the perils of post-9-11 hysteria, was identified by Omar Khadr as someone he'd seen at al-Qaida safehouses and possibly an Afghan training camp, an FBI special agent testified Monday.
The teenaged, Toronto-born Khadr immediately identified Arar from a black and white photo he was shown during two weeks of interrogation that got underway Oct. 7, 2002, at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, FBI Special Agent Robert Fuller told Khadr's war-crimes trial in Guantanamo Bay.
"He identified him by name," Fuller testified. "He said he had never seen him in Canada."
Arar was on his way from Zurich to Montreal when he was detained Sept. 26, 2002, at JFK Airport in New York City. He was roused from his cell in the early hours of Oct. 8 and told he was being deported to Syria on suspicion of terrorist activity.
Arar has steadfastly denied any links to terrorism or al-Qaida. His 10-month ordeal in Syria became the subject of a commission of inquiry in Canada, which publicly cleared him of any terrorist links and paid him a $10.5-million settlement.
The U.S., however, has refused to clear his name and Arar is suing U.S. authorities over his deportation.
Neither Arar nor his spokesman Richard Swain were commenting Monday on the Guantanamo Bay hearing.
But Kerry Pither, an author who has written about Arar's case and served as his spokeswoman when he returned from Syria questioned the timing of the testimony.
"The real story here is, why is this happening now? It's very clear that this is a gratuitous swipe against Maher Arar's reputation at a time when his case is before the courts in the U.S."
Calling Arar "the most investigated citizen in this country", Pither said the Canadian government saw the American file on Arar before it apologized to the engineer and compensated him.
"No mention of Khadr's testimony came up at the time," she said.
"And if the RCMP, CSIS, the FBI, the CIA, anybody, had any proof of any wrongdoing on the part of Maher Arar, you can be sure that it would've been made as public as possible as quickly as possible, and it never has been. It's always been baseless allegations," Pither said.
Lorne Waldman, Arar's former lawyer, also dismissed the testimony given Khadr's mistreatment in Afghanistan, saying it "shouldn't have been given any credibility at all."
"I'm convinced that any reasonable person hearing this would treat it for what it is, an allegation that has no basis in fact."
The evidence revealed Monday is the first public indication of why authorities in the U.S. might have deemed it necessary to "render" Arar to Syria after detaining him, instead of following what would have been the normal procedure of deporting him to Canada.
Lead prosecutor Maj. Jeff Groharing said the photograph Khadr was shown came from FBI files in Massachusetts.
Groharing said the prosecution did not talk among themselves about the possible impact Khadr's evidence would have in Canada.
"We have not discussed that, no," he said. "Our focus is not on what happened to Maher Arar. It's what Omar Khadr did in Afghanistan."
Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, the Pentagon lawyer who is defending Khadr before a military commission, was blunt in his assessment of the situation.
"I guess as far as the U.S. government is concerned, (Arar) is still a terrorist," Kuebler said.
However, Kuebler stressed, Khadr often lied to his interrogators to get them to stop abusing him.
A military intelligence agent identified only as Interrogator 11 also testified Monday that Khadr recounted throwing the grenade that killed an American soldier outside an Afghan compound in July 2002.
The incident occurred after three other men at the bombed-out compound had been killed by American forces and Khadr, then 15 and partially blinded from shrapnel, cowered under a bush as the soldiers moved in, she said he told her.
"He pulled the pin and just chucked it over his shoulder," Interrogator 11 told the hearing. "He had never thrown one before, so he just threw it over his shoulder, like he had seen in the movies."
The intelligence agent interviewed Khadr about a dozen times - some sessions lasting as long as five hours - after he arrived at this infamous prison in more than six years ago.
"He explained that entire day in minute detail," said the agent, the first witness to testify at the proceedings.
Now 22, Khadr was found under the rubble and badly injured with gunshot wounds following a four-hour firefight. The agent said Khadr initially expressed pride in having killed an American soldier, but later came to realize it was the Americans who saved his life.
Kuebler called Khadr's account of the firefight "demonstrably false" and said it was proof Khadr's stories were not to be believed.
Parts of a 27-minute video seized by U.S. forces after the firefight show a baby-faced, grinning Khadr in the company of al-Qaida leaders helping assemble and lay improvised explosive devices.
As the video played, Fuller said Khadr told him he was happy to be with the men.
The defence has maintained Khadr's incriminating statements were the result of coercion and are trying to get the judge to throw them out.
Both agents, however, denied there was any abuse of Khadr of threats against him.
On the contrary, said Interrogator 11, Khadr was "very happy" to see her and she considered the information he provided reliable.
"When he would come to the room, he was always smiling. He would willingly speak to me," she told Col. Patrick Parrish, who is presiding over the case.
While Khadr's leg irons were shackled to the floor, the intelligence agent said she took off his handcuffs to make him feel comfortable and never felt that he posed a threat.
Khadr, dressed in the all-white uniform of Camp 4, where "highly compliant" prisoners are kept, appeared relaxed during the proceedings.
He smiled broadly, chatted with his lawyers, and read documents intently. Sporting a neatly cropped full beard, the six-foot Khadr looks far different than the now-familiar photo of him at 15.
Khadr described in detail how he had been trained by top al-Qaida figures - associates of his father - in surveillance techniques and in making and laying explosive devices aimed at American forces.
His father, who was killed in a raid in Pakistan, ran two agencies that raised funds for al-Qaida. The Khadr family often stayed with terrorist financier Osama bin Laden.
The defence argues intelligence agents abused Khadr, while a "clean" set of law-enforcement interrogators later took incriminating statements from the Canadian.
"The fact that he could provide me with so much detail of everything . . . I thought that information was very reliable," Interrogator 11 said.